Author:Willems, Peter

Peter Willems reports on recent moves by the United Nations and Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist militia, the Taliban, to control opium production in the country.

Illegal drug use is among the worst scourges facing 20th century society and, according to the experts, unless the problem is tackled head on the spread of illicit drugs will lead to increased levels of crime and misery on the streets of towns and cities across the world. However, drugs running is a highly lucrative business and the so-called "international drugs barons" are always on the look out for new, cheaper sources of supply.

Some 40 per cent of the raw opium which finds its way to international markets is produced in Afghanistan. In addition to its obvious implications in combating the spread of drugs, the latest move by the Taliban is being interpreted as a further step towards the organisation achieving recognition as the legitimate governing body of Afghanistan.

The United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) has taken its first steps to assist the Taliban militia to eradicate opium production in the areas of Afghanistan under Taliban control. It is an aim the fundamentalist political group must prove itself anxious to achieve, if it is to attain the international recognition it craves.

There is no doubt the Taliban has made huge financial gain from the opium industry, with funds taken from local growers in the form of taxes. In the past Taliban officials claimed it would be inhuman to crack down on poppy growing without providing the farmers with an alternative source of income. Now, with UN help, the dilemma might be solved.

"If the Taliban can prove they are willing to enforce a ban on production, trafficking and consumption of opium, we are willing to help rebuild the infrastructure to assist the people in Afghanistan improve their income through other agricultural products," said Sandro Tuchi, spokesman for the UNDCP at the international centre in Vienna, Austria.

According to UNDCP, 40 per cent of raw opium on the international drug market is produced in Afghanistan -- approximately 2,300 metric tons per year -- which rivals Burma as the world's leading producer. Some 96 per cent of this total is produced in Taliban-held areas of the country.

The first step of the UN-backed project the Taliban has agreed to follow aims at building trust. If the Taliban will put a lid on opium output, to keep the amount produced in 1998 equal to that of 1997...

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