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Sunday, 30 September, 2001, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
West fears heroin flood
Three quarter's of the world's opium is produced in Afghanistan from poppy fields cultivated by farmers
There are fears the Taleban will release opium stockpiles
Daniel Lak

Fears are growing that military strikes and chaos in Afghanistan could lead to huge increases in the amount of heroin on the streets of America and Europe.

Afghanistan used to produce more than three-quarters of the world's opium from vast fields of poppies, particularly in the west and south-east of the country, both Taleban-controlled areas.

Last year the Taleban declared opium poppy cultivation to be un-Islamic. Drugs control agencies say the ban has until now been hugely successful.

However, opium stockpiles and processing have not been affected, according to officials in London and Washington. These may be unleashed into the Western market place by the Taleban.

Deadly crop

Afghan farmers have cultivated opium poppies for centuries.

Opium was used locally as a medicine and a narcotic.

During the war against Soviet occupation of the country in the1980s, western-backed Mujahadin rebel groups openly trafficked in drugs as a source of funds to buy arms.

After Soviet occupation it was hoped that the production of opium would cease
Drug trafficking allowed rebel groups to buy arms

The failure of those groups to agree on power sharing after they took over in Kabul in 1992 meant that vast fields of poppies were cultivated.

Money from this drugs trade fuelled fighting between warlords. There were hopes that the Taleban would end poppy cultivation, but instead they taxed farmers and heroin processors as a major source of money for their government.

Unfortunately, although the Taleban's ban on poppies last year was welcomed, the United States was concerned at the time with extraditing Osama Bin Laden in connection with the US embassy attacks in East Africa.

As a result, there was no engagement between the United States and the Taleban on the drugs issue.

Strikes an option

Now, with almost all ties cut off and military action a certainty, fears are growing that the Taleban could release some of the huge stockpiles of opium still believed to be in Afghanistan.

Officials in Washington and London have been downplaying expectations that military strikes on drugs warehouses may be part of any future campaign, but it cannot be ruled out.

As one UN drugs expert put it, where chaos reigns, drugs are freely available. It is another strong reason for seeking stability in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

See also:

31 Jan 01 | South Asia
Taleban outlaws poppy
14 Jun 00 | South Asia
The Taleban's drug dividend
16 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Record opium haul on Tajik border
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