A top U.S. counter-narcotics official says U.S. drug agencies are working with other international drug enforcement agencies to try to prevent heroin from Afghanistan from reaching drug users in the United States.
The figures speak for themselves. In the past few years, as opium poppy eradication efforts in other countries have met with a measure of success, post-Taleban Afghanistan has emerged as the world's leading, and nearly only, supplier of heroin.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime published a survey in September on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, which it said has risen 59 percent since 2005. The report called the 6,100 tons of opium harvested in Afghanistan this year "unprecedented," and said revenue from the harvest will exceed $3 billion.
Opium is used to make the drug heroin. The White House drug control policy director, John Walters, said opium poppy eradication efforts have been fruitful in Mexico and South America, the main sources for heroin in the United States. But he added that U.S. agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, are worried that those suppliers could replaced by Afghanistan.
"It is a danger," said John Walters. "It is a danger we have not seen in large amount recently. In the past, Southwest Asia has been a source of heroin in the United States. And, there are world markets. So, we are trying to work carefully, DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and other international enforcement agencies, in watching this."
He spoke in an interview shown Sunday on C-SPAN, a private, non-profit network that broadcasts Congressional proceedings and other Washington political events on cable television.
Walters said the United States has a two-pronged approach in dealing with heroin from Afghanistan.
"What we are trying to do is both be vigilant to cut off efforts to move it here, but, over time, if we are not successful in reducing supply, you would expect there would be some increased flow here - and there can be some flow here - but we are going to both try to cut off that flow and, of course, first and foremost, cut off that production source," he said.
Shortly after the U.N. report was released, the State Department's Thomas Schweich told reporters in Brussels that U.S. officials believe aggressive eradication of opium poppies in Afghanistan is crucial. He added that "it is very difficult to interdict heroin and opium paste," which he described as "hidden cargo" that moves through "porous borders" and through "rough, desolate terrain."
U.S. officials say the Taleban is encouraging opium growing in the southern Helmand Province, where American and NATO troops are battling a persistent insurgency.
The assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement, Anne Patterson, told Congress last month that the Taleban is also protecting drug routes and traffickers. She said, whether the Taleban is getting revenue from the drug trade, or just encouraging an anti-government statement is not clear.
Meanwhile, the White House's John Walters says the good news is that, as global eradication and interdiction efforts have been successful, the purity of heroin available worldwide has gone down. At the same time, another factor he pointed to as a positive sign is that prices for opium actually have gone up, suggesting diminished supply.