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Southwest Asia: Taliban Makes $100 Million a Year Off Drug Prohibition

The Taliban made about $100 million last year by taxing Afghan farmers involved in growing opium poppies, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told BBC Radio. The money came from a 10% tax on farmers in Taliban-controlled areas, Costa said, adding that the Islamic insurgents profited from the illicit drug business in other ways as well.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"One is protection to laboratories and the other is that the insurgents offer protection to cargo, moving opium across the border," Costa told the BBC's File on 4 program.

Taliban opium revenues could decline slightly this year, Costa said, suggesting that yields and revenues are likely to decrease due to drought, infestation and a poppy ban enforced in the north and east of Afghanistan. That would lower Taliban revenues, "but not enormously," he said.

But a smaller harvest this year is unlikely to cause any shortages or put a serious dent in Taliban opium trade revenues. For the past three or four years, Afghanistan has produced more than the estimated world annual consumption, Costa noted. "Last year Afghanistan produced about 8,800 tons of opium," he said. "The world in the past few years has consumed about 4,400 tons in opium, this leaves a surplus. It is stored somewhere and not with the farmers," he added.

The Taliban have put the funds to effective use, as evidenced by the insurgency's growing strength, especially in southeast Afghanistan -- precisely the area of most intense opium cultivation. More than 230 US and NATO troops were killed in fighting in Afghanistan last year, and 109 more have been killed so far this year. US Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser told reporters Tuesday Taliban attacks in the region were up 40% over the same period last year.

British officials interviewed by the BBC said it was incontrovertible that the Taliban was profiting off of the illegal trade created by prohibition. "The closer we look at it, the closer we see the insurgents [are] to the drugs trade," said David Belgrove, head of counter narcotics at the British embassy in Kabul. "We can say that a lot of their arms and ammunition are being funded directly by the drugs trade."

Which leaves NATO and the US stuck with that enduring Afghan dilemma: Leave the poppy trade alone and strengthen the Taliban by allowing it to raise hundreds of millions of dollars; or go after the poppies and the poppy trade and strengthen the Taliban by pushing hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers into their beckoning arms.

Latin America: Coca Production Up Last Year, UN Reports

In an annual report released Wednesday, Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found itself "surprised and shocked" to announce that the amount of land devoted to coca growing in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru had risen to more than 181,000 hectares, or more than 700 square miles. That is a 16% increase over 2006 figures and the highest level of cultivation since 2001.

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Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Colombia, which remains the region's largest coca and cocaine producer despite a seven-year, $5 billion dollar US effort to wipe out the crop, had the most dramatic increase, jumping up 27%. Cultivation increased 5% in Bolivia, where a coca-friendly government is de facto allowing small increases, and 4% in Peru, where a non-coca-friendly government is in constant low-level conflict with coca growers.

"The increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is a surprise and shock: a surprise because it comes at a time when the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca; a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa. "But this bad news must be put in perspective," he added in desperate search of a silver lining. "Just like in Afghanistan, where most opium is grown in provinces with a heavy Taliban presence, in Colombia most coca is grown in areas controlled by insurgents", Costa said, noting that half of all cocaine production and a third of all cultivation occurs in just 10 of the country's 195 municipalities.

But despite the increase in coca cultivation, cocaine production remained stable. Last year, global potential production of cocaine was 994 metric tons, according to the UNODC, while in 2006, it was 984 metric tons. The UNODC pointed to lower yields as a result of pressure from massive aerial eradication, which caused farmers to seek out peripheral lands and resort to smaller, more dispersed coca patches.

"In the past few years, the Colombian government destroyed large-scale coca farming by means of massive aerial eradication, which unsettled armed groups and drug traffickers alike. In the future, with the FARC in disarray, it may become easier to control coca cultivation," Costa predicted rosily.

