The Holy Men of Heroin 

The Holy Men of Heroin 
Posted by FoM on November 28, 1999 at 22:38:22 PT
By Jeffrey Bartholet and Steve Levine
Source: Newsweek U.S. Edition
Zuber has a gaze that's a little too steady. Taken together with his bushy black beard, shaved head and tan shalwar kamiz—the pajamalike clothes that Afghan men wear—the effect is unsettling. He looks like one of those Afghans who's seen too much war. 
But Zuber's ghosts have a different origin. Until a month ago the 30-year-old Afghan worked at an opium-processing factory in Nangarhar province that every day produced up to 220 pounds of morphine base—the main ingredient in heroin. He says the place was bubbling with steam from boiling vats of opium gum. "Whether you like it or not, you're breathing it," says Zuber, who recently checked into a rehabilitation clinic in Peshawar, Pakistan. "When you get home, after the opium wears off, your legs and arms begin to ache, and so you start eating or smoking opium to relieve the pain." The clinic Zuber now calls home has 20 beds and a waiting list with 3,000 names. Some addicts have scars on their heads where they once sliced open their scalps to rub heroin into the wounds. They thought that was the most direct route to their brains.Afghanistan, wrecked by 20 years of war and now ruled by Islamic radicals, has one perverse claim to success. Thanks to this year's bumper poppy crop, the country has become the world's undisputed leader in the production of opium. The United Nations estimates that Afghanistan accounted for an astonishing three quarters of global output in 1999, eclipsing the Golden Triangle region of Burma, Laos and Thailand. Afghan heroin is sold in neighboring Pakistan, which has nearly 2 million addicts, and also in Iran, Central Asia and Russia. As much as 90 percent of the heroin used in Europe originates in Afghanistan. Although most of the heroin sold in the United States comes from Colombia, American officials worry that increased quantities of Afghan drugs will find their way here.This presents policymakers in Washington and other capitals with a dilemma. How do you combat drug production in a country that, even if you ignore the heroin trade, already is treated like a pariah? The Islamic Taliban militia, which administers roughly 85 percent of Afghanistan, claims that it would like to cooperate with drug-eradication efforts, but it lacks credibility. The government is recognized by only three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It practices what the West calls "gender apartheid" by severely subjugating women, including forbidding them from working and attending school. Its forces have committed human-rights abuses against minorities, including roundups of ethnic Hazaras, some of whom have disappeared. And it harbors Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden, the alleged ringleader behind the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa last year that killed 224 people.Intense diplomatic pressure on the Taliban hasn't had much impact. In July, Washington banned all U.S. commerce with Afghanistan because of the Taliban's refusal to turn over bin Laden. When that failed, the U.N. Security Council two weeks ago ordered a freeze on overseas accounts of Taliban leaders and imposed a ban on its airline. The Taliban remains unyielding. "We will never hand over Osama bin Laden," scoffed Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the Taliban's foreign minister, in response to the sanctions. "He will remain free in defiance of America."The Taliban can afford to be defiant, in part, because the opium trade provides it with both income and political leverage. To bring the trade to an end, Taliban mullahs argue, the United Nations should recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government and help it find alternatives. In the meantime, by allowing opium production, the Taliban improves economic conditions in areas under its control, and attracts needed tax revenue to prosecute the war against its rivals.For the record, Taliban officials correctly argue that poppy cultivation was part of the Afghan landscape long before the Taliban forced its rivals out of Kabul in 1996. The regime has its own drug czar, it outlaws drug use and it occasionally makes a show of destroying poppy fields or closing labs. Most recently it ordered farmers to cut poppy cultivation by 30 percent. It also admits to imposing a 10 percent usher—or religious tax—on the poppy crop. But officials argue that poppies are not a drug, and say the tax is no different from that charged on, say, wheat. Moreover, they insist they cannot afford—politically—to crack down on farmers. "We are against poppy cultivation, narcotics production and drugs," says Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the Taliban representative in the United States. "But we cannot fight our own people. They are the sole source of our authority."That's only a half-truth. The fuller version is that the Taliban also earns taxes directly not just from poppy farmers, but from heroin labs. Zuber, the addict who now lives in a Peshawar rehabilitation clinic, says that his lab packed morphine base into bundles that were taxed at about $55 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) by the Taliban. The daily tax revenue at that lab alone could amount to $5,500 in peak season—and the facility was one of 20 or 25 in the vicinity. NEWSWEEK has also examined photographs of official tax receipts from the heroin labs. "Criminal elements, religious elements and official elements are all connected in the heroin trade like rice and honey," says a law-enforcement agent for a Western government who has done undercover work in Afghanistan.Opium is traded at large bazaars in Afghanistan that are the treacherous domain of criminal syndicates. One of the more notorious is located in the town of Sangin, a three-hour drive west of the Taliban capital at Kandahar. "Sangin is known as a dangerous place," says Bernard Frahi, head of the U.N. drug-agency office in Islamabad, who visited the market town in October. "It is known for people going in and not coming out." Of about 500 shopkeepers crowded along one main street and two or three footpaths off it, he says, almost half sell opium. In front of their shops are scales, and inside they keep wet opium in plastic bags and dry opium stacked in large cakes. "One trader told me he sold 28,000 kilos [61,600 pounds] of opium last year," says Frahi—earning the merchant gross revenue of about $132,000.Even more dangerous than the opium markets are the border areas with Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan, where smugglers sometimes battle with border guards. Iran is fighting what amounts to a war of attrition—by Tehran's count, drug traffickers have killed more than 2,650 Iranian security personnel since 1983. In early November more than 30 Iranian guards were killed in a single battle with a drug convoy.Some suspect the Taliban of an ulterior motive in its drug policy: poisoning "infidels." But Afghan drugs are harming at least as many Muslims as non-Muslims. In Pakistan, addicts either shoot up or "chase the dragon" by smoking opium, and Iran has a swelling population of more than 1 million drug abusers. Although addiction is a problem in parts of Afghanistan, it's not widespread, so opium farmers don't often see the human damage of their trade. "Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked country," says Ghulam Hazrat, who once worked as a high-school literature teacher, but now grows opium poppies. "In these past 20 years, the land wasn't tilled right. Schools didn't operate. The roads became bad. The only thing we have is opium." Somewhere far down the road—in Tehran or Paris or one of a thousand other places—Hazrat's gain will become another man's horror. Pubdate: December 6, 1999© 1999 Newsweek, Inc. Newsweek U.S. Edition: InternationalCannabis News Articles On Narcotics:
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