Smack in the Middle

Smack in the Middle
Posted by FoM on November 12, 2001 at 12:00:03 PT
By Tim McGirk - Quetta
Source: Time Magazine
Kandahar, the citadel of Taliban rule, has its own version of Wall Street called the opium bazaar, just beyond the stalls selling raisins and pistachios. And the Taliban is guilty of insider trading. Two summers ago, some of the biggest customers in the clamorous lane were local Taliban commanders who had been tipped off that the supply was about to be choked—Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared poppy cultivation to be "un-Islamic"—and saw the chance to make a killing. 
Back then, it was a bearish market. Afghanistan provided 75% of the world's opium and its derivative, heroin. A kilo of sticky, greenish black opium sold for only $30. Taliban commanders began buying up tons of opium and stockpiling it in warehouses around Kandahar and in Pakistan's tribal frontier land. The year after Omar's ban, annual production plummeted to 185 tons of opium, compared with about 3,300 tons the year before, according to United Nations antidrug officials. Prices soared, hitting $700 a kilo in Kandahar before the Sept. 11 attacks. "Some Taliban commanders were bragging about the huge fortunes they had made," says Haji Mohammed, a Kandahar merchant interviewed in Quetta. During the boom in the summer of 2000, nobody in the Kandahar bazaar trifled with the Afghan currency—only greenbacks were accepted. And the trade was so frenetic, according to Mohammed, that dealers didn't bother counting money: they used scales to weigh bags stuffed with precounted $100 bills. (Double-crossers don't last long in this bazaar.) In the days following the attacks in the U.S., opium hoarders, including several influential Taliban commanders, began selling off their stocks to accumulate funds for the impending war with the U.S. According to traders arriving in Quetta, the stockpilers were also worried that their stores might go up in roiling, million-dollar puffs of smoke in a U.S missile attack. So far, apparently, the opium bazaar has survived the constant bombings. Word also spread around Kandahar that if the U.S. attacked, the Taliban leader would retaliate by allowing farmers to grow opium poppies again. However, Mullah Omar denied last month that he was lifting the ban on poppy growing. Harsher still, he threatened that the Taliban would kill any farmer disobeying his edict. Currently, opium sells for around $380 a kilo in Kandahar and in the tribal bazaars outside Peshawar, where Pashtun shopkeepers keep bricks of opium and hashish inside glass display cases. Experts are divided over the Taliban's intentions. Some argue that Omar's ban on poppy growing was a deliberate move to drive up opium and heroin prices. Others say the one-eyed cleric genuinely wanted to join with the international community to help wipe out drugs, and expected a payback in aid for starving Afghan farmers. That assistance—sacks of wheat seed, fertilizer and food-for-work schemes—was on its way when the attacks on the U.S. occurred; the U.N. pulled its foreign staff out of Afghanistan soon after. If you listen to merchants from Kandahar who have fled their city since Sept. 11, Omar knew his commanders were making a killing in the opium trade, and he benefited, too. "When he was made supreme leader, Mullah Omar was wearing a broken pair of sneakers," says merchant Amanullah Khilji. "Now he has a fleet of seven brand-new, bulletproof Land Cruisers from Dubai, a gift from his smuggler friends." Before the ban, the Taliban raked in about $30 million by taxing growers, say antinarcotics officials. In Washington, lawmakers claim the Taliban and suspected Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden are cohorts in the drug trade. At a recent Congressional hearing, Republican Mark Souder spoke of the "dark synergies between narcotics trafficking and international terrorism." While some extremist Afghan clerics argue that drugs are a legitimate weapon to undermine Western society, there is no evidence that bin Laden's al-Qaeda network ever used Afghan heroin to finance its suspected terrorist activities. An Arab diplomat in Islamabad claims that most of bin Laden's funds come from rich Islamic sympathizers in the Gulf States and in the Middle East. "Bin Laden has access to plenty of money. He doesn't need to dirty his hands with drugs," the diplomat says. Meanwhile, a province held by Washington's unruly ally, the Northern Alliance, accounts for most of Af-ghanistan's opium production this year. A U.N. drug survey released last month shows farmers in Badakhshan province have carpeted their steep mountain valleys with scarlet-colored opium poppies. Using satellites and investigators on the ground, the U.N. determined that cultivation this year in Badakhshan has jumped from 2,458 to 6,342 hectares, which accounts for 83% of Afghanistan's estimated total production of 185 tons of opium. Drug traders were quick to give farmers cash up front to get planting. Still, say antinarcotics experts, that is a colossal drop in supply, compared with last year's harvest. Converted into morphine or low-grade heroin, most of the drug is shipped to Europe (and some to the U.S.) across the Iranian desert through Tajikistan or through the Pakistani port of Karachi, with significant amounts leaking into local markets along the way. According to Bernard Frahi, director of the U.N.'s drug control program in Islamabad, Pakistan now has about 500,000 heroin addicts. In Peshawar, heroin is cheap. Addicts gather in a waste-filled culvert on the road to the Khyber Pass. Their salwar kameez are stained and dirty. They are out of it, indifferent when a junkie in their midst overdoses and slumps over, retching. And they shuffle by uncaring when another companion is dumped into a shallow grave and covered with rocks along the road leading up to the Afghan border. Faced with a prolonged war, Afghan farmers may have no choice but to replant their opium crops this month, despite Omar's death threat. "They are desperate," says Mohammad Amirkhizi, a specialist on Afghanistan for the Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in Vienna. "It's the only crop they have to live off." As more bombs fall in Afghanistan, more heroin is bound to come out. -- With reporting by Hannah Bloch - Islamabad, Andrew Goldstein - Washington, Ghulam Hasnain - Peshawar and Andrew Purvis - ViennaNote: The Taliban won plaudits and profits for banning opium. But war will see the drug trade surgeSource: Time Magazine (US) Author: Tim McGirk - QuettaPublished: Monday, November 12, 2001Copyright: 2001 Time Inc. Contact: letters Website: Related Articles:Afghan Ban on Growing of Opium Is Unraveling and Drugs - Another Powder Trail Opium Production May Rise
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Comment #1 posted by JR Bob Dobbs on November 12, 2001 at 14:30:45 PT
No mention of OUR MONEY
  American taxpayers, courtesy of Colin Powell, ponied up $43 million to encourage the Taliban to ban the growing of opium. Why do stories about the Taliban and opium almost always fail to mention this? Hmm?
Article - Bush's Faustian Deal With The Taliban
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