NORTHWEST FRONTIER PROVINCE, PAKISTAN — CUSTOMERS still stream through the door of ''Gohar's Shop,'' a cozy store-front gathering place just outside the city of Peshawar. They are still offered a free tea, a short stool to sit on, and a friendly greeting. But last week, the talk was only of hard times ahead.
''The people could soon be compelled to go to the streets. It's not impossible that people will resort to robbery and deceit,'' warns Gohar, the store's owner, who chose not to give his last name. As he spoke, he pulled a two-pound chunk of raw hashish, a concentrated form of marijuana, out of one of three large goatskin bags behind him.
''This is a cash crop,'' he says emphatically, with a wall of brightly colored psychedelic posters behind him, ''And if someone is going to ban this crop, there must be a substitute.''
Eager to gain badly needed aid from the United States and facing a growing drug-addiction problem in Pakistan, the government has launched a series of unprecedented antidrug raids since February. The main target was not Gohar and other low-level hashish dealers, but Pakistan's increasingly powerful drug cartels and burgeoning heroin trade.
Western observers say the government has set a new precedent by raiding drug laboratories and harassing small-time drug dealers in Pakistan's largely lawless Northwest Frontier Province.
Ruled by a group of fiercely independent tribes believed to be armed with weapons that include heavy artillery and stinger antiaircraft missiles, no ruling power from the British Empire to the present Pakistani government has been able to conquer the area.
''The really important thing is that the Pakistani police force has never operated in the Frontier before,'' says a senior US official in the capital of Islamabad. ''We're impressed. It's a real sea change.''
Pakistan is the third-largest producer of opium in the world after Southeast Asia's ''Golden Triangle'' and Afghanistan and is a crucial heroin-transit area, according to US officials.
Afghan farmers and war lords adopted opium as a valuable cash crop during the US-backed insurgency against a pro-Soviet government in the 1980s.
US officials believe nearly all the opium grown in Afghanistan is processed into heroin in Pakistan, then shipped from Pakistani ports to the US and Europe.
Two to three of the largest opium cartels in the world are believed to be Pakistani-owned and operated, officials say. And, two alleged Pakistani heroin traffickers, believed to control one of the heroin networks, were suddenly extradited to the US last month.
Customers in Gohar's hashish shop, who ranged from grown men to young boys, who said they were buying hashish for their parents, expressed shock over the fact that the Pakistani police had crossed into the province and were trying to enforce law in an area long considered ungovernable.
From hats and chilis to hash and guns
A bustling bazaar of vegetable stands, pharmacies, and clothing stores has abruptly turned into shops selling AK-47s, pistols, grenade launchers, hashish, and heroin.
''She means it,'' says Shams, a customer who asks not to give his last name, referring to Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's crackdown.
''My house and my father's house were bulldozed,'' he says.
But critics call the raids and extraditions just a ploy by Ms. Bhutto to win support from the US prior to her recent visit there April 5 to 14.
US officials concede that the raids were clearly timed for maximum political benefit, but say Bhutto's government has set a precedent it will not be able to easily back away from.
''Obviously there's a political element to all this, but once they've done [this in the Frontier], you can't back off. We can now pressure them to do it again,'' says the senior US official. ''They've crossed a kind of Rubicon, and they're not going to be able to cross back easily,'' he says.
Pakistani officials say the raids will continue and are part of the government's attempt to counter the problem of a growing number of heroin addicts in Pakistan.
According to a recent United Nations survey, there are more than 1.5 million heroin addicts in Pakistan compared to 600,000 addicts in the US -- a country with double the population.
''This government is committed to eradicating drugs,'' says Matiullah Khan, an official of the Narcotics Control Division in the Pakistani Ministry of Interior.
''We are taking steps to reduce the demand for drugs,'' Mr. Khan says.
Hashish store owner Gohar predicts that the government will have success only if it targets the main heroin traders and offers an alternative cash crop to farmers. Gohar says larger drug dealers were tipped off well before the recent raids occurred. ''The raids were conducted in an improper way,'' Gohar says. ''The big businesses are informed by the [police] officer before they happen.''
US officials say steady progress is at least being made in a 13-year-old antidrug effort here by the US.
Other cash crops encouraged
A large portion of the $2.6 million a year in US antidrug aid goes to building roads that allow farmers to sell less valuable cash crops -- such as tomato and chilis -- in more stable local markets.
''The [Frontier] production has been going down in the last few years,'' the US official says. ''It isn't that farmers can't be taught something else. They can, and they will.''
But hashish-store customer Jan Muhammed predicts that the high profits farmers make from opium -- fueled by the voracious appetite for drugs in the US -- will prove to be more powerful forces than limited US aid money.
''Benazir can't do anything. No one can do anything,'' Mr. Muhammed says. ''The local chieftains have already said it, '[The farmers] won't give up its cultivation.' ''