Last year, Colombia's drug police, working with US funds and US contractors, sprayed herbicide on 160,000 hectares of coca and manually eradicated another 50,000 hectares. But as in the past, Colombia's coca growing peasants, faced with few alternatives, have adapted rapidly, negating the gains of the eradicators.

While Congress has gone along with the $5 billion experiment to eradicate coca in Colombia in the last year of the Clinton administration and throughout the Bush presidency, the clamor is rising on Capitol Hill for a shift in emphasis in US aid. Currently, the aid goes 80% to security forces and 20% for development assistance. Solons can rightly ask just what they've been getting for all that money.

Southwest Asia: Afghanistan Makes "World's Largest" Drug Bust -- 260 Tons of Hash Destroyed

Afghan police found and destroyed a whopping 260 tons of hashish near Spin Boldak in Kandahar province near the Pakistan border Monday. The contraband cannabis was buried in trenches and bunkers in the desert, and the stash was so extensive that NATO called in two aircraft to bomb it. Also found was five tons of opium.

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hidden drug cache, Afghanistan 2008 (from nato.int)
In a Wednesday press release, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claimed to have struck a major blow against the Taliban, which is strong in Kandahar and widely thought to profit handsomely -- along with many other actors -- from the Afghan drug trade.

"With this single find, the police have seriously crippled the Taliban's ability to purchase weapons that threaten the safety and security of the Afghan people and the region," said General David McKiernan, commander of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force.

The hash had an estimated regional wholesale value of $400 million. ISAF officials estimated that the Taliban would have pocketed about $14 million from the sale of the drugs. But despite McKiernan's claim, that's chump change compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars the Taliban is estimated to make each year from the opium trade.

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burning of hash cache, Afghanistan 2008 (from nato.int)
The seizure of such a massive quantity of hashish should also raise questions about the Afghan government's overall anti-drug program. While Afghan and Western officials praised Afghanistan for eradicating opium production in some northern provinces last year, it appears farmers there simply switched over to cannabis.

Still, NATO and the West were patting themselves and their Afghan partners on the back. "This was the largest ever single find of narcotics in history," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement. "It reflects the efforts of the Afghan government against the drug trade, and was so large that two aircraft were brought in to destroy the underground bunker in which the hashish was being stored."

"The Afghan National Police Special Task Force has made a huge step forward in proving its capability in curbing the tide of illegal drug trade in this country," said General McKiernan. "The international community will continue to support the Afghan forces with more of the same training and support that helped them achieve such success in this mission."

Meanwhile, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's most recent report on the Afghan crop, Afghan opium production this year looks to maintain its record high levels. The country currently supplies more than 90% of the world's opium.

Europe: Colombian Vice-President Wants Debate on Cocaine Legalization

Appearing in London at an event aimed at undermining cocaine consumption in Great Britain, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón appeared to suggest that discussions about cocaine policy should include the possibility of legalization. But there is no political will to do so, he complained.

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Francisco Santos
Colombia is the world's leading cocaine producer and exporter. Cocaine has been a leading revenue source for both rightist paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas engaged in a bloody, decades-long civil war. Now, with consumption rising in Europe in general and Great Britain in particular, the British government this week announced a new public relations program to dampen demand. Santos was in London for an event kicking off that push.

"In the case of Colombia and this country, the discussion of legalization is something that does not have the political will or the possibility of becoming a reality in the near future," Santos said in remarks reported by politics.co.uk. "So in Colombia, where a lot of illegal groups fund themselves through this kind of operation, we have no other option in terms of combating it. The debate is open but we wish it had a louder sense in terms of how we can reduce consumption and production."

It's not the first time Santos has criticized current drug policies. In September of last year, Santos noted the failure of aerial eradication programs targeting coca (the plant from which cocaine is derived), and called for a change in emphasis in anti-drug efforts.

According to the British Home Office, whose head, Home Secretary Vernon Coaker also attended the event, cocaine is the only drug in Britain to see an increase in use over 1998. It is a Class A drug under Britain's Misuse of Drugs Act, with possession punishable by up to seven years and sales punishable by up to life in prison.

