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Afghans try opium-free economy

Taliban turns the world's largest supplier of opium into a wheat grower.

By Scott Baldauf Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2001


Last year, Mahgul and her family cultivated one acre of wheat and five acres of opium poppy, just as farmers on this land have done for generations.

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The fields of white, pink, and purple opium flowers grow so well here that Afghanistan had become the world's biggest supplier of the narcotic base.

As much as 80 percent of the opium used by heroin addicts from Amsterdam to Haight Ashbury could be traced to Afghan farmers like Mahgul - until now.

Today, her family's entire plot - and all the farmland for miles around - is covered in lush green wheat, on the order of the ruling Taliban government. Once the annual source of 3,500 tons of opium, Afghanistan has reportedly nearly eradicated all poppy under cultivation in the 2001 growing season.

The implication for opium supplies - and heroin prices - globally can't be overstated. The ban's impact on the income of Afghans is just starting to be felt.

While Mahgul knows her family will make no profits from growing grain instead of opium, she supports the Taliban's total ban on opium this year. "We were poor before the ban, and we will be poor after the ban," she says, standing among the knee-high stalks. "But at least we will have something to eat."

This move by the ruling Taliban is made even more astounding, given that it is facing a five-year civil war with the Northern Alliance of Mujahideen fighters, a two-year drought, no international drug-control funding, no international recognition, and no money of its own to compensate farmers. It is hard to say what has motivated the Islamist movement to push for an outright ban at this time. Local opium prices have already risen 10-fold since last spring. And for this year at least, there's a negative effect on thousands of farmers who have relied on opium as a livelihood and a way of life.

"We did a great job, and now it is time for the world community to respond," says Maulvi Amir Muhammad Haqqani, an Islamic scholar and head of the Taliban's drug control group in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a major opium hub. "This is an urgent situation for our farmers. They are looking for something else to meet their needs, like fertilizer and seeds to start over."

To be sure, there is much skepticism that the Taliban's decree is anything more than a mirage to gain international recognition and aid. Some diplomats say that there are enough stockpiles of opium within Afghanistan to supply the world for more than a year. In its latest report on the world's top drug-producing states, the US State Department proclaimed Afghanistan to be "the world's largest opium producer after another year of major increases." The report noted that a previous promise to reduce poppy cultivation by one-third fell far short.

But even this report noted that it had no direct evidence that the Taliban's ban on opium was not being followed this year. "While there have been some credible reports of scattered enforcement actions," the State Department report said, "it will not be possible to assess the extent of any eradication or reduction in cultivation until mid-2001."

Bernard Frahi also had his doubts. As regional director for the United Nations Drug Control Program, he had been involved in negotiations with the Taliban for years, and had seen only minor results. But now that UNDCP observers have surveyed some 85 percent of the country's known opium-growing areas, he is confident that Afghanistan's opium ban is legitimate.

"The first year, in 2000, they only decreased opium by 10 percent, and we said it's not enough. Now they've banned it outright. What are we going to say to that?" asks Mr. Frahi in Islamabad, Pakistan. "We have to recognize it as a major result."

Opium has long been a constant in this part of the world, but it was only in the past 23 years of war that Afghanistan became such a major supplier of the world's illicit drugs. After the Soviet invasion of 1979, warlords and Islamic mujahideen grew massive plots of opium to help fund their war effort. Once the Soviets were ousted in 1989, a sophisticated network of opium cultivation, distribution, and marketing was well in place, and seemingly impossible to remove.