Just a few months ago, US officials had begrudging praise for the Taliban for banning the opium-producing poppy from the farmlands of Afghanistan.
Now, that praise is forgotten. Not only are the Taliban protectors of terrorists, in Washington's eyes, they have once again emerged as a major world supplier of drugs, particularly opium and heroin.
Recent reports in Europe of falling narcotics prices set off alarm bells that Afghan drug smugglers may be selling off stockpiles to pay for weapons.
There's no proof as yet, say officials, that Afghan opium has begun to flood the market - drug seizures in Pakistan actually fell 50 percent this year, perhaps because of tighter security on the Afghan-Pakistan border. But Pakistani and international drug-control officials are bracing for a worst-case scenario, as the West launches what may be a prolonged war against a nation that in the past decade became the largest source of opium in the world.
"Opium has always been a part of the Afghan economy. It has played a role as currency and a source of savings for farmers, and in times of crisis, they sold their stocks to get cash," says Bernard Frahi, director of the Afghan program of the United Nations Drug Control Program in Islamabad, Pakistan.
What makes the present situation dangerous, Mr. Frahi adds, is that Afghanistan's present rulers, as well as the opposition Northern Alliance, could use opium stockpiles to help fund their war efforts. In the past, the Taliban reportedly earned tens of millions from taxes on opium production.
While drug smugglers may be avoiding Pakistan's tighter borders, they could easily go to neighboring states such as Iran, China, or the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Turkmenistan.
"In these past days of financial crisis for these terrorist groups, one might think that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda [terrorist network] would use existing trafficking networks in order to get some immediate cash," says Frahi. "After all, the [smuggler's] staff is available, and the opium and the heroin labs are in the country."
Oddly enough, it is the very issue of drug control that the Taliban consider to be one of their greatest successes. Pointing to Islamic injunctions against drunkenness and addiction, Taliban's ruling leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar issued an edict last year to ban poppy cultivation outright. Faced with the threat of stiff financial and physical penalties, including death, only 6 percent of the farmers in Taliban areas grew poppies.
"In Pakistan, we took 15 years to eradicate the opium poppy, but Mullah Omar did it in one year," says one Pakistani drug-control official, in private. "That is really commendable. It's amazing."
The feat came about with minimal foreign aid, due to Western disapproval of the Taliban's human rights record, especially its harsh restrictions on women. Once it verified the Taliban's success, the US announced $43 million in humanitarian aid for Afghan farmers in May. (By contrast, the US last year earmarked some $893 million for drug-control efforts in Colombia, according to the State Department.)
On Wednesday, Mullah Omar said the ban remains in effect, the Afghan Islamic Press reported. The statement came after UN officials earlier this month said it appeared farmers were preparing fields for poppy crops.
The only part of Afghanistan that continued to produce opium was controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance, which the US has aided against the Taliban. This year's crop in alliance territory provided 10 percent of the total world supply, making Afghanistan the second-largest opium producer, after Burma (Myanmar).
While Afghanistan has been a source of opium for centuries, drugs only became a major funding source for weapons in the early 1990s, as Islamic holy warriors, or mujahideen, first fought retreating Soviet troops, then turned against one other. By 1997, Afghanistan produced 2,800 tons of opium annually, more than 80 percent of the total world supply.
Afghanistan produced so much, in fact, that it created a glut. This forced down prices and encouraged opium and heroin distributors in Turkey, Europe, and the US to stockpile drugs until prices rebounded. Some drug-control experts say falling heroin prices on the streets of Amsterdam and Berlin has more to do with a sell-off in Europe than in Afghanistan. After all, they say, it takes months for smugglers to move drugs from the opium banks of Afghanistan to the processing labs of Turkey to buyers in Paris.
In the gritty industrial city of Rawalpindi, next door to Islamabad, the best place to measure the flow of heroin is in the back alleys, where addicts smoke heroin off sheets of foil, withdrawing from life one puff at a time.
For raspy-voiced Asad Ali, who has used heroin for 15 years, wartime was always a good time. Opium farmers in Afghanistan would sell stockpiles for cash, flooding the market and bringing prices down.
But that hasn't happened this time, at least, not yet. In fact, the street price for heroin has gone up, from 15 rupees (24 cents) per gram last month to 20 rupees (32 cents) today. "It's more costly now than before," says Mr. Ali, emerging from the banks of a filthy catacomb where a river of garbage flows. Higher prices do not deter him. "I get the money from begging," he says. "I get heroin every day. And I get food."
At a private drug-rehabilitation clinic in Rawalpindi, former addict Muhammad Omar (no relation to the Taliban leader), says he expects prices to drop. "When the war in Afghanistan started, it seemed that it was going to get hard to get drugs, because it all comes from there," he says. "If the war continues, then the market will be flooded with heroin. It will be dirt cheap."