Afghan farmers reap lethal crop

To take on heroin producers is to meddle with big business, writes Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online
Jalalabad - You can see them in the Jalalabad bazaar, young men with withered black arms and sunken eyes, the addicts returned from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, still-living witnesses to the effects of heroin. "It's good for the Afghan people here to see them," a Western aid official says coldly. "Now they can see the effect of all those poppy fields they grow - and if they're as Islamic as they claim they are, maybe they'll stop producing opium." The official smiles grimly, then adds: "Or maybe not."

Probably not. Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province is now responsible for 80 per cent of the country's poppy cultivation - it was producing around 1,300 tonnes of dry opium in 1995 - and heroin-processing laboratories have now been transferred from Pakistan to a frontier strip inside Afghanistan, producing hundreds of kilos of heroin a day and fortified with enough anti-aircraft guns and armoured vehicles to withstand a military offensive.

Local government officials in Jalalabad claim to have eradicated 30,000 hectares of opium and hashish fields in the past two years but their efforts - brave enough given the firepower of the drug-producers - seem as hopeless as the world's attempts to find a solution to drug abuse.

Sitting in Engineer Mahmoud's Drug Control and Development Unit office in a back street of Jalalabad, the problem seems simple enough. A map on the wall shows Nangarhar with a rash of red pimples along its eastern edge, a pox of opium fields and laboratories that are targets for Mr Mahmoud's armed commandos. "We have been eradicating hashish fields by force, using our weapons to force the farmers to plough up the land," he says. "We are taking our own bulldozers to plough up some of the poppy fields. We take our guns and rockets with us and the farmers can do nothing to stop our work. Now our shura [council] has called the ulema [religious authorities] to lecture the people on the evils of drug-production, quoting from the Koran to support their words. And for the first time, we have been able to destroy hashish fields without using force."

Mr Mahmoud and his 10-strong staff have been heartened by the United Nations' support for his project. On the open market in Jalalabad, the farmers receive a mere pounds 95 for 7kg of hashish, pounds 170 for 7kg of opium - around the same price they would receive for grain. So the UN is providing wheat seeds for those farmers who have transferred from drug production, on the grounds that they will make the same profits in the Jalalabad markets.

"We would like more help from the United States," Mr Mahmoud says. "I went to Washington recently and the US drugs prevention authorities took me to their new headquarters. You would not believe how big it is. It is half the size of Jalalabad city. And when I went inside, it is very luxurious and has many, many computers. They have all this money there - but none for us who are trying to stop the drug production." Mr Mahmoud's senior staff receive just under pounds 70 a month and his senior assistant, Shamsul Haq, claims that the drugs unit had to buy 4,000kg of maize seed to distribute to farmers last month.

Western humanitarian organisations acknowledge Mr Mahmoud's work but regard any hope of curbing the country's drug production with the deepest pessimism. One of them told his story with a voice rising in anger. "Haji Qadir [governor of Jalalabad] went to the UN drugs people in Islamabad and said: 'Look, I have destroyed 20,000 hectares of opium fields - now you must help me because the people are waiting for your help.' But it was more complicated than this. Farmers who had never grown poppies began to plant them so they could get free maize seed in return for destroying the fields they had just planted. It was calculated by one of my colleagues that the costs would come to $1.3m (pounds 850,000)."

Other aid organisers believe that wheat seeds are assisting poppy production, suspecting that the farmers are rotating their crops between wheat and drugs each season, the opium sold in return for increased payments and weapons which, in the words of one official, were recently travelling in boxes through the Pakistan railway station of Landi Kotal on the Peshawar steam train to the Afghan border.

"Poppy cultivation is an agro-business," he said. "The business dealers for the drug barons have technical advisers who are visiting Nangarhar and other provinces to advise on the crop and the product. They pay in advance. Some are Afghans, some are expatriates, they are turning opium into heroin in newly built factories that even have face masks to protect their workers' health. Some say there is health insurance offered."

How does the world compete with capitalism on so ruthless and illegal a scale? Another European distributing aid in eastern Afghanistan burst into laughter when I asked him the question. "Legalise drugs," he roared. "Legalise the lot. It will be the end of the drug barons. They'll go broke and kill each other. But of course, the world will never accept that. So we'll go on fighting a losing war." It was the grimmest advice to be had in Jalalabad this month.