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UN Warns Afghanistan on Establishing a Drug Economy - 2001-12-03

The head of the United Nations drug control program in Afghanistan warns the country is danger of establishing a drug economy, unless Afghan political leaders form a government that can effectively control opium production. Farmers are already re-planting opium poppy in some parts of southern Afghanistan.

Throughout the 1990s Afghanistan was the world's top opium producing nation, providing 75 percent of the world's opium and its derivative, heroin. But two years ago, Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar declared poppy cultivation un-Islamic and banned farmers in Taleban-held areas from planting opium poppy. Since the Taleban controlled up to 95 percent of Afghanistan at that time, overall opium production in the country began plummeting. This year, annual production was just 185 tons, compared to 3,300 tons in 1999.

But the head of the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) in Afghanistan, Bernard Frahi says that if Afghanistan remains without a government for much longer, those numbers could rapidly rise. He warns drug traders are poised to take advantage of the current political uncertainty. "It is accepted worldwide that political and legal vacuums are key ingredients for the flourishing of criminal activities. Afghanistan does not escape the rule," Mr. Frahi said. "The U.N. and ODCCP are extremely concerned by the word information gathered so far on the drug front, leading to a pessimistic forecast for 2002."

Mr. Frahi says poppy is already being replanted in several Taleban-held provinces in the south, including the Taleban stronghold, Kandahar. He says some people have even set up labs to process the opium into heroin. Some experts speculate the Taleban is selling drugs to raise the money they need to survive.

But farmers in Taleban-held areas are not the only ones cultivating poppy. Mr. Frahi says most of the opium produced in Afghanistan this year came from the Northern Alliance stronghold of Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan.

"With regard to Badakhshan Province, the planting season starts in February, but it might be contained if firm political commitment is exerted by local authorities," Mr. Frahi said.

But faced with a prolonged war, many Afghan farmers may simply choose to replant the only crop that they know will bring in enough money to feed their families.