Pakistan's hapless army of three million drug addicts has found that the price of oblivion has halved since the world was thrown into crisis on 11 September. Some of the purest heroin in the world, produced just over the border in Afghanistan, can be had in the streets of Peshawar, Quetta and other cities for as little as 20p a gram.
The sudden torrent of heroin, opium and hashish is being described as the Afghan regime's ultimate weapon. Afghanistan is already responsible for three-quarters of the world's heroin exports, and the Taliban have threatened that if they are attacked, they will lift a ban on opium poppy production in the areas they control.
But as Tony Blair may have discovered during his visit here yesterday, few issues in this region are simple, least of all the drugs trade. When they banned poppy growing, the Taliban were accused of cynically attempting to manipulate the drugs market by squeezing supplies. Now, it is claimed, the Afghan regime is flooding the market. The price of a kilogram of opium in Pakistan soared from $44 (£30) to $400 after the ban and before 11 September. Immediately afterwards, it surged further to $746 before slumping dramatically.
Asked to explain the sudden fall in the street price of heroin, a narcotics official said it could indicate sales by terrorists needing to finance their operations because their bank accounts had been frozen across the world. But at the same time, he added, it was the probable result of a market decision by thousands of smaller players seeking to sell stocks while they could.
"Drugs are a currency in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan," he said. "Farmers, traders and ordinary people keep drugs in their homes rather than money in the bank. Today we are in a war situation, so what do people do? They go to the market and sell their assets to realise cash, just as people in the West sell shares."
Britain has just released a detailed indictment of Osama bin Laden, his al-Qa'ida network and their Taliban protectors, which accuses them of jointly exploiting the drugs trade. American officials agree, and have leaked a sensational though thinly substantiated claim that Mr bin Laden's group tried to develop a "super-powerful" brand of heroin that would enslave Western addicts yet further. They admit, however, that proof that either the Taliban or al-Qa'ida actually control the trade is hard to find.
When the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996, the drugs industry was already well established. The movement imposed taxes on poppy cultivation, just like the ones that existed for other crops, and charged fees for narcotics production, which brought in $15m to $27m annually, according to a United Nations report. Just over a year ago it finally fulfilled its promises to stamp out poppy growing, reducing production from 3,100 tons in 2000 to virtually nothing in the first half of this year, again according to the United Nations.
But the criminal gangs in charge of refining and distribution remain powerful, and the Taliban did nothing to stop the production and export of heroin from existing stockpiles. The threat to allow poppies to grow again could be a sign of the movement's weakness rather than its strength, observers say. It may be seeking to regain lost support from farmers angered by the ban. One source said confiscated weapons had been returned to farmers in an effort to enlist them in a struggle against any US-led attack.
Before the present intelligence offensive, attempts to link Mr bin Laden directly to drugs had been vague. Congressional staff in Washington who had seen the files said he did not actually traffic in drugs, but made money from the trade by hiring out his fighters to guard refineries and escort convoys on their way out through Iran. The Taliban rake off money from drugs in similar ways. A report to the House of Commons accuses them of protecting stockpiles but the narcotics official scoffed at the idea of "mullahs selling heroin".
There is also the uncomfortable fact that almost half the heroin flowing out of Afghanistan is thought to come from areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, the West's putative partner in the campaign to oust the Taliban. Any expansion of the alliance's territory could see an increase in the drugs supply.
In his meeting last night with Mr Blair, Pakistan's military President, General Pervez Musharraf, would have been entitled to point out to his visitor that the drugs trade had its origins in the war against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Afghan mujahedin, with the full knowledge of the intelligence agencies of America, Britain and other allies, refined and exported heroin previously unknown in this part of the world to finance their struggle. Evidence even exists that the CIA encouraged the spread of hard drugs to demoralise Russian troops.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd