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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 19:11 GMT 20:11 UK
Drugs war landmark in Afghanistan
By Paul Anderson
BBC News, Kabul

Bashir Noorzai
Noorzai - 'at the centre of the Afghan drugs trade'
The arrest of Bashir Noorzai is being trumpeted as a turning point in the fight against the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan.

He is the first alleged Afghan drugs lord to be seized, even though it is more than 18 months since the United Nations said Afghanistan was well down the road to becoming a narco-mafia state.

His arrest in the US casts the spotlight on the connection between the criminal drugs business and Islamic extremism in Afghanistan.

According to the UN, opium production peaked in 2004 to near record levels of 4,200 metric tonnes - nearly 90% of the world market.

The trade generates more than $2.5bn a year and, depending on whose measuring system is used, accounts for anything between 40-60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

'Biggest trafficker'

According to US officials, Bashir sits - or used to sit - right at the centre of that trade.

Last year he was named as Afghanistan's biggest trafficker, and one of the world's most wanted traffickers, under the American Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

Shortly after, a report prepared for the US Congress by its research services identified him and another alleged Afghan drugs lord, Juma Khan, as linkmen between the men's own drugs interests and extremist organisations still operating in Afghanistan.

They include the Taleban, al-Qaeda and the Hisb-e-Islami party of the renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The same report said Bashir Noorzai was a confidant of Taleban leader Mullah Omar. There are reports he introduced Mullah Omar to Osama Bin Laden, and it is said he became a major financier for the Taleban.

'Cashing in'

Many Afghans are deeply suspicious of what is often portrayed as the Taleban's ideologically-driven fight against poppy cultivation in 2000, the year before they were defeated by US-led forces.

Production was brought down by 90% in a rigorous campaign against farmers.

But some observers believe the Taleban piled up stocks first, waited for the price to rocket because of the global shortage, and then cashed in.

Police destroying poppies near Kandahar last week
Police destroying poppies near Kandahar last week
Juma Khan has also been identified as a global drugs kingpin with what US officials describe as "very tight links" to the Taleban. He is still at large.

Both men were detained but subsequently released by US forces hunting Bin Laden and fighting Taleban insurgents. That incident has exposed the US to heavy criticism.

Now, the Americans are supplying intelligence, equipment and contracted personnel to the anti-narcotics fight.

That may be because they have woken up to the security threat posed by the burgeoning drugs trade.

It may also be because US research suggests evidence linking extremists and drugs is building up.

Border smuggling

The British, as the lead agency in the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan, have stepped up their eradication programme, hoping to reach 50% eradication this year.

They started in the former Taleban stronghold of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, and immediately ran into resistance from poppy farmers, many of whom complain they have not seen any of the cash set aside for alternative livelihoods.

The campaign will sweep across Afghanistan as crops ripen with the advance of spring.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says production has slumped by a third from last year's near record.

Afghan officials say many farmers have switched to crops such as wheat.

Hoping for repeat

Foreign and Afghan officials have yet to devise a comprehensive, visual, surveying system across Afghanistan, a country as big as France.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime publishes an annual survey, but that is not due out until around the time of the parliamentary elections in September.

In the meantime, the Americans will be hoping they are as successful with Juma Khan as they have been with Bashir Noorzai.

He was said by US legal officials to have been arrested in New York.

But that begs the question, why would a man with such serious indictments hanging over his head, travel to the US?

Last year the Americans were hoping he would be arrested and extradited by the Afghan authorities - that is a more likely explanation for his sudden appearance in the US,

The Americans - and those involved in fighting the Afghan opium trade - will be hoping the same thing happens with Juma Khan.

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