While the British government is now engaged in a public relations campaign to reduce cocaine use, it appears deaf to the Colombian vice-president's suggestion that legalization be put on the table. It's all about law enforcement, said Home Secretary Coaker.

The new campaign is "just one part of enforcement measures we use," Coaker said. "The really important thing about drugs policy, whether it is in respect of cannabis or cocaine, is that we have a tough law enforcement approach in respect of that, of course you do, but alongside that people know we also have to have education programs and treatment programs so when we have got people in the system we try to help them and work with them," he added.

Southwest Asia: Iran Accuses West of Ignoring Afghan Opium, US Marines Conveniently Aid Tehran's Case

Iran Wednesday accused the US and NATO of indifference to Afghanistan's booming opium trade and called on the West to help fight smuggling of opium and heroin across the border the two countries share. A day earlier, an Associated Press story about US Marines newly deployed to Afghanistan's Helmand Province helped make Iran's case.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
In that story, some of the 2,000 members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, freshly arrived in Helmand, the world's largest opium growing region and a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, explained that they were ignoring the poppy crop because they feared alienating local residents dependent on the trade to earn a living.

"It's kind of weird. We're coming over here to fight the Taliban. We see this. We know it's bad. But at the same time we know it's the only way locals can make money," said 1st Lt. Adam Lynch, 27, of Barnstable, Mass.

Second Lt. Mark Greenlief, 24, a Monmouth, Ill., native who commands the 2nd Platoon, said he originally wanted to make a helicopter landing zone in a local farmer's field. "But as you can see that would ruin their poppy field, and we didn't want to ruin their livelihood."

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Stover's platoon is billeted beside a poppy field planted in the interior courtyard of a mud-walled compound. The Marines' mission is to get rid of the "bad guys," and "the locals aren't the bad guys," he said. "Poppy fields in Afghanistan are the cornfields of Ohio," said Stover, 28, of Marion, Ohio. "When we got here they were asking us if it's okay to harvest poppy and we said, 'Yeah, just don't use an AK-47.'"

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, told the AP that his troops can't focus on the poppy crop when the Taliban is "terrorizing the people." The key is first to defeat the Taliban, he said. "I think by focusing on the Taliban, the poppies will go away," he said.

But the Marines, and the rest of the 30,000 US and 20,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan are caught in a terrible contradiction: If they go after the opium, they risk driving the population into the waiting arms of the Taliban. If they don't go after the opium, the Taliban makes as much as $100 million a year off its share of the trade, which goes to buy more weapons to fight the US, NATO, and the Afghan government.

Ignoring the opium crop -- Afghan opium accounts for 93% of the global supply, according to the United Nations -- does not sit well with Iran, which reportedly has the world's highest opiate addiction rate. "The exploding growth in the cultivation of opium... in Afghanistan last year has created many problems... especially for Iran," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, secretary of Iran's drug control headquarters, a day after the AP story appeared.

"We think NATO and foreign forces in Afghanistan are indifferent to the issue of drugs and have put other goals as their priorities," Ahmadi Moghaddam told a conference of officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "Since the time they entered (Afghanistan) we are witnessing an explosive rise in the production of drugs," he said.

Iran is spending $600 million a year to stop Afghan drugs from coming into the country, and could use some help from the West, which is evidently ignoring the problem, he complained. "Iran requests the serious and practical cooperation of the international community, especially European countries, as the main destination for smugglers, in fighting drug trafficking."

European Pressure: Turkey Must Fight Drug War, or Else

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kalif Mathieu is an intern at StoptheDrugWar.org. His bio is in our "staff" section.

