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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Despite War, Afghan Opium to Flood Markets

NEW YORK -- U.S. officials have quietly abandoned their hopes of reducing Afghanistan's opium production substantially this year and are now bracing for a harvest large enough to inundate the world's heroin and opium markets with cheap drugs.

While U.S. and European officials have considered measures like paying Afghan opium poppy farmers to plow under their fields, they have concluded that continuing lawlessness and political instability will make significant eradication all but impossible.

Instead, U.S. officials said, they will pursue a less ambitious strategy: persuading Afghan leaders to carry out a modest eradication program as opium poppies are harvested over the next two months, if only to show that they were serious in declaring a ban on production in January.

The Americans will also encourage the destruction of opium-processing laboratories and a crackdown on brokers, while providing funds to strengthen anti-smuggling activities by neighboring countries. The campaign is being strongly backed and even to some extent led by Britain, which traces nearly all the heroin on its streets to Afghanistan.

But the continuing upheaval in and around Afghanistan will limit the effectiveness of those strategies, American and British officials admit, making it likely that Afghanistan will produce enough opium to dominate the world supply once again.

"The fact is, there are no institutions in large parts of the country," said John P. Walters, drug policy director to the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. "What we can do will be extremely limited."

Reducing the output of opium is a major goal of the international rebuilding effort in Afghanistan.

Until the Taliban banned the cultivation of opium poppies in their last year in power, Afghanistan produced as much as three-fourths of the world's supply, and taxes on the drug trade were an important source of revenue. Now, the profits that flowed to local leaders aligned with the Taliban are expected to enrich tribal leaders and warlords, whose support is vital to the U.S.-backed interim government.

So long as the drug trade flourishes, law enforcement officials said, it will fuel political rivalries, foster corruption and undermine the authority of the central government. But because opium poppy farming remains one of the few viable economic activities, officials added, any intense eradication effort could imperil the stability of the government and thus hamper the military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

"The fight against terrorism takes priority," one British law-enforcement official said. "The fight against narcotics comes in second."

The challenge that U.S. and European officials face is compounded by the surprising success the Taliban achieved in banning poppy cultivation two years ago.

That prohibition, which came after several years in which the Taliban quietly encouraged poppy farming, cut the country's opium output from an estimated 4,042 tons in 2000, about 71 percent of the world's supply, to just 82 tons the next year, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. What little opium Afghanistan produced in 2001 came almost entirely from the 10 percent of its territory then controlled by the Northern Alliance, the backbone of the new government.

But the decline in the harvest left many small landowners and sharecroppers deeply in debt. In the absence of any rural-credit system, larger landholders customarily lend smaller poppy farmers and laborers food, cooking oil or money for the winter, to be paid back after the harvest of opium gum. The landholders also offer fertilizer and seed in return for a portion of the crop.

Diplomats and relief officials in Afghanistan said a considerable number of refugees fleeing into Pakistan with their families were opium farmers who could not pay their debts. But as soon as the Taliban's military resistance began to crumble last fall, many other farmers rushed to plant opium once again.

On Jan. 17, with strong encouragement from the United States and the United Nations, Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, announced a new ban on poppy cultivation. His prohibition went beyond the Taliban's decree to include processing and trafficking, which the Taliban had tolerated and, to some extent, profited from.

While foreign officials have applauded Karzai's ban, it was issued only after the poppies had been planted and without any viable means of implementation.

Now, even though the opium was planted relatively late in the season and the fields will be affected by a continuing drought, drug-control officials say the conditions are favorable enough to produce a bumper crop.