Bumper opium crop endangers Taliban's fight for recognition embarrassed by bumper

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The Independent Online
THE OPIUM fields are barren now, browning under the August Afghan sun. But by spring another harvest of poppies will cover more than a hundred thousand acres of south and east Afghanistan with their distinctive pink and white blooms.

The fields will be an embarrassment to the Taliban - the Islamic militia army who have conquered 90 per cent of Afghanistan. Last year they publicly promised concerned representatives of the international community that they would eradicate the crop.

The Taliban realise that serious progress towards fulfilling that promise is essential if they are to be recognised - as they desperately wish to be - as the legitimate government of the country. Yet a report released yesterday by the United Nations Drug Control Programme reveals several new areas in Afghanistan where opium is being farmed. The results of a massive survey of the country, to be released next month, are expected to show that this year's opium crop, despite some poor weather and damage from disease, will be one of the biggest yet.

The Taliban's failure to reduce the crop is as damaging to the regime's international relations as the hospitality they have shown Osama bin Laden - the dissident Saudi millionaire financier. For the Americans, who were reported to have made tentative attempts at a rapprochement with the Taliban earlier this week, narcotics control is as important as the fight against the international terrorists based in the country.

Last year Afghanistan produced more than 2,800 tonnes of opium - making it, with Burma, joint-largest producer of the drug in the world. Little of the crop is consumed domestically. Most is refined into heroin, often in Pakistan, and comes to Europe via central Asia.

The new report reveals that production has spread into five new provinces - Takhar in the north and Laghman, Parwan, Kabul and Logar in the East. All areas nominally under Taliban control. As worrying, said a UN source, is the number of heroin laboratories in Afghanistan, estimated at about 50. "Some are sophisticated. Some are merely pots, pans and open fire operations... but even the most basic are capable of making refined, export- quality heroin," the source said.

Last autumn the Taliban signed an agreement with the control programme to eradicate opium and heroin production, but said that they could act only if given several hundred million dollars in aid to compensate farmers for not planting what is a reliable, lucrative crop.

Dozens of schools, bridges and irrigation systems have been built by the agency as incentives for the tribesmen on the North West Frontier - where the bulk of the opium is grown - to turn to other crops. The Taliban themselves are believed to profit from the trade by levying customs duties on raw opium when it is transported out of the country. The regime also raises a traditional Islamic agricultural tax on the drug.

Interviews by UN researchers revealed that many opium farmers believe that they had been given official sanction. In one area the Taliban district administrator's office was surrounded by poppy fields on three sides.