Bumper year for Afghan poppies

Money from the opium trade may diminish US influence over the warlords, and aid Taliban.

Gul Hazrat Bacha has turned his attention from his fields to building a new house for his family - a dream fulfilled by his recent opium poppy crop.

Only two years ago, Mr. Bacha and his four brothers grew wheat - and fell deeper into debt each year. Now, they make 12 times their former income, have paid back lenders, and see a future for the family. "Honestly speaking, whatever I have is because of poppy," says Bacha with a smile. "Money, happiness, and the house ... everything."

Afghan farmers are producing a bumper crop of poppies this year, despite a ban imposed by President Hamid Karzai's government, and just three years after the Taliban clamped down on cultivation.

The resurgence of this plant - used to make heroin - could unravel the relationships between warlords and the US military that have brought a modicum of peace to Afghanistan.

Poppy cultivation could not happen without the knowledge of powerful warlords who still control most of Afghanistan with their loyal militias. Sources say warlords, commanders, and corrupt officials buy opium from the farmers and provide safe passage to drug barons, who smuggle out either raw opium or refined heroin processed in makeshift factories.

Afghan antinarcotics officials estimate that a kilo of heroin in Afghanistan is worth from $5,000 to $20,000, but in the international black market the price soars, from $70,000 to $300,000. The value varies according to quality.

As more poppy cash is believed to be flowing into the coffers of Afghan warlords, American money may buy less influence with the warlords and jeopardize joint operations hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants.

"These powerful warlords are still relying on the dollars of the US, [and are] therefore cooperating in a crackdown on terrorism. But with drug money they will have their own dollars and weapons," says engineer Abdul Ghaus Rasoolzai, head of Eastern Afghanistan's antinarcotics department.

The Taliban connection

Some of the regions hardest hit by regrouping Taliban forces are well known areas for opium cultivation, including Nangarhar in the east, and Uruzgan, Helmand, and Nimroz in the south. The latter two provinces serve as a smuggling route into Pakistan and Iran.

Drug money may be providing the funds needed to keep the Taliban insurgency alive. Sources in the Afghan government's antinarcotics department suggest that Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan collect money from the local drug smugglers for their attacks against US forces.

Such attacks have already scared off international aid workers and hampered US-aligned forces that could otherwise interfere with drug trafficking and create viable alternatives to farmers.

When they were in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban outlawed opium cultivation in 2000, saying that it is banned in Islam. The move was designed to placate international critics of the regime. However, behind the scenes the Taliban military commanders made manifold profits by selling stockpiles as prices skyrocketed.

After the Taliban ouster, Afghan farmers started to grow opium again. In 2002, around 3,400 metric tons of opium was produced in Afghanistan. Present estimates for 2003 suggest production levels might reach close to 4,000 metric tons.

And the Taliban now are encouraging farmers to return to the crop, sanctioning it as a jihad against the West.

"We have been approached by the Taliban clerics urging us to grow more poppy to destroy future generations in America and other Western countries," an Afghan antinarcotics official named Khaure Ghualm Zai quoted a villager as saying.

Another farmer, while announcing his resolve to grow poppy this year onwards, says "It is banned in Islam but we don't use it, just grow it. We will only stop growing once they (the Westerners) stop using it."

The Afghan government also claims that Al Qaeda operatives are helping the drug cartels to traffic heroin to the West.

"It is an unholy alliance," says Mr.Rasoolzai, head of Eastern Afghanistan's antinarcotics department. "Al Qaeda is using drugs as a weapon against America and other Western countries. The weapon of drugs does not make a noise. The victim does not bleed and leaves no trace of the killer."

To combat the poppy crop, officials say that more development is needed.

"If we are to eradicate poppy cultivation, we have to provide [farmers] viable alternatives of employment. Otherwise the farmers will be like toys at the hands of warlords and drug smugglers and poppy will flourish again," saysRasoolzai.

But resources and employment have been slow to arrive to the poor farmers in Batikot and in many other parts of Afghanistan. In their eyes, poppy cultivation is a means to happiness and prosperity.

"Obviously I will grow poppy," says Bacha, speaking of his plans for the next season. "We brothers have decided to buy a land cruiser next year and five new kalashnikovs."

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