Opium and the Taliban, an explosive cocktail

Taliban rebels determined to keep southern Afghanistan in chaos have teamed up with drug barons against the government and its opium eradication campaign launched last week, officials say.

The campaign to destroy opium poppy fields kicked off on March 8 in southern Helmand, the producer of most of Afghanistan’s opium crop—which makes up nearly 90% of the world total—and also one of the provinces worst-hit by a Taliban-led insurgency.

“Terrorists and narcotics are very close, they’re supporting each other,” says Helmand province governor Mohammed Daoud. “When narcotics production is up, terrorism automatically goes up.”

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley from the about 3 00 British forces that are deploying into the province bit by bit agrees. “Taliban and drugs feed each other.
You cannot separate them here,” he says.

In their last year in power, before they were toppled in a US-led invasion in late 2001, the internationally reviled Taliban banned opium and succeeded in drastically slashing its production to 185 tonnes from 3 300 the year before.

Some observers say their motivation was to win international favour; others say they wanted to push up the price of the raw ingredient of heroin.

Four years later the Taliban, now anti-government rebels, are willing to protect opium and opium farmers against the new administration, being pushed to eradicate the crop by the international community which sees it as a source terror funding.

“Taliban and smugglers work together because they have a common interest to destabilise the government—Taliban to feed the people’s anger against authorities, smugglers to carry on their business,” says Haji Mohammed Qasem, head of Helmand’s Nad Ali district.

“In both cases, drugs money feeds the struggle,” he says.

Several anonymous letters attributed to the Taliban have been distributed in the past months in unstable provinces, like Helmand, that threaten farmers with reprisals if they do not sow opium, residents say.

Some letters also offer protection against government eradication attempts. Despite these threats, the government has gone ahead with its eradication campaign.

It was launched in Helmand’s volatile district of Dishu, believed to be home to several big drug traffickers and markets on the border with Pakistan.

Officials expect there to be some resistance as security forces arrive with their tractors to plough up the opium fields in Helmand, which covered 26 500ha in the province in 2005 with more expected to have been planted in 2006.

“Taliban will try to disrupt the eradication campaign,” predicts the Helmand governor who this month vowed to remove all the opium from his province in two months.

About 1 500 policemen will carry out the eradication in this largely lawless province and will be in hostile terrain, confronted by farmers who will not allow the crop on which they survive to be destroyed just weeks before the harvest, and rebels will be ready to defend them.

“Eradication will cause fighting,” says Mohammed Sardar, an official from the non-governmental group Mercy Corps that is trying to persuade opium farmers to switch to other crops.

“Poor farmers won’t fight, but Taliban and smugglers will,” he says in Helmand’s provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

A Western security source in Kabul adds, “We have lots of indications that on many secondary roads rebels are planting mines to target the eradication force.”

Said Worsely, “After the Taliban pressured farmers to grow poppy, it is very likely that they are protecting them. They could be involved by giving farmers rifles.”

Despite the potential conflict, the Afghan government says it is determined to cut back the country’s embarrassingly high opium output.

However it does not seem to have found a way to deal with another problem with the drugs trade—the implication of some of its most senior members in the black market business which was worth $2,8-billion in exports in 2005 and gives its bosses enormous potentially corruptive power in this destitute country. - AFP

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