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US cautious on Afghan opium report

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February 17, 2001 


WASHINGTON (AP) A U.S. narcotics official said Friday it was too early to confirm a reported plunge in opium production in Afghanistan, a drop U.N. officials are attributing to a ban the Taliban militia imposed last year against poppy cultivation.

Even if American officials substantiate the drop, ``I'd be more interested in why this is happening,'' Steven Casteel, the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief of intelligence, said in an interview.

Last year, Afghanistan produced nearly 75 percent of the world's supply of opium, the milky substance drained from the poppy plant and converted into heroin. But a team from the U.N. Drug Control Program found so few poppies during its two-week search there that its officials predicted little opium would come out of Afghanistan this year.

The U.N. surveyors crisscrossed provinces responsible for 86 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan last year. They covered 80 percent of the land in those areas that had been awash in poppies; this year, they said they found poppies growing on barely an acre here and there. The rest about 175,000 acres was clean.

Casteel, however, said drought could be a factor in a production drop. Also, because opium has a shelf life of ``almost of an eternity,'' the Taliban may have stockpiled crops to help drive up prices. One pound of opium worth $25 several months ago is now worth ``in the 100's,'' and a kilo of heroin in Afghanistan has gone from $690 to about $2,500, Casteel said.

U.S. intelligence agents will ``have a good sense'' of the accuracy of the U.N. findings by the end of March, when they will get their own calculation of the Afghan opium crop from satellite images and other surveillance methods, Casteel said. Those reports should help determine whether opium fields weren't simply moved to different locations.

``When you see situations like this, it's like the old shell-and-pea game, and right now they're moving the shells around pretty fast,'' he said. ``The big question will be, when you lift those shells up, will there still be a pea?''

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, banned poppy growing before the November planting season and augmented it with a religious edict making it contrary to the tenets of Islam.

The Taliban, which has imposed a strict brand of Islam in the 95 percent of Afghanistan it controls, has burned down heroin laboratories and jailed farmers until they agreed to destroy their poppy crops.

But Casteel said intelligence sources indicate Afghanistan continues to make money off drug trafficking.

``They still have ties to the illicit market. They're still taxing the opium that's available. They're still taxing the heroin that's being produced. They're still taxing the transportation of the drug,'' he said. ``The question is: Will they be willing to give that up?''

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