Wed, Dec 22, 2010 - Page 5 News List

Taliban stockpiling opium to keep prices high: cable

The Guardian, LONDON

The UN’s drugs czar told NATO that Afghan insurgents were withholding thousands of tonnes of opium and treating their drugs like “savings accounts” to manipulate street prices in the West, according to a US cable released on WikiLeaks.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN office on drugs and crime, told NATO that the Taliban and organized crime gangs had withheld 12,400 tonnes of opium from the international market to keep the price of heroin and opium at a profitable level. The opium withheld was worth about US$1.25 billion. Each tonne of opium is said to be worth about US$100,000 and can be used to produce 100kg of heroin.

MARKET SAVVY

The US cable appears to show that the UN believed the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan were aware of the market and focused on maintaining a viable price for the drug. Reports on the Taliban’s involvement in the drug trade from last year have focused on splits between drug gangs and highlighted rivalries.

Costa’s claims, reported in a confidential document, were expressed at a meeting on Sept. 18 last year. He was briefing NATO and its partners on last year’s Afghanistan Survey, the UN’s annual assessment of the drugs industry in the country. Afghanistan is the world’s biggest exporter of heroin and opium — most of which is grown in Helmand Province, where British troops continue to lose their lives.

Under the heading “Opium Stocks Remain High, the cable states: “Costa said that Afghanistan has 12,400 tonnes of opium stocks because it produces more than the world consumes. Costa believes that the insurgency is withholding these stocks from the market and treating them like ‘savings accounts.’”

Costa’s reported opinion was not part of the UN’s final Afghanistan survey last year.

According to the cable, opium cultivation fell by 22 percent last year to its lowest level in 15 years.

Costa, who retired this year, prompted international debate when he claimed billions of dollars of laundered drug money from organized crime had propped up many of the world’s leading financial institutions during the economic downturn.

INFECTION

According to this year’s UN Afghanistan Survey, total opium production this year is estimated at 3,600 tonnes, down 48 percent from last year. The decrease was largely because of a plant infection hitting the poppy-growing provinces of Helmand and Kandahar particularly hard. Yield fell to 29.2kg per hectare, from 56.1kg the previous year.

This year’s survey has acknowledged that Afghan drug lords have stockpiled some drugs. About 87 percent of total opium production took place in the south and 12 percent in the west last year. A spokesman for the UN declined to comment.

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