SHORABAK, Afghanistan -- Rahmatullah trudged toward his village with his donkey, as men across Afghanistan have done for centuries. But in this century, men in Jeeps and on motorbikes were passing him by.
So this year Rahmatullah, a 37-year-old father of three, speaking
in front of the village mosque and its mullah, said he would
join his neighbors in growing poppies to harvest Afghanistan's
most lucrative cash crop, opium.
"Then, if I get richer, I'll buy a car," he finished, eyes agleam.
Across Afghanistan, opium cultivation is surging, defying all efforts of the Afghan government and international officials to stop it. Officials are predicting that land under poppy cultivation will rise by 30 percent or more this year, possibly yielding a record crop. Last year the country produced almost 4,000 tons -- three-fourths of the world's opium -- in 28 of its 32 provinces. The trade generated $1 billion for farmers and $1.3 billion for traffickers, according to the United Nations, more than half of Afghanistan's national income.
The expansion of the trade presents a gathering threat to the new democratic government and a severe challenge to the American and international forces here. But American officials, reluctant to open a new front in the campaign against terror or engage in an antidrug war here, are conflicted about how aggressively to combat it.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, said in a recent interview that with Afghanistan's elections approaching -- they are now scheduled for September -- "the politics of it may require not to go too harsh" with eradication.
But as opium production underpins ever more of Afghanistan's economic life, from new business growth to home construction, officials also fear that the economic and political risks of uprooting it will only increase. To the chagrin of Afghan and international officials, the narcotics industry has far outpaced the legal reconstruction of Afghanistan, with a capitalist intensity they would otherwise applaud.
It has lured private capital for investment and created a free-market system. With Thuraya satellite phones, farmers in distant Kandahar, a rival source of poppy in the south, know almost in real time about changing weather conditions here in this northeastern province, Badakshan, and adjust prices accordingly.
Landowners and traffickers offer credit to farmers willing to grow poppy. Trafficking has linked Afghanistan to the global economy. It even brought the first real industry here, a heroin processing laboratory that villagers estimated had operated for six months to a year before it was destroyed by Afghan and British forces in January. One local referred to it as "the company."
Afghanistan's opium production peaked under the Taliban, who partly financed their movement from the profits. But in July 2000 the Taliban banned opium cultivation, to the distress of many farmers, and the price soared.
Many experts say the ban was simply meant to drive the price up, amounting to an effective cornering of the market for the Taliban and others who had amassed stockpiles.
British and Afghan officials are now counting on mullahs to spread the word that it is haram, or forbidden, under Islam to cultivate opiates. But interviews in many villages found that such preachings were ignored. Other mullahs were growing it themselves.
For many Afghans, poppy has allowed for piety. A United Nations report on Afghanistan's opium economy noted that 85 percent of opium traders surveyed had performed the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is incumbent on every Muslim but too costly for most Afghans.
The growth in opium production is among the gravest threats facing the administration of President Hamid Karzai. It has corrupted the government from bottom to top, including governors and cabinet officials, according to senior Afghan and American officials.
American and Afghan officials say opium is financing warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, local militias, the Taliban and possibly Al Qaeda.
Even as some American officials remain wary of fighting the spread of opium too aggressively, others have criticized the British, who have taken the lead against the drug trade here, for being too soft and slow on eradicating poppy crops. A British plan in 2002 to compensate farmers for eradication is widely seen to have acted as a "perverse incentive" to grow, as one official put it.
Citing the link between narcotics and terrorism, United Nations and British officials, meanwhile, are urging the American-led military alliance to take on laboratories and traffickers. The Americans, who will put $73 million toward antidrug operations in Afghanistan this year, say such an approach will simply send the laboratories over the border to places like Pakistan's tribal areas, while doing nothing to stop the surge in new cultivation.
But an American official also pointed out that many of those in the drug trade "are the guys who helped us liberate this place in 2001" from the Taliban and on whom the American military continues to rely in its hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
"The military just does not want to go down that road," he said.
Ideally, officials say, eradication efforts would focus on wealthy landowners growing poppy, not poor farmers. But many struggling farmers have become sharecroppers on the vast fields of the rich and would share the punishment, just as they share the profit.
The American forces have so far limited their intervention against traffickers and laboratories to encounters as they come across them in the course of other military action.
But Lt. Gen. David Barno, the commander of the American-led forces, said in March that his troops were finding growing connections between extremism and drugs, which could augur a more assertive approach to the drug trade.
Afghan commando units, with British support, have recently raided as many as 30 laboratories in Nangarhar Province, often meeting well-armed resistance. An American A-10 attack plane shelled "the company" -- the processing laboratory near here -- when the British and Afghan commandos raided that site.
As the effort to treat the laboratories as targets increases, officials expect violence to rise. American officials say raids on laboratories have already provoked conflict among drug traffickers convinced that their competitors informed on them.
Recent fighting in the Argo district prompted the removal of the governor and police chief after officials in Kabul, the capital, concluded that the two men were working for rival traffickers.
The opium trade is transforming life in Argo, a remote district in Badakshan where a cover of green poppies climbs up steep, desolate hills. The street that runs through the bazaar is mud, but the $200 television sets in the stalls glitter.
In the last four years, said Abdul Rahman, 18, poppy provided his family with a motorbike, a television, an electric generator, a VCR and a CD player -- and a new house to hold it all. Last year his family accumulated $4,000 in poppy profits.
Badakshan, here in the north, lays bare narcotics' distorting
economic effects. Poppy cultivation has driven up dowry prices
and raised the cost of labor so much that wheat was not harvested
Criminal calculation is partly driving the spread of the drug trade. Residents of Pashtun-inhabited regions long known for poppy growing have turned into outlaw Johnny Appleseeds, crossing the country with loans, expertise and seedpods to generate more opium for heroin laboratories, American and United Nations officials and Afghan farmers say.
But a calculus of human longing is also at work. With the price of opium stubbornly stuck at more than $135 a pound, no legal crop can compete.
"We see in Daryan" -- a district thick with poppy -- "other people getting rich," said Rahmatullah, who like many Afghans uses one name. "Their life is better. We want to make our life better too."
Today, growing poppies is less about survival -- as it was during a drought in this country -- than about upward mobility. It is about a new consumer class and an even larger class of aspirants to it.
"Those who had a donkey have a motorbike," said Ahmed Shah, a young farmer in Badakshan. "Those who had a motorbike have a car. Those who have one wife want a second one."
In Dari, the local language, there is a saying: if your donkey lags behind, cut his ear off. It reflects, Afghans say, the central role of envy in their culture -- and in cultivation.
The Shomali Plain, just north of Kabul, is full of first-time growers, many of them mujahedeen soldiers. A young commander, Mayel, denied that he was growing poppy, then whispered in earshot of a translator that he was too ashamed to admit that he was.
"We see the people in the south and east getting rich," he told a confidant with righteous logic. "Why shouldn't we cultivate too?"
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