LASHKARGAH, AFGHANISTAN — Come spring, the now frozen fields around Lashkargah in southern Afghanistan will be a blaze of pink and white flowers. By June, another bumper crop of opium will be ready for delivery to heroin laboratories across the border in Pakistan's wild and rugged Baluchistan Province.
Seventeen years of civil war destroyed most of Afghanistan's agricultural infrastructure, but it failed to stem opium growing, which thrives in the lawlessness that prevails throughout much of the country.
Now the ultra-Orthodox Islamic militia, the Taliban, which controls two-thirds of Afghanistan and has banned everything from music tapes to movie halls, has turned a blind eye to the narcotics trade.
Hopes that the Taliban would put opium production high on its list of "un-Islamic" practices have been dashed. While it has cracked down on drug taking, aid workers say that opium production in southern Afghanistan, under Taliban control, increased 10 percent last year and that Taliban leaders have taxed opium farmers to finance the war in the north.
With narcotics-control agencies such as the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) barred from working in Afghanistan, countries in Western Europe and North America are helpless to control the drug flow across the region's porous borders.
As in the case of restarting women's education - which was banned when the Taliban took over - the group's leaders say that the problem of opium production will be dealt with once the war in the north against the forces of the former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, is over.
The 'official' view
"We do not want opium to be grown in Afghanistan," says Taliban's acting foreign minister, Mohammad Ghaus. "But we don't have the resources to provide an alternative for the farmers."
Most of Afghanistan's opium is grown in Helmand Province, a vast tract of desert bisected by the icy waters of the Helmand River, which rises in the distant Hindu Kush Mountains.
The waters of this river were once harnessed by a series of dams built with American aid in the 1970s. Irrigation schemes turned this otherwise barren land into the food bowl of southern Afghanistan.
Farmers turned away from their traditional dependence on opium and grew wheat, fruit, vegetables, and cotton, which sold especially well. By the time of the Soviet invasion in December 1979, Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand Province, was one of Afghanistan's most prosperous cities.
The civil war that followed the Soviet occupation sent thousands of farmers fleeing across the border into Pakistan. With no one left to maintain them, irrigation canals silted up, levies were breached, and pumps broke down. Deadly land mines were strewn across once-fertile fields, and farmhouses were destroyed in the fighting.
Today opium is the only cash crop that will grow in these rocky fields. The plant has proven resistant both to war and drought. The first rains of spring are enough to germinate the opium seeds. Ample sunshine and the insatiable demand for the drug abroad do the rest.
"If I don't grow opium my family and I will starve," says Noor Ullah, a farmer. "The Taliban told us we can grow opium because the war has made food so expensive and we must have money to eat."
An average-sized holding in the broad Helmand River Valley can produce around 10 manns, or approximately 99 pounds of raw opium. Each mann of opium sells for about 3.5 million Afghanis, which in the country's inflation-prone currency is the equivalent of only about $175.
That is still a lot of money in Afghanistan, which has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world. But in New York or London, that same heroin would fetch much more: $100,000.
Despite the lower returns, Mahmaud Gule, an opium farmer who drives taxis between Kandahar and Lashkargah while his fields lie fallow, says he would switch back to cotton if the incentive were there.
"We have heard about drug addiction and the other problems," Mr. Gule says. "The Taliban told us that if there is a central government in Afghanistan recognized by other countries, we will get help and then we will change back to cotton."
According to Bill Bergquist, head of the Kandahar branch of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan, the Taliban group has indicated some flexility in dealing with the drug problem and has promised the UNDCP will be allowed to return.
Global commitment needed
"The international community has to renew its commitment to Afghanistan," says Mr. Bergquist, stressing the need for more funds for reconstruction and drug-control programs rather than just emergency humanitarian aid.
"If we don't, we have lost not only our bargaining tool [but] this country will return to the dark ages for the next 100 years," he says.
Clearly, the only hope for Afghanistan is that the peace and unity that has eluded the country for nearly two decades return. But with little progress being made to bring the Taliban and its opponents to the negotiating table and a costly armed struggle continuing, the first steps toward full reconstruction and a stemming of the drug trade appear to be a long way off.