Where every farmer grows opium because they would be 'fools' to grow anything else

Sowab Khan claims he has planted no opium this year. Onions and wheat are all that will be sprouting in his fields after the Kabul government issued a ban, he insisted yesterday, although a teacher in a nearby school said every farmer in the district grows poppy because they would be fools to grow anything else.

For dirt-poor farmers, opium brings 10 times the price of wheat. And they have never had it so good. Three years after the fall of the Taliban, the crop demonised by the West is flourishing in the new Afghanistan it has forged. This year, 1,300 square kilometres of poppies were growing, an all-time high.

Many fear bloodshed and increased instability if the drugs war becomes a shooting war, as looks almost inevitable. In Kabul, it is increasingly obvious that drugs money is taking over the city and rebuilding it. Construction sites where fake marble mansions are sprouting and roads are clogged with fleets of expensive four-wheel-drive Land Cruisers are testimony to the profits of a trade spawning epic corruption eating at the new Afghanistan from the inside.

The involvement of government officials, police officers and warlords making vast profits is discussed by diplomats and drugs experts in private. In public, none of the key players have been named.

High-profile raids are promised by interdiction teams such as Force 333, the British Army-trained Swat team which reportedly wiped out 50 heroin laboratories this year. Yet they have not arrested even one of the known big players.

An Afghan aid worker in Jalalabad was scathing. "A ban on cultivation will just mean prices go much higher, and that will make money for warlords who hold big stockpiles. People say one of the local officials in Nangarahar Province has 700 tons of opium. These are guys who used to fight the Taliban for the Americans; now they are making big money out of opium. Nobody wants this business in Afghanistan. But will the government go after the big players who create a market and run the trade or will they go after the farmers who are trying to survive?"

Aid workers are also concerned about the shape of the new drugs war. Dave Mather, from AfghanAid, said farmers should be given more help to reduce their dependency on growing opium. "Nobody wants to live in a narco-state but if we saw a similar commitment to dealing with people at the top as with the powerless opium poppy farmer, a lot of people would have more faith in a war on drugs."

Many of the prisoners inside Pul-e-Charki jail near Kabul are in for drugs offences. But they are small-time smugglers and dealers. One inmate, Kochi, who has been held for four months and says he is innocent, told the BBC: "From where I'm seeing it, these drugs barons have connections with the government and that's why they're never arrested. I think if the government took it seriously they could arrest the big guys rather than teasing small people like me."

Although dealers and smugglers are likely targets for Western soldiers, the risk is high that 2.3 million farmers like Sowab Khan and their families who depend on poppy for livelihoods may become collateral damage. Eradication, the solution Kabul's government and its Western backers favour, threatens to beggar many farmers

As their fields are destroyed, the price of warlords' hoarded opium is sure to increase. In Jalalabad, in the past two months, just talk of eradication has pushed the price up from $70 (£38) a kilo to $400, profits made by dealers not farmers. Alternative livelihoods, such as planting different crops, are widely touted by Western politicians including the Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell, who insisted yesterday that British-led anti-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan are on the right track.

Nobody has found an alternative crop Afghan farmers will plant, because they know that with no roads to take crops to market there is nothing else they can grow that will pay for their childrens' clothes or repairs to their homes. To the farmer, the prospect of losing his only cash crop in Afghanistan's looming drugs war threatens his family with starvation. "We will have to leave again and go to Pakistan to a refugee camp, like we did when the Russians were here," Sowab Khan said.

Many farmers such as Mr Khan in Rohdat district, near Jalalabad in the east of Afghanistan, have already borrowed heavily from moneylenders to plant opium. Now they face financial disaster as massive eradication is promised to slay the dragon of the opium trade before it consumes the new democracy George Bush promised Afghans when he toppled the Taliban three years ago.

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