Forming a pouch for seeds by lifting the front of his shirt, farmer Fazal Mahmad dips in his earth-soiled fingers and scatters golden wheat seeds across a newly tilled plot.
"If you honestly ask me, opium is a dirty business. My heart won't let me do it," he says. The look on his suntanned face underscores his growing reluctance to harvest poppy plants.
"Most [farmers] don't like it, but often they have no choice. Tell the world that if they help us find alternatives, there will be no more poppies grown here," Mr. Mahmad says.
Farmers such as Mahmad are beginning to make a dent in the huge production of drugs: The United Nations estimates that opium production more than doubled in Afghanistan last year and now accounts for 75 percent of global output.
The UN Drug Control Program has been working in Afghanistan to provide farmers such as Mahmad with alternatives. His improved wheat seed, for example, was a gift from the UNDCP. And his village is one of three UN "target" districts that have received other incentives, such as new roads.
There's little consensus on the reasons for the sharp rise in opium production. Critics say it's part of a cynical policy by the ruling Islamic Taliban movement to flood unfriendly neighbors and the West with opium derivatives like heroin, and also to finance its side of the civil war.
But UN drug-control officials in Afghanistan say planting poppies is left to individual farmers and a function of local economics. The Taliban itself, they add, has begun to take steps to curb the trade - including an edict issued to farmers by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar that the next poppy crop must be cut by one-third.
Despite the widely held view that poppy production is lucrative, UN officials say that only smugglers and traders rake in profits - not farmers, because the crop is so labor intensive.
"We [in the West] get caught up in the fact that these are drugs, but you can't isolate opium from local livelihood strategies," says David Mansfield, a British UNDCP narcotics expert based in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. "Opium is a low-risk crop in a high-risk environment - you can always sell it. But if it really has the highest return, why isn't everyone growing it?"
Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, hardly any opium was grown here. Then irrigation networks were destroyed, and, unlike wheat, opium requires little water.
Though tolerated as a cash crop, the official Taliban view is that opium is an "intoxicant" forbidden by Islamic teaching. But smugglers and mafia groups provide generous incentives, like easy credit, to cash-strapped farmers.
Local Taliban mullahs take 10 percent of the opium yield in tax, as they do with every other crop. Afghans say that proceeds from the trade help oil the Taliban war machine.
Still, UN and Afghan officials alike point to several Taliban steps. Last February, for example, 34 heroin processing labs were shut down. In May, to keep a Taliban-UN agreement about cutting output 20 percent in the three UN target districts, the Taliban destroyed nearly 1,000 acres of poppy fields, worth at least $500,000. This year in those target districts, the Taliban has agreed to another 50 percent cutback.
Further evidence of resolve may be in Kandahar, the southern city near the heaviest poppy-growing areas, where the Taliban has encouraged a UN-funded drug-control campaign.
Signs warn of the "menace" opium: "Drug [sic] is the biggest evil of society," reads one. Volleyballs and T-shirts are imprinted with antidrug messages.
"We would like to burn the whole production, to end cultivation," says Mullah Nurallah Akhund, head of the Kandahar drug unit. "But the people are very poor, and there is no substitute for that crop."
But critics dismiss such deeds as Taliban window dressing, while the militia reaps the fiscal fruits of drug trafficking. Elsewhere, Afghans and Western officials familiar with Taliban efforts give them some credit.
"Day by day, the farmers realize that cultivating poppy requires lots of money and work, and the real benefit goes to traders - not to them," says Syed Abdul Manan Hamidi, an Afghan UNDCP official in Kandahar. "Now they are changing their thinking. Farmers come every day, and say: 'If you want me to grow something else, help me.' "
Despite Taliban steps to curb drugs, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a November report, noted his "alarm" at the sharp rise in opium production that he linked to "terrorism, arms smuggling, and other illicit activities."
The White House last February stated that "some" local authorities are "substantially" involved in the drug trade - a view confirmed by local Afghans.
And after the US fired scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles against alleged terrorist training bases in August 1998, in retaliation to the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, some Taliban members boasted that with drugs, "we are sending bombs and rockets back."
The Afghan opium production has also been a nuisance to its neighbors. Iran has for several years been waging an all-out war against convoys of smugglers and has lost hundreds of security people in gun battles.
But in Afghanistan, a meager budget is short changing UN efforts to fight opium production. The UNDCP budget of $16 million for four years is a fraction of the $215 million total in aid given to Afghanistan last year.
By contrast, the US spent $300 million in the same period to finance Colombia's efforts to fight cocaine production, and President Clinton this week requested an additional $1.3 billion for the next two years. Some UN officials argue that a larger investment here could sharply reduce opium traffic.
Now the opium price has gone down, and tighter Pakistani border controls to curb wheat smuggling have made the local wheat price soar, along with the number of farmers like Mahmad who are planting it.
"It is a myth that the Taliban has a policy of flooding drugs on the world market," says Claude Drouot, head of the UN's Afghan pilot projects. The poppy destruction "means the authorities are willing to take this seriously."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society