Poppies bloom in Afghan fields, again

This week, the UN reported that Kabul's opium ban has failed.

Ghulam Khan reaches into his cloth sack and takes out an earthy brown lump that, at least officially, he wasn't supposed to have grown.

It is raw opium, about half a pound of it – worth about $100, or several months' salary for a typical Afghan. It was grown in a hidden field far from the prying eyes of the then-ruling Taliban government, which almost totally eradicated opium from Afghanistan last year.

But this year is a different story. Like most opium farmers in this lush valley, Mr. Khan didn't even attempt to hide his poppy crop. Khan assumed that local officials, faced with resurgent Al Qaeda terrorists and crushing poverty, would put poppy eradication low on their list of problems. He was right.

By most accounts, the antidrug policies of Afghanistan's new government appear to be in a shambles. This week, a spokesman for the United Nations in Kabul admitted that the government's ban on opium had failed so far.

It's bad news for President Hamid Karzai, who pledged to eradicate opium as effectively as the Taliban. But for Afghan farmers, who supply three-quarters of the world's opium – most of which is refined into heroin and sold in European markets – Mr. Karzai's more moderate government has been a boon for business.

Many provinces, such as Konar, have no drug-control agency to enforce the ban. The drug is so profitable that most farmers turn up their noses at eradication incentives from the government, and local police can be bribed to look the other way when truckfuls of opium pass by.

Even Mother Nature is cooperating, in the form of adequate rainfall. "It was a very good year," says Ghulam Hazrat, an opium farmer here in Asadabad, capital of Konar. "We made good money, so much that we couldn't have made from 10 years of planting wheat or other crops."

The result has been the worst possible scenario for international drug-control officials: a flood of opium on world markets. Because of oversupply, prices for raw opium have dropped from about $350 per pound during the Taliban to about half that amount this year. The Afghan government can offer few incentives, economic or otherwise, to stop the narcotics trade.

"I'm sure all the farmers will sow poppies in the next season. It's the only way to earn money," says Haji Ali Rahman, acting governor of Konar, seated in the dappled shade of an oak tree. "The only business here is smuggling, either drugs or timber or terrorists. I'm sure we will try to persuade people to grow something else, but we can't force them. People will resist us."

The governor's secretary, Hazrata Jan, chimes in. "The problem in Konar is that it is a mountainous area, and there is not enough land to cultivate. So the terrain is good for poppies, nothing else."

Konar has the additional burden of fighting a drug war without a drug-control agency. Instead, the state's agriculture ministry has offered $1,625 per acre to farmers who eradicate their poppy crops. Some farmers admit they accepted the money but continued to grow their crops, earning $20,000 per acre, or destroyed just a few crops to appease officials.

Local police and border security officials say they have been more successful, confiscating opium found in trucks along Konar's rugged roads. But much of the opium is smuggled out by foot, along unpatrolled trails into Pakistan. Every night in Asadabad, Afghan men wait for nightfall with 5- and 10-kilo sacks full of opium on their backs. By morning, they will probably reach Pakistan undetected.

"If I tell you that we have 100 percent success, especially with narcotics, I would be lying," says Wazir Sadiq, deputy chief of checkpoints for the Konar Border Security Force. "There are hundreds of smaller trails for men and animals, and we don't have manpower to check all those."

Naimatullah Rasoli, a landowner with several tenant farmers who sowed poppies this year, says that any farmer willing to pay a bribe can get his opium through an Afghan border checkpoint and to the markets of Pakistan.

"Who has told you they are stopping the opium?" Mr. Rasoli asks incredulously. "They are there to help us. They are our border security force, and so robbers can't steal from us because they protect us. We are thankful to them, but then, we pay them for this service."

Under the Taliban, smuggling routes headed north into the Republic of Tajikistan, and from there to heroin labs in Turkey and Russia. But now, Afghan farmers and officials agree, most of the opium is being refined in labs in Pakistan.

As in many opium-growing areas in Afghanistan, Konar has no addicts. Some people use opium as a medicine, but few can afford to use it recreationally. "We are poor people, we cannot smoke it," says Ghulam Hazrat, a poppy farmer. "The rich people who want a luxurious life, they can smoke it."

Many poppy farmers say they know that Islam forbids the use of intoxicating substances. But most say they have no problem growing it and sending it abroad.

"We need the money, and they need the drugs," laughs Rasoli, the landowner. "It's a very good business."

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