I traveled to the city of Istanbul last week to stay for a few days with my school program of Peace and Conflict Resolution. Istanbul (and Turkey as a whole) is the perfect conduit for heroin being produced in the middle-east to reach Western European markets. Heroin and other drugs are commodities like anything else, and travel through the same general trade routes as other goods. Turkey is so strategically placed that according to Le Monde diplomatique in 1995 “An estimated 80% of the heroin on the European market is being processed in Turkish laboratories." (La Dépêche Internationale des Drogues 1995, Nr. 48)

So you might ask, “what’s so special about heroin traveling through Turkey? It’s just like any other trade between the middle-east and Europe.” The troublesome point is who controls the trafficking through the country and receives the profits of the trade. This happens to be the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a militant organization with a 30-year history of fighting the Turkish government to establish a separate Kurdish state. “According to Interpol […] the PKK was orchestrating 80 % of the European drug market” back in 1992, and “[o]ther sources similarly indicate that the PKK controlled between 60 % to 70 %” in 1994 reported the Turkish Daily News.

The state of Turkey has been increasing its process of Westernization recently in its desire to join the EU, and this has meant adopting a Western policy on drugs. Turkey has been very successful recently in increasing its police and border control effectiveness and eliminating corruption. The Turkish Daily News gave some convincing numbers: “According to the deputy customs undersecretary, there was a 400 percent increase in drug-operation success in the period between 2002 and 2006, when compared to the 1999-2002 period.”

However, even though Turkey has been, in recent years, dealing more and more forcefully with both the PKK militants and the drug trade, has this actually reduced the trafficking of drugs and the profits of the PKK? In the Turkish Daily News: “[t]he annual revenue made by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has increased to 400-500 million euros, a top Turkish general said late Tuesday.” If the PKK’s revenue has increased, then it is logical to assume Turkey’s military campaign against them may not be considered a huge success. Not only that, but “200-250 million euros of [the PKK’s] revenue comes from drugs […] Gen. Ergin Saygun, deputy chief of General Staff said.” That makes drug trafficking 50% of the organization’s income!

The Turkish state has had a history of valuing the effectiveness of force. It was born from war, and the constitution has a controversial but often-utilized article that allows the Turkish army to organize a coup to eliminate the possibility of having a religious party in power. What is the point of these so-called ‘hard-line’ approaches to dealing with the nation’s problems if they are rather ineffective? Very little of course. The trouble comes from what the state could say to its citizens, to the international community, if it negotiated with the violent PKK or began to take the drug trade into the light by moving it towards legalization and either private or state control? If Turkey tried to clean up its smuggling and black market in such a way the majority of Europe, if not the greater ‘global community,’ would probably condemn the entire nation of betraying humanity and literally becoming evil. The reaction of many Turkish citizens would be perhaps lighter, but of a similar nature if the state sat down to negotiations with the ‘terrorist’ PKK. These are strong influences on the Turkish state, and severely limit its options. Therefore it seems Turkey doesn’t have much of a choice but to pursue the same policy of force it has pursued for more than 30 years, whether it benefit the people or not.

Location: 
United States

Feature: The 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference -- Mr. Costa Meets the Opposition

The 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans kicked off with a bang Thursday as Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told a boisterous and sometimes combative audience of drug reformers that while a drug-free world is probably not attainable, it is almost certainly desirable, and that he would continue to work toward that goal.

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Antonio Maria Costa (courtesy DrugWarRant.com
Costa, who as head of the UNODC is the leading cheerleader for the global drug prohibition regime and chief chider of governments UNODC believes are not making sufficient efforts in the war on drugs, is the highest placed drug war figure to ever address a drug reform conference. But while his attendance could mark the beginning of a broader dialog on global drug policy, at various points Thursday it seemed more like a dialog of the deaf.

His remarks came on the opening morning of the three-day conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, and co-hosted by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Harm Reduction Coalition, and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. With more than a thousand attendees, the joint 2007 conference is the largest drug reform conference ever.

"A drug-free world is not a slogan I use," Costa told the opening morning crowd. "It is an aspiration, not an operational target, much as one aspires to eliminate poverty or hunger or disease."

