Afghan opium town suffers hard times after ban on drugs bazaar

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The Independent Online

Until a few months ago Afghanistan's biggest opium bazaar was on the outskirts of a ramshackle village called Ghani Khel, on a lush plain near the Khyber Pass backed by the snow-covered Tora Bora mountains.

Until a few months ago Afghanistan's biggest opium bazaar was on the outskirts of a ramshackle village called Ghani Khel, on a lush plain near the Khyber Pass backed by the snow-covered Tora Bora mountains.

Trade in the grey-brown cakes took place in a row of rickety wooden huts behind the main street. Farmers flocked there with the precious harvest, hard and grey on the outside, gooey and black in the middle, and traders came from Pakistan, Iran or Turkey to find the best-quality source.

Now opium is banned, the farmers have been forced to plant wheat, and Ghani Khel is a boom town that has gone bust. Opium was the only reason for outsiders to ever come here.

The bazaar is a 15-minute bumpy drive from the main road, halfway between the eastern city of Jalalabad and the Pakistan border, in the middle of what were until recently Afghanistan's richest poppy fields. Every spring for the past three years a sea of beautiful white and purple blooms has covered Nangarhar province, even though growing it was technically illegal.

The authorities also turned a blind eye to the throngs of turbaned farmers who headed to the bazaar to haggle with the Arthur Daleys of Afghanistan's opium world, men enriched by years of bumper crops.

A handful of really big players have invested their illicit fortunes in Dubai or Tajikistan, potential bolt-holes if the government ever gets serious about arresting them. Middle- men have built ugly villas in Jalalabad. The farmers have rebuilt villages destroyed in the war, invested in shiny new tractors, or blown the profits on extravagant weddings where tracer fire lights up the sky.

This year, however, the party is over. Furtive, scowling characters still lurk around the bazaar, and it doesn't take long for shady youths to offer opium at an inflated price - £70 for a 200g lump the size of a small orange, looking like a dried, misshapen cowpat.

But pickings are lean. Ghani Khel looks today more like a fly-blown town from a spaghetti western than the Afghan version of Wall Street.

The grim mood of the town's residents matched its depressed appearance, a far cry from the get-rich-quick atmosphere of the past.

"I have 16 members of my family to support and the government will not let me grow poppy," said Hezbullah, who shook with anger as he brandished a sheaf of prescriptions for medicines that he could not afford to buy.

"The Russians destroyed our homes, opium is the only crop we can sell. Without it we will have to head back to the refugee camps in Pakistan where we lived for years."

Another man blamed the American military. "The police would not stop drugs if they were not told to by the Americans," he said. "What can we farmers do against men with guns? And the Americans will bomb us if we resist."

Women in filthy burkhas sit in the dust staring into the distance. Shops are reduced to trading potatoes or cheap Chinese-made cooking utensils. An unemployed army of farmers and traders wander the dusty main street, grousing to anyone who will listen about how the government's ban has put them out of business.

The man chiefly held responsible for their plight is the warlord-turned-police chief Hazrat Ali. Mr Ali was hired by the American military in 2001 to fight the battle of Tora Bora. Mr Ali's family was controversial before that - it has prospered for years in one of Afghanistan's main opium producing areas.

But Western diplomats in Kabul are quietly delighted that the poppy-growing ban has been enforced, the first time anyone has succeeded in stopping opium cultivation since the Taliban managed it, and the first big success for President Hamid Karzai's government.

Mr Ali believes he has brought about a 98 per cent reduction in the province of Nangarhar. Western sources estimate it closer to 70 or 80 per cent, still astounding after the figures last year showed the biggest ever area under poppy cultivation.

If the grip of the drugs industry is to be loosened, consolidating the success is vital. The second-biggest poppy growing province of Helmand has seen only a modest reduction in planting while Badakshan, the third big opium province, is thought to have seen business as usual.