Faced with starvation, Afghans harvest a deadly crop

By Patrick Cockburn
Thursday 14 February 2002 01:00

Tiny green opium poppies, just beginning to sprout and looking like very young dandelions, carpet the single acre of land owned by Amir Jan, a farmer in the impoverished village of Kalawal, north of Kandahar. When harvested in four months, they will produce 50kg (110lb) of raw opium.

Amir Jan, an intelligent 35-year-old man with a broad black beard, took the decision to plant the poppies two months ago when he heard the thunder of American bombs landing on Taliban houses and bases. He said: "I thought the Taliban would fall and they would not be able to stop us growing the poppies any more."

All across Afghanistan – the source of 80 per cent of Western Europe's heroin, which is made from opium – farmers have been making the same decision as Amir Jan. In Jalalabad province, east of Kabul, they have even been uprooting the cauliflowers from their fields and replacing them with poppy seeds.

The Taliban were too demonised to earn much international credit for their campaign against producing opium. But the farmers of Kalawal, a mud-brown settlement of 200 families, say that Mullah Omar's decree against cultivating the crop in July 2000 was highly effective.

Faiz Mohammed, from the village, said: "The Taliban had complete control and could stop us growing the poppies, but in the near future we think the new government is not strong enough to prevent us."

The farmers quickly pointed out that they did not have a lot of choice. Afghanistan is in the grip of the worst drought in half a century. The fields around Kalawal are parched. "It is the only way for us to survive," said Amir Jan, pointing to the bed of a dried-up stream. "We make two or three times the money from the poppies as we do from any other crop and they use less water. Everybody in the village is in debt because the harvests have failed in the last few years."

None of this is good news for the interim Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, desperate to get its hands on some of the $4.5bn (£3.5bn) in aid pledged by the international community for reconstruction. But part of the aid is conditional on acting against the production and sale of narcotics.

The most recent report on the issue, by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, concluded that between 30 and 50 per cent of the Afghan population was "involved in some aspect of cultivation, production or trafficking".

In Kabul, Mir Najibullah Shams, the secretary general of the State High Commission for Drug Control, declared that "until the problems and difficulties of the Afghan farmers are solved, they will never stop cultivating drugs".

Ali is a small cog in the drug-smuggling network of five years' experience. Met by chance in Kabul, this haggard-looking man in his late twenties, who has his top front teeth made from gold, said: "People have got used to making large amounts of money out of drugs. Nothing will stop them."

Ali's own account of his smuggling career, mostly in northern Afghanistan in Badakhshan, the traditional stronghold of the now triumphant Northern Alliance, which captured Kabul last November, underlines the degree to which those in authority are involved in the narcotics business.

Asked how his gang moved drugs within Afghanistan, he replied: "We didn't. We usually got military commanders to move them for us." Police and army in neighbouring countries have also been corrupted. Ali recalled smuggling 300kg of heroin, worth $8,000 (£5,600) a kilo, north across the Panj river into Tajikistan. "We blew up with air the skins of slaughtered cows. We roped them seven or eight together to form a raft. When we had four of these, we crossed with 15 armed guards on the first two rafts. On the other side we had arranged with a senior military officer for somebody to shine a torch as a signal when it was safe to go on."

Northern Alliance commanders were greedier than the Taliban, said Ali, sometimes seizing heroin and only selling it back for large sums. Ali added that many heroin laboratories were now in Badakhshan, in Northern Alliance territory, whereas previously they had mostly been around Jalalabad. Here 10kg of opium is used to produce one kilo of heroin.

The new government in Kabul has vowed to act against the narcotic trade. But, ominously for the future, one of the Northern Alliance's first acts on capturing Kabul was to evict Mr Shams and his drug commission from their offices.

In their hearts the new rulers of Afghanistan know there is little they can do about drugs. The profits are too big, people too poor and the government too weak to stop production and trafficking.

Mullah Omar had been able to enforce his so-called Decree 19, which outlawed growing opium, in 2000 by sending orders to the provincial governors. The new government in Kabul is too weak to do this. Outside the capital it controls very little. In southern Afghanistan, newly appointed governors are struggling to assert their authority. They are unlikely to give priority to destroying the crop on which so many of their people rely.

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