Afghanistan's vaunted heroin trade is back — and many of its proceeds are going to likely terror supporters as well as members of the incumbent government, experts told ABCNEWS.
This month, the United Nations' Office of Drug Control Policy said in a report that preliminary surveys had confirmed "a major resurgence" of opium poppy cultivation in the Central Asian country.
"It could be considerably high and considerably serious," said UNODCP spokesman Kemal Kurspahic. "We can assume that Afghanistan will resume its No. 1 spot at the production table."
Afghanistan is at the center of what's known as the Golden Crescent — a Central Asian version of Southeast Asia's infamous drug-supplying Golden Triangle.
For years, it was the world's largest producer of the opium poppy, the raw material for heroin. However, the country's notoriety exploded in the late 1990s, when the ruling Taliban regime levied taxes on the illicit harvest: a 10 percent tax on all production and 20 percent tax on trade. Some reports said authorities even issued receipts.
According to DEA estimates, Afghanistan shipped at least 2,000 metric tons of heroin in 2001. With heroin selling for prices ranging from $50 per kilo to $600 per kilo, that's at least $100 million or as much as $1.2 billion.
It was hoped that the ouster of the fundamentalist Islamic regime would end this illicit trade.
On the contrary, little has changed aside from the fact that Taliban tax collectors are no longer around. Those profiting from Afghanistan's post-Taliban heroin market are the same ones that profited during the Taliban reign.
Those that are making money are, in the words of Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin, "the same as they always were."
Keeping Quiet: A Good Business Decision
Haji Bashir was once a major Taliban money supplier and leading drug kingpin of southern Afghanistan.
Today, Bashir has dropped all ties to the former regime and become a "fine, upstanding citizen," said Rubin, director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation. But when asked if he thought Bashir was still involved in the drug trade, Rubin replied "probably."
According to Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Bashir is in fact still exhorting farmers to grow opium poppies. But to keep up ties with his former fundamentalist backer, Rubin said — "that would no longer be a sound business decision."
It is possible more obvious elements of al Qaeda and Taliban could also be profiting from the heroin trade as well, experts said. Many of the routes used by traffickers to move heroin out of Afghanistan run through Pakistan's tribal belt, a porous border area suspected to be a refuge for bin Laden if he is still alive.
In May of this year, international financial crime expert Jack Blum told a House panel on corruption he believes powers in that region have taken a cut of that trade.
"An awful lot of the insanity that was going on in Kashmir was financed out of that heroin flow, because the Pakistani secret service was involved in helping support the flow," said Blum, a Washington lawyer and former investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
And despite promises of cooperation from Pakistan's leaders and efforts to allow the pursuit of drug traffickers across borders, Blum said he expected the elements in that area, which have been linked to terror, to continue to profit from the heroin trade.
"The problem of the corruption surrounding drugs on that route is absolutely astonishing. I have no faith at all that any agreement to chase or not to chase would make any difference," he said.
Into the Pockets of Allies
The flow of profits from the heroin trade are not only going to possible terrorists, but American allies as well.
Post-Taliban Afghanistan's drug woes hit the international stage with a vengeance this July, with the assassination of Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir.
Days after the incident, President Bush was asked who he thought might have been involved — and he raised the possibility that drug lords might have been responsible. Qadir's killers have not been caught.
Qadir, one of the country's richest men, was reported to be a drug baron himself. His traditional power base was Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan that is ringed with vast fields of opium poppies, and has prospered from its proximity to the Pakistani border.
Earlier this year, Qadir's troops raided Ghani Khiel, the country's largest opium market. But there were rumors that Qadir's men burned only a fraction of what they seized, and sold the rest.
The governor of Kandahar province, Gul Agha, who has reportedly received CIA money, and made a number of very public drug interdiction efforts, is also said to have drug ties.
During a previous term as governor from 1992-1994, his tenure was marked by corruption. In January, he reportedly lobbied the U.S. military to release Bashir himself.
"The revenue from this poppy is an essential element of the ability of the warlords who are supporting us in going after the Taliban," Blum said in his testimony.
Without heroin, any Afghan administration would be hard-pressed to provide for its people, he said. "We are in the dilemma of what do you do? Do you try to wipe out their crop and leave them broke and then pay them money? Or do you let them grow the poppy and export the poppy?"
Country Still in Chaos
Given the tangle of interests that surround Afghanistan's drug problem, few experts thought more eradication efforts and law enforcement efforts would do it alone.
One of the major problems, explained DEA official Tom Hinojosa, is that the country is still in chaos. "There's a war going on there. The eradication they've done there are in those regions they are able to get to," he said.
The Afghan government has mainly been in charge of eradication efforts, with some advisory assistance from Britain.
Dealing with the drug problem will also entail developing alternatives for Afghan farmers, like artichokes, avocados, cut flowers, and lavender — and then finding markets for them.
The problem is not that simple though. Roads and irrigation systems will also have to be established, experts said. Opium poppies turned out to be an ideal crop for drought-stricken, war-torn Afghanistan because they consumed little water, and produced a highly valuable, easily transportable commodity.
The problem that faces the Afghan government is "more of a market adjustment than a policy objective," said Gouttierre.
According to a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released in August, profits at the farm level from the 2002 opium poppy harvest could be worth more than $1 billion.
That's almost 5 percent of the country's GDP — an equivalent proportion produced in the United States by home building and related industries.
"This is possibly one of the most complicated, atrocious problems that anyone could ever imagine," Blum said.