Afghan poppy farmers expect record opium crop and the Taliban will reap the rewards

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The Independent Online

Two hours' drive from the Afghan city of Kandahar, "the perfect storm" is about to break in the fields of Helmand province.

Here, in the place where British troops are to spend the next three years, a combination of factors have conspired to produce what is probably the biggest opium harvest in the history of a province that, last year, produced more than 20 per cent of the world's heroin on its own.

A law and order vacuum has allowed an increasingly well-organised drugs cartel, a corrupt local government and resurgent Taliban to structure the poppy cultivation of the province as never before. That has combined with fine growing conditions this year to produce what, if these were wine producers, might be considered a memorable vintage. And, country-wide it is now clear the poppy harvest will be close to record levels again. It is a dispiriting blow for the international counter-narcotics effort as 86 per cent of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan.

Among a gently swaying sea of poppy heads near the town of Grishk, Haji Shadi Khan, 50, squatted wearily on his haunches and drained a proffered bottle of water in a single draught.

The harvest began last week and it is brutally labour intensive and skilled work. Every one of thousands of poppy heads must be lightly scored with a four- bladed razor and then the opium "milk" that oozes forth scraped off and collected.

Depending on the quality of the crop, the operation must be repeated between three and seven times. Behind him in the field, his sons Gul Ahmed, 10 and Juma Jan, seven, were hard at work. Small boys have the advantage of working at the same height as the poppy heads.

Though he is only a paid labourer and does not own the land he is working, Haji Shadi expects to make about $1,800 (£1,000). That represents one-third of the value of the crop on a plot that is four-fifths of a hectare.

In April, a UN rapid assessment that sought only to estimate broad trends in poppy cultivation offered an alarming picture of likely production when it suggested cultivation was down in only three of Afghanistan's 36 provinces and was increasing or strongly increasing in 13.

That left the British-led counter-narcotics effort relying on a massive eradication effort to make an inroad into the Afghan poppy crop. However, in the south at least, efforts at eradication appear to have largely failed.

Haji Shadi chuckled merrily as he described how the provincial governor's eradication team arrived at his fields, enjoyed a convivial cup of tea and then left again with a wink, $50 richer. $50 is a month's wages for most government employees.

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 hectares of poppy are being cultivated in Helmand this year, at least a 50 per cent increase on last year. The governor of Helmand, Engineer Mohammed Daoud, claims to have eradicated 7,000 hectares of poppy this year. But even that modest claim is disputed.

"The real figure is about 1,000 hectares," one Western source said. "The district elders just followed the eradication teams around handing out wads of money. Sometimes the teams just drove a single tractor through the field and announced that they had eradicated it."

Another Western source described the shambolic progress of a central government eradication team sent to Helmand.

Backed by American mercenaries from the Dyncorp corporation, the force suffered endless delays as Afghan drivers refused to travel to dangerous areas; a problem which was compounded when a number of Afghan police were killed by a roadside bomb clearly intended to send a warning to the force. The force's eventual impact was negligible. The central eradication force is said to cost a total of $175m this year.

Such is the glut of opium that is about to flow onto the market that the price has plummeted to less than $100 a kilogram, 50 per cent lower than it was a year ago. The relationship between price and availability is not exact but the drop is broadly indicative of anticipated market forces.

Western officials admit to intense frustration in a war where so many Afghan officials are a part of the narco-criminal problem. Engineer Daoud is widely respected as an honest man but, last summer, almost nine tons of opium were discovered in the offices of his predecessor Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who claimed he had seized them and was on the point of handing them in.

After intense British and American pressure to have him ousted, Mr Akhundzada was given a seat in the new upper house of the Afghan parliament.

In his office in Kandahar, the province's director of drugs control, Gul Mohammad Shukran, shifted uncomfortably as The Independent ran through a list of well known millionaire drug smugglers in the province. "If I answer your questions I will be dead within three days," he said, showing us to the door.

Meanwhile, a campaign of Taliban intimidation and assassination is targeting government officials working across the south.

In Helmand it has been what one Western source called "a methodical slaughter". Four out of 12 district police chiefs have been killed in six months, further undermining the effort to establish some sort of order.

The smugglers and the Taliban were increasingly close, with the Islamic fighters suspending their operations during the poppy harvest to ensure it is safely out of the way before the Taliban's promised campaign of summer violence. The Taliban have a vested interest as they take a tax on opium produced in the region, which could be worth tens of millions of dollars this year.

In the face of so much bad news, the authorities point to some small beacons of hope. In Kandahar province, there was some effective eradication under the new governor, Asadullah Khalid.

In Nangahar province a remarkable - and many thought unsustainable - 96 per cent drop in poppy cultivation was achieved last year. However, opium production was expected to bounce back this year after farmers complained that promised foreign aid to help them grow alternative crops never materialised.

The bounce-back has occurred but not as much as many officials had feared.

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