U.s. Role In Afghan Heroin U.s.-backed Rebels Are Tied To Drug Traffic. And U.s. Wheat Has Freed Afghans To Plant Poppies.

Posted: May 24, 1992

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The poppies, row on row, stand waist-high by the roadside east of town. The boll of each plant oozes a thick brown sap. A fat boy scrapes the sap off each boll into a burlap sack.

The ooze is opium. At a mud fort in the mountains, the opium becomes heroin. And half the heroin coursing through the veins of American addicts comes from the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

The Afghan crop now coming in could yield 200 tons of heroin. It is an especially bitter harvest for the United States.

Commanders of the mujaheddin, the Islamic rebels now ruling Afghanistan, play a significant part in the heroin trade. And the United States, which poured close to $3 billion of weaponry into the rebels' hands, now is giving unintended economic aid to the drug traffic.

By shipping thousands of tons of wheat into Afghanistan, the United States is making it easier for farmers to plant more poppies instead of wheat.

"If you send them a bunch of food, they can go after profit," said Jim Hughes, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Peshawar, Pakistan, 40 miles east of the poppy fields.

"There is a calculus - no one knows what it is - whereby we can't supply a cheap commodity like wheat without making people go for a better cash crop. And there's none better than poppy," said Hank Cushing, regional affairs officer for Afghanistan at the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in Peshawar.

For miles around Jalalabad, 80 percent of the arable land produces nothing but poppies, U.N. officials say. And the farmers like it that way. Today opium brings the farmer 10 times more money than wheat - and there is plenty of cheap bread for sale in town, thanks to the flow of free flour.

"You can't go to a farmer and ask him to grow wheat instead of poppy," said Andrew Pryce, chief technical adviser to the U.N. drug control program in Peshawar. "They think the drug problem is not an Afghan problem. They are feeding the West this poison and that's OK."

The answer, relief workers say, may be to provide seed instead of wheat, and to ship it to small, village-based cooperatives rather than sending tons of wheat to Kabul. That would encourage farmers to grow wheat to feed their


It's an open secret that some of the U.S.-backed Afghan rebels traffic in opium and heroin, and control poppy fields, processing labs and smuggling routes. DEA, CIA and State Department officials have privately conceded that point for years. Two weeks ago, Melvin Levitsky, undersecretary of state for international narcotics, publicly acknowledged that mujaheddin commanders were deeply involved in the heroin trade.

The new rebel government has issued a decree declaring all drugs un- Islamic. But the official ban on opium has so far been ineffective.

"People will pay the farmer cash up front to grow poppy," Cushing said. ''It's a lot better than taking your chances with wheat."

But relief agencies are taking chances shipping wheat into this nation. Giving away food in Afghanistan is no picnic. Teams carrying U.S. assistance in convoys of trucks over Afghanistan's rough roads have been kidnapped, beaten, shot at and hijacked by rebel groups. Tons of wheat have been stolen by mujaheddin commanders.

"We've had people take wheat at gunpoint, saying, 'We see these trucks going by, but no one does a thing for me. I run this road, and this wheat is for me,' " Cushing said. "Sometimes you get a receipt."

There is no mass starvation in Afghanistan, the United Nations says, and some U.N. officials in Peshawar disdain the idea of wholesale giveaways of wheat. But after years of war against communist governments and Soviet invaders, three-quarters of Afghanistan's farmland is lying fallow. It will be years before about six million Afghan refugees starting to return from Pakistan and Iran can sow their fields and feed themselves.

Hungry people need food, and, on the surface, the rationale for wheat shipments is as simple as that. But experienced international aid workers in Peshawar say that AID's assistance can be a powerful political tool, as politically charged as guns.

AID spends $60 million a year assisting Afghanistan from within a well- guarded, unmarked complex in Peshawar. For years, its humanitarian efforts were a tributary of a huge river - the CIA's weapons pipeline to the mujaheddin.

AID's wheat was piggybacked to the CIA's huge covert military program. The rebels ran America's missiles, rifles, cash, cars, radios and food from Peshawar into Afghanistan.

Some fattened themselves, stockpiled their arsenals and built well-armed little fiefdoms; a lot of the wheat turned up for sale in local bazaars. It's still a mystery where some of the money and many of the missiles went.

"I've been working for five years for a country I've never set foot in," Cushing said. "We were kept out and our mujaheddin beneficiaries didn't want us in. 'Trust us,' they said. They were really touchy about it, and we tried to make every accommodation we could. It was always a problem. People see our largess as a means of power. Obviously people want to use it."

While the CIA cut off the weapons shipments to Afghanistan on Jan. 1, the flow of wheat continues.

When Kabul fell to the mujaheddin last month, the rebels' political leaders prepared to leave comfortable villas in Peshawar for the capital.

The United States immediately pledged to send them 22 million pounds of wheat. To date 1.6 million pounds have followed the politicians to Kabul.

But the pledge has strained the granary. No wheat from AID is left to carry on the small successes of relief agencies that have been working for years on small-scale projects helping refugees return to abandoned villages. And as of last week, there was plenty of bread at affordable prices in Kabul.

"It's diplomacy, it's showmanship, it's a publicity stunt," said Bill Huth, a manager of a now-scuttled program to feed returning refugees.

One of Huth's programs at CARE International has come to a halt with AID's decision to divert all available wheat to Kabul.

"It gets in the papers that Uncle Sam has donated 10,000 metric tons of wheat," he said. "Whether it gets ripped off in Kabul - no one cares."

comments powered by Disqus