Source: The Independent
Date: 2 October 2001

Taliban prepare to unleash their deadliest weapon

War on terrorism: Drugs
By Raymond Whitaker in Peshawar

Sohrab, an Afghan refugee, stared listlessly from the culvert where he and his companion had taken the heroin they had just bought. The other man was holding a match to a piece of silvered paper, waiting for the fumes to start rising.

"You can see the dealers down there," said Dr Shah Agha Saadat, head of a drop-in centre for street addicts where Sohrab is registered, pointing to a couple of men who sauntered round the corner when they noticed our interest. Every few yards along the road, addicts were lying in the dust.

Dr Saadat had taken us out into the street, a couple of hundred yards into Pakistan's lawless tribal territories, to show us what he called a graveyard for former addicts. I had been expecting a corner of a field with a few whitewashed stones to mark their final resting-place. Instead he indicated a strip of recently-turned earth beside the road, only feet from where Sohrab was crouching. "This is where we bury them if they have no family to take them," he said. "There are 25 in there."

Opium poppies have always been grown on both sides of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, but the region did not become the world's main exporter of heroin until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 brought near-anarchy. Production and refining exploded as the Afghan mujahedin, with the connivance of Western intelligence agencies, traded in drugs to finance their war against the Russians, with results that can be seen in the streets of Western cities as well as Peshawar.

The culture of narcotics, guns and criminality has taken a terrible toll in Pakistan, where there are more than three million heroin addicts and several senior politicians, military officers and policemen have been implicated in drug-running. Most of the drugs which reach the West now go out through Iran, which has half a million addicts of its own. But even though Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan have almost stamped out poppy growing in the areas they control, the Afghan regime has done nothing to stop the refining and export of heroin from huge stockpiles within their borders.

A diplomatic source in Pakistan said: "The drugs trade continues to finance not only the Taliban, but the terrorism their friend Osama bin Laden carries out around the world. If we had spent more on drugs intelligence, we would have known more about terrorism as well, and that would have enabled us to put greater pressure on the Taliban and Mr bin Laden."

A collapse of the Taliban, however, could lead to a sharp rise in poppy growing in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, which is hoping for international aid in its five-year campaign to drive out the Taliban, recently staged a public burning of opium for Western television cameras, but the United Nations Drugs Control Project (UNDCP) is expected to report shortly that it has made no effort to stop the production, refining and export of heroin from its territory.

The Taliban themselves are threatening to allow the resumption of poppy cultivation if the Americans attack. According to Lateef Afridi, a Pakistani politician whose base is among the tribal Pashtun on both sides of the border, it may already have done so. "The ban on poppy growing was very unpopular, and right now the Taliban need friends," Mr Afridi told The Independent. "In the past few days I have heard that the Taliban have not only lifted the ban, they have given the farmers back the weapons they confiscated from them."

The crisis since the attacks in the US has halted a $1.5m UNDCP scheme to give immediate aid to Afghan farmers who had ceased poppy cultivation, heightening their incentive to start again. "There are very serious doubts about the future," said Bernard Frahi, head of the UNDCP in Islamabad. "We are seeing all the ingredients for illicit opium cultivation: civil war, an absence of law and order and no alternative for farmers. The criminal gangs which control the refining and shipment of heroin are still very much in place.

"Opium provides credit and savings for farmers, while wheat fetches only two thirds of the price, and there is no guarantee that you can sell your crop when it is ready. If farmers have a choice, they grow opium."

Many of the people seen by the Dost Foundation, a Pakistani charity which specialises in fighting heroin addiction, became hooked by the fumes in the refineries of Afghanistan. Apart from its centre for street addicts, the organisation runs projects for drug victims and their families. But it can treat only a tiny proportion of the region's vast army of addicts.

"The number is still rising, however much we try to get it down, because the supply of heroin is still so high," said Dr Saadat. The project treats the addicts' many skin, eye and digestive ailments, gives them a place to wash, dispenses tea and tries to warn them about the rising dangers of hepatitis and Aids. The increasing minority of addicts who inject can get disposable syringes as well.

Sohrab may well end up buried by the side of the street he frequents, but every month the project sends about 15 street addicts for rehabilitation. The man who goes out to try to persuade them to clean up is Bahar Ahmed Arbab, who used to be hooked on muffara – a fearsome combination of opium, Mandrax and hashish seeds. "It was so powerful that someone once shot me when I was high, and I didn't notice," he says with a grin, pulling up his shalwar kameez to show off the scar. "When addicts say it's difficult to give up, I tell them I'm a role model. If I can do it, anyone can."

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