While Costa flatly rejected drug legalization, he also suggested that drug law enforcement was not the ultimate "solution" to drug use and the drug trade. Even if all the drugs produced around the world this year could be eradicated, he said, they would be planted again next year -- and if farmers in Colombia or Afghanistan didn't want to plant them, farmers somewhere else would. "While law enforcement is necessary, it is not sufficient," he told the crowd.

The answer, Costa argued, is not on the supply side but the demand side. "Lowering demand is the necessary condition to make drug policy realistic and sustainable," he said, adding that that could be achieved by "prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, combined with comprehensive health programs."

Then the top global anti-drug bureaucrat took on the topic of legalization. "Some people say drug use is a personal choice and nobody else's business," he said, as the room erupted with sustained applause. The room quickly quieted, however, as Costa continued: "I have some problems with this. First, this is a health issue. Drug abuse is a disease affecting the brain, triggered by individual vulnerability," he suggested, as scattered hissing and booing broke out.

"Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are dangerous," Costa bravely soldiered on, only to be met with a crescendo of boos.

Costa also addressed the argument that drug prohibition creates violence, if only obliquely. "You say prohibition creates violence and crime by creating a lucrative black market, so legalize drugs to defeat organized crime. I agree with you, but this is not only an economic argument," he maintained. "Legalization will increase the damage done to individuals and society."

For Costa, there are no drug users, only "addicts" who need help. "Why do we have these ideological debates about drug addiction?" he complained. "People aren't divided about treating tuberculosis or AIDS."

Careful to repeatedly mention that he supported harm reduction as well as prevention and treatment, Costa called on the audience to join him as an "extremist of the center" in an effort to destroy demand for drugs. "We all want to help the farmers and the drug addicts and reduce the crime and violence," he said. "Let us build on this common ground to build a safer and healthier world."

Costa's positions did not go unchallenged. Immediately following him at the podium was Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director of the International Harm Reduction Development program at the Open Society Institute, who went through a litany of repression of drug users: ranging from Russia, where police often block them from gaining access to health care; to China, where police wait outside needle exchanges and arrest people on the way out; to Thailand, where authorities killed thousands of suspected drug users in 2003; to India, where throwing users in cages passes as drug treatment; and Kazakhstan, where female users are subjected to body searches and forced to engage in sex acts to get their seized drugs back.

"When you look at the UNODC report on drug treatment in India," she noted, "those people in the cages are going to be counted. There are no standards for what is drug treatment; the numbers are self-reported."

Costa took even more flak at a lunchtime question and answer session immediately following the presentation. As attendees eager to see the exchange packed the room past capacity, a cavalcade of drug policy reformers and scholars took aim at the UNODC head and his arguments.

"This is a healthy opening," said UC Santa Cruz sociologist Craig Reinarman, who praised Costa for his fortitude in coming to the conference and his charm in making his case. "If you're wrong on most of the arguments, it helps if you're charming." Reinarman challenged Costa on his prescription to deal with drug users by subjecting them to drug treatment. "We agree on making treatment available to all who want it, but the vast majority of people who use illicit drugs do not become addicts who need treatment. The idea that you will treat people who don't have a disease flies in the face of everything I know about medicine," Reinarman said.

He also attacked Costa's claim that reducing supply would reduce demand and the problems attendant with drug use. "The availability of drugs is not correlated with drug problems," he said, citing the case of the Netherlands. "It is surrounded by countries with far more restrictive prohibitionist policies that also have higher figures for use, addiction, overdose deaths, and the like. The notion that there is a correlation between repressive drug policies and use levels is just not borne out by the facts."
Costa did not respond directly to Reinarman, instead diverting the observation by claiming that the Netherlands had "poisoned Europe" with amphetamines produced there, probably an even less apt reference to Dutch production of ecstasy, which in UN-speak is an "amphetamine-type stimulant."

Wealthy San Francisco libertarian John Gilmore reproved Costa for talking treatment while continuing to endorse repression of drug use. "We don't prosecute diabetics," he noted. Costa did not respond.

