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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public