November 10, 2003 - The Washington Post
Afghan Poppies Sprout Again
By Pamela Constable, Washington Post Foreign Service
GHANIKHEL, Afghanistan -- At the entrance to this thriving village in Nangahar province is an old, bent metal sign that reads: "Drug abuse is the greatest evil of society. Let us save ourselves, our children and our society."
But in the surrounding fields, farmers feverishly plowing the rich dark earth for winter planting season have only one crop in mind: opium poppy. Some have already agreed to sell their future crop to smugglers from Pakistan, who are eager to front them seed and fertilizer money in return for a guaranteed low price at harvest time.
"Everyone is growing poppy now, and there's no way to stop it," said Amar Gul, 50, an illiterate farmer, rattling off the frank economic calculus that makes poppy-growing such a temptation for Afghanistan's impoverished rural communities.
Growing wheat on a half-acre of land could bring the equivalent of $70 a season, Gul explained. "That's not even enough to pay for fertilizer," he said. "If I grow poppy, I can earn about $1,230. That's enough to buy fertilizer, feed my children for the year and maybe even buy a refrigerator."
Two years ago, Afghanistan was virtually poppy-free. The country's strict Islamic militia, the Taliban, banned the flourishing crop in mid-2000, and it soon vanished from the fields. But in recent months, with deterrence efforts weak and sporadic under democratic rule, opium poppies have made a spectacular comeback, nearly reaching the record-high production levels of the 1990s.
According to a report released last month by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghan poppies -- whose sap is the basis for three-fourths of the opium and heroin consumed illegally abroad -- are being grown on 197,000 acres across 28 of the country's 32 provinces. This year the country is expected to produce 3,960 tons of opium worth about $2.3 billion, which is equal to half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.
In Nangahar, one of the nation's top two poppy-producing provinces, cultivation peaked in 1999 at 56,000 acres, plunged to just 537 acres after the ban in 2001, and climbed again to 46,000 this year. Shinwar, the district that includes Ghanikhel, seesawed from 3,692 acres in 1999 to zero in 2001 to 3,938 this year.
"There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists," wrote Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. anti-drug program. If "energetic interdiction measures" are not undertaken now, he added, the country's drug cancer will "metastasize into corruption, violence and terrorism."
The farmers of Ghanikhel insist that such dire predictions are far from the mark. Poppies have been a principal crop for decades, they said, mostly produced on small family plots and sold to local traders. The big traffickers, with their violent methods and international networks, operate somewhere beyond the borders in Pakistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.
U.N. experts here agreed that despite its rapid growth, the Afghan poppy trade so far has not generated much violence or organized criminal activity. But they noted that local militia bosses and administrators in some provinces demand a substantial share of drug profits and that opium traders increasingly offer advance credit for pledges of future crops.
"There is not a lot of high-level corruption or sophisticated dealing. It's all quite loose and informal," said Adam Bouloukos, a U.N. anti-drug official in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "People load up donkeys and drive them to the border. It's a risk-free environment, and there is no need for a sophisticated network."
But he also said that many small farmers become permanently indebted to opium traders to purchase fertilizer and other agricultural needs, and security officials at road checkpoints often extort cash from truckers carrying opium.
"It's not clear where the money goes after that, but only [militia] commanders have the reach necessary to control such networks," Bouloukos said. "We don't really know who's involved, and we don't have well-established law enforcement agencies to turn to."
According to some reports, resurgent Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan have been financing their activities by growing poppies and forming alliances with local opium traders. Opium poppies were a main source of revenue for the Taliban when it held power from 1996 to 2001, and many officials say the militia's ban on poppy cultivation was largely aimed at driving up prices.
Since taking office in late 2001, the U.N.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai has made several efforts to curb poppy production and trade, but none has been effective. Last year, with financial assistance from Britain, the government promised cash and development projects to farmers in Nangahar who planted alternative crops or allowed their poppies to be destroyed.
As a result, cultivation was halted in five districts, but growers complained that most projects never materialized and some money was siphoned off by local intermediaries. Afghan anti-drug officials in Nangahar said the trouble-plagued program, which was suspended after protests by farmers' groups, only reinforced local resistance to crop eradication and substitution.
"We built one road, but that's not enough to stop opium," said Abdul Ghaus, provincial manager of the national Counter Narcotics Directorate. "We didn't put our promises in action, and the result was that those farmers who didn't grow poppy or destroyed their crop are angry and are now planning to grow it, while those who harvested are happy and planning to do it again."
The Karzai government has tried punishments as well as rewards, but its threats have paled in comparison to the lashings meted out by Taliban authorities. In Ghanikhel, provincial troops raided the local opium market last summer and arrested about 150 people, but today virtually every resident with a quarter-acre of land is planting poppies.
At an impromptu gathering of more than 100 villagers, farmers told a visiting journalist that Ghanikhel was thriving following two years of steady poppy production, with some families able to buy their first car or build houses out of concrete blocks after generations of living in mud-walled huts.
"Before, people were eating spinach, and now they are eating meat," said Safatullah, 28. "We know poppy is harmful and it is against Islam. We are not the enemies of humanity, but we have no factories, or roads, or water for other crops. Everything we have comes from poppy."
"People are very poor here. The smugglers know that and they try to take advantage," said Sardar Wali, 24, a barefoot, sweating farmer who was plowing his newly seeded poppy plot behind a team of oxen. Next to it was a patch of cotton, which Wali calculated would bring in five percent of the income he will earn from his next poppy crop.
The continued spread of poppy has alarmed the Karzai government, which fears it may damage Afghanistan's image with international aid donors, reinforce the power of regional warlords and add to the social problems of addiction and corruption.
This year the government passed a law aimed at curbing drug traffic, money laundering and narcotics abuse, but Nangahar officials said the law is useless without serious enforcement. Some residents suggested the local army commander, who recently built several large houses in Jalalabad, has been profiting from the drug boom.
Gul Karim, the provincial police chief, expressed frustration that his forces do not have license to crack down on opium trading as harshly as Taliban authorities did, and he said the only solution is to bring in foreign troops. But Faridoon Mohmand, the provincial tribal minister, warned that taking drastic action could promote terrorism and allow al Qaeda and Taliban forces to rally the public against the government.
"Growing poppy will not create violence and disorder here," he asserted. "For us it is a traditional crop, and some of our problems cannot be solved without it. The more pressure the government creates to stop it, the higher the price will rise, and the more people will be interested in growing it."
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