"Most of what you said flew in the face of reality," chided Pat O'Hare, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association, who took special umbrage at Costa's repeated call for tackling the problem through reducing demand. "We don't know how to reduce demand," he said bluntly. "I want regulation; right now, we have almost no control. I'm prepared to accept slightly more drug use, but a load less harm."

Again, Costa failed to respond directly, although he grew increasingly testy. In response to a query about medical marijuana, he almost sneered: "I don't believe in buying joints," he said. "You don't need to lick mold to get penicillin," he said, eliciting groans and jeers from the crowd.

To charges that the global prohibition regime he cheerleads is financing terrorism and political violence around the globe, Costa agreed that indeed groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan were profiting from the black market drug trade. "The best response is to quit buying that stuff," was the solution he proffered, a response that brought laughter and jeers.

And with that, the UN's head drug-fighter was gone, off to catch a plane for New York as the conference attendees collectively took a deep breath and scratched their heads. Whether Costa was persuaded to see the errors of his ways remains to be seen, and, given his performance Thursday, that seems most unlikely. But the fact that the top global drug-fighter felt it necessary to enter the lion's den and take on the pride suggests that the movement is making progress. As that old agitator Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

[Editor's Note: The New Orleans conference continues through Saturday. Look for more reports in the Chronicle next week and some blog posts in the meantime.]

Visit http://www.drugwarrant.com for extensive blogging from the conference, and check back at http://stopthedrugwar.org too.

Southwest Asia: US Plan For Aerial Spraying of Afghan Poppies on Hold -- for Now

The US government has given up for now on efforts to persuade the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to allow aerial spraying of the country's opium poppy crop, Reuters quoted a senior US government official as saying Wednesday. The US State Department and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) had pushed hard for spraying, but ran into opposition not only from the Afghans, but also from the US's European allies and even other parts of the US government, including the Congress and the Pentagon, which fears such an effort could backfire and drive Afghans into the waiting arms of the Taliban.

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
"We've talked to President Karzai about the program we want to work with him on this season," Thomas Schweich, the US coordinator on counternarcotics in Afghanistan, told the news agency. "He has said he doesn't want to do aerial eradication so we won't do aerial eradication. If he changes his mind, we will," Schweich said in Brussels.

Instead of aerial spraying of herbicides, Schweich said, the US will rely on ground eradication. A ground eradication program this year managed to eradicate only 9% of the crop, according to the United Nations.

"That program is going to continue," Schweich said. "It got about 15-16,000 hectares last year. We didn't think it was enough so we are going to monitor very closely whether it is down equitably," he said, adding that there are signs some powerful figures in Afghanistan are using their positions to ensure their fields are not targeted.

Afghanistan produced 93% of the world's opium supply this year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in a report released last month. In addition to finding their way into the pockets of corrupt government officials and poor Afghan farmers, profits from the opium trade have also fueled the Taliban insurgency, leaving Western policy-makers with a real dilemma: Do they crack down on opium and drive farmers into the hands of the Taliban or do they turn a blind eye and watch opium profits buy shiny new weapons for the Taliban? Prohibition appears to have created a lose-lose situation for the West.

Editorial: Enough Already -- Stop Funding the Taliban Through Opium Prohibition

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
The drug war is in part a human rights issue. With half a million people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses, with medical marijuana providers being hounded by the authorities, with needle exchange programs that are needed to save lives getting blocked, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy itself opposing San Francisco's proposed safe injection site (when did it become wrong to save lives?), with countries pressured by us to spray their lands with harmful chemicals to attack unstoppable drug crops, the United States through its drug policy has become a major human rights violator. It is a sad chapter.

