Record poppy crop makes mockery of Afghanistan's 'jihad' on opium

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Blossoms of ripe opium poppies blanket the valleys of Nangarhar province - colourful proof that another war is not working: Afghanistan's "jihad" against opium production.

President Hamid Karzai's promise that 25 per cent of the opium harvest in Afghanistan would be destroyed is no closer to being realised. Last year, the harvest provided three quarters of the world's heroin, and 95 per cent of Europe's. This year a record harvest is expected. Robert Charles, a narcotics expert from the US State Department, says that 300,000 acres of opium poppies will be harvested, 30 per cent more than the previous highest. Already 10 million people worldwide are addicted to Afghan opiates.

At a conference in Berlin this month, US Secretary of State Colin Powell linked the aid package of $2.3bn pledged to Afghanistan for 2004-05 to the destruction of the opium harvest. It was then that Mr Karzai called on farmers to fight opium production with the same commitment as they would a holy war.

"This is not a real policy," says Haji Din Mohammad, the governor of Nangarhar. "We have only told farmers at the end of the season. It is only now being decided whose fields will be destroyed."

Anger at the destruction of the harvest has led to demonstrations by farmers, including a 3,000-strong street protest in Kama district in Nangarhar last week. The fact that the central government did not work out which plots were to be destroyed earlier has passed control of the destruction to local authorities.

District authorities are responsible for overseeing the destruction of the local harvest. Police chiefs in Behsood district and Kama district have been ordered to destroy 600 acres of opium. The farmer is paid $2,500 for 12kg of opium that each acre of poppies provides. An acre of wheat is worth only $120. Each district of 50 villages faces losing more than $1.5m.

The local authorities do not have the funds to replace the massive revenues from opium farming. Hazrat Ali, the military commander of Nangarhar, admits that they are not doing their job. "Our local administration is lazy and corrupt when destroying opium," he says. "They can be paid off." Bribes of about $100 per half acre are being paid to prevent the destruction of fields, according to reports from Kandahar.

It is only the big landlords who can afford to pay off the police chiefs in this way. All local authorities in Nangarhar province talk of a negotiation with the local elders, the richest landlords. Abdul Rahib, the police chief in Behsood district, says they control the selection of fields to be destroyed. Haji Ajif Khan, District Mayor of Kama, adds: "Some people have 100 or 200 acres of land, and we take money from these people." He claims that it is then distributed to poorer farmers.

When the big landlords who own hundreds of acres of poppies are targeted, the fields have been carefully selected. In Behsood district only half an acre of local landlord Haji Jilal Gul's massive crop was being cut down. It is possible to tell if an opium bud can produce opium or not by the smell of its seeds. Ripe opium buds smell fresh, like wet grass; buds that have gone off have a sickly sweet smell. The field destroyed would have been unable to produce a significant crop. The field next to it, owned by the same man, was ripe and being harvested.

Local worthies use other methods to counter the opium jihad. Many fields targeted had already yielded up to 50 per cent of their opium. Every day the buds are cut with four small slits, the next day or the day after the opium that seeps out is collected and four more slits cut. A small opium bud can be harvested over three days, a large opium bud over eight days.

In Shergar village in Kama the opium buds of a local elder which were being destroyed had been harvested for at least four days. The opium that has been harvested from these fields is not destroyed. Neither are the stockpiles of opium that have been built up over the years, and can still be used to make heroin 10 years after they have been harvested.

One government did cut through the influence of local landlords and the notoriously corrupt Afghan civil service and radically reduce the opium harvest - the Taliban. Between 1999 and 2001 the opium harvest fell from 225,000 acres to 20,000 acres, according to UN estimates. But the executions carried out by the Taliban are not acceptable in the new Afghanistan.

Even imprisonment is considered a draconian measure, even though Hazrat Ali believes it would be the best way to stop the harvest.

This is a dramatic transition from the policy of compensation used in 2002 by the new government, which Hazrat Ali supported, offering $350 per acre destroyed.

With $28bn pledged to Afghanistan for development over the next few years at the Berlin conference, Haji Din Mohammad hopes that development projects and loans for new businesses will provide an alternative income for the country's 1.7 million poppy farmers.

But he presents no plan for displacing the million-dollar opium producers who control the local destruction. "This is a tribal area, you have to be careful when you're doing anything," he says. "Otherwise there will be conflict, security problems, between the government and the people, between the government and the tribes."