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The Taliban and al-Qaeda don't grow the opium poppies. Their involvement is higher up the drug chain, where profits are fatter, and so is their cut of the deal. Yasini says the terrorists receive a share of profits in return for supplying gunmen to protect labs and convoys. Recent busts have revealed evidence of al-Qaeda's ties to the trade. On New Year's Eve, a U.S. Navy vessel stopped a small fishing boat in the Arabian Sea. After a search, says a Western antinarcotics official, "they found several al-Qaeda guys sitting on a bale of drugs." In January U.S. and Afghan agents raided a drug runner's house in Kabul and found a dozen or so satellite phones. The phones were passed on to the CIA station in Kabul, which found that they had been used to call numbers linked to suspected terrorists in Turkey, the Balkans and Western Europe. And in March U.S. troops searching a suspected terrorist hideout in Oruzgan province found opium with an estimated street value of $15 million.
Antidrug officials say the only way to cut off al-Qaeda's pipeline is to destroy the poppy farms. U.S. military commanders have been reluctant to commit the nearly 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to opium eradication, fearing that doing so would divert attention from the hunt for terrorists. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has tapped top Drug Enforcement Administration official Harold Wankel to lead an intensified drive to nail kingpins, shut down heroin-production labs, eradicate poppy fields and persuade farmers to plant food crops. If the drug cartels aren't stopped, the U.S. fears, they could sow more chaos in Afghanistan--which al-Qaeda and the Taliban could exploit to wrest back power. Miwa Kato, a Kabul-based officer for the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime, puts it this way: "The opium problem has the capacity to undo everything that's being done here to help the Afghans." Few outcomes would please America's enemies more. --With reporting by Massimo Calabresi and Elaine Shannon/Washington