We at DRCNet partly see drug reform as a human rights movement, and so ten years ago when very few Americans had heard of the Taliban, but the UN and the Clinton administration intended to fund them to do opium eradication, we condemned the Taliban in this newsletter and criticized the proposal. The fear of human rights advocates was that the brutal regime would be able to use the money to further establish its hold on power. Anyone who watched the footage of Taliban atrocities airing on US news stations after 9/11 can understand why that's a bad thing. Other reasons for opposing the Taliban are quite well known now.

Today we continue to fund the Taliban -- we don't say we do, we claim to be fighting them, we even send our soldiers to fight them in person -- but we are funding them. We are funding them by prohibiting drugs. Because drugs are illegal, they cannot be regulated, and so their source plants are grown wherever and by whomever is willing and able to gain a foothold in the market. For a large share of the global opium supply, at the moment that means Afghanistan. And the Taliban are cashing in on that.

And how. Just this week, a NATO commander said opium may provide as much as 40% of the Taliban's revenues, hundreds of millions of dollars -- some experts say it's more like 60%, he added. If opium-derived drugs were legal and regulated, that wouldn't happen. And governments are therefore at fault for creating a funding source for a movement that is destabilizing Afghanistan, that is abusing the rights of its people, and that may still be helping Al-Qaeda, all of this five years after we thought we had gotten rid of them for good.

US officials continue to press for more opium eradication, but experts agree that eradication helps the Taliban too, by driving the farmers into their arms -- of course while failing to reduce the opium crop, instead only moving it from place to place. And while Afghanistan's government has not unleashed all the eradication the US government wants, it has done enough to hurt. A hundred thousand Afghans are employed in the opium trade and don't have another way to make a living. We can't just tell them they can't grow opium anymore, and expect them to comply or that serious damage to the nation-building and counter-insurgency programs won't result.

Ten years ago, the west helped the Taliban for the sake of fighting the drug war. Today, the Taliban is an enemy, and we fight the drug war supposedly to fight them, but in the process instead help them -- see how no matter what direction the drug war compass points, one way or its opposite, it never points to anywhere good. That is why I say, enough already, stop funding the Taliban and other dangerous people through drug prohibition, legalize drugs to make this world a safer place.

Southwest Asia: Opium Accounts for Maybe Half of Taliban Funding, US Commander Says

Black market opium production under the global drug prohibition regime is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of the Taliban, the top US commander in Afghanistan said last week. The opium trade accounts for as much as 40% of Taliban revenues, and that could be a conservative estimate, said Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
"It is my best subjective estimate that the insurgency enjoys fiscal resources from the cultivation of poppy probably to the level of 20% to 40% of its total fiscal resources," the general told journalists at a Kabul press conference. But he added that international experts had told him his figure was low-ball, and that opium could account for up to 60% of Taliban funds.

The Taliban, which has emerged revivified in the past two years, is widely believed to make money off the opium economy by taxing farmers and traders. This year, it has had the strongest presence in Afghanistan's southeast, which is also the area of the country where opium production is most prevalent.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2007 World Drug Report, the Afghan opium crop is valued at $3 billion this year, about $1 billion of which is paid to farmers. Despite increased eradication efforts this year, production increased 34% over last year. It is unclear how much opium income makes its way into the purses of the Taliban.

Afghanistan is currently producing 93% of the world's poppy crop, and that is undermining everything the Afghan government and its US and NATO allies is trying to accomplish there, said McNeill. Besides funding the insurgency and corrupting government officials, opium profits pull people away from developing the country. "People are distracted from the value of the reconstruction because of poppy cultivation and the money inherent within," he said.

Still, he said, ISAF is not eager to get more deeply involved in fighting the drug war in Afghanistan, and if it does, its role should be limited. "ISAF is neither manned, trained or equipped to be an eradication force but there are other ways... that we might be able to help," he said.

That's not what the US wants to hear, though. Washington is gearing up for heightened involvement in drug fighting, and it is pressing, so far unsuccessfully, for aerial chemical eradication of the poppy crop -- a crop which according to the UN provides a living for 14% of the Afghan population.

Drug War Issues

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