Afghan farmlands abloom in poppies
By Charles J. Hanley
March 16, 2002
NOOR MOHAMMED KHAN CHARAI, Afghanistan — Mohammed Gul, tattered shoes planted in the mud, will keep a close watch on his two little acres in the coming weeks, waiting for the buds to bloom. He won't be alone.
Five hundred miles up, racing silently through space, U.S. reconnaissance satellites will be watching, too, camera eyes cocked for the first signs of vivid red, the flowering of opium poppies.
Here on the edge of Afghanistan's Desert of Death and onward east and north across this deeply poor land, the deadly narcotic is again the raw material of life and livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people.
" All my land is in poppy. I've grown it for 30 years, " Mr. Gul said. " Every year except one. "
That one was last year, when the Taliban, the Muslim zealots who ruled most of Afghanistan, banned poppy growing as un-Islamic.
Now the Taliban have been scattered to the harsh Afghan hills, ousted from power in a lightning U.S.-led war, and America and its allies, including the new Afghan regime of Hamid Karzai, have inherited the dilemmas of the land of poppy.
Mr. Gul, who sowed his seeds as he saw the old regime fall, is thankful.
" We hear that this government's a good one, not cruel like the Taliban, " he told a visitor. " They banned our poppy. I don't think this new government will come and tear up our crops. "
The rout of the Taliban is only one reason this poppy farmer is indebted to the United States. It was that rich distant nation, after all, that sent engineers here in the 1950s to build a vast irrigation project that turned the arid wastes green. Today, those canals and gates channel water to countless fields of poppy along the banks of the Helmand, the slow, silty river that snakes through the biggest opium-producing area of the biggest opium-producing country in the world.
On the banks of the far-off Potomac, the challenge of Afghanistan has kept lights burning late in government offices since September 11, not least in the glass-sheathed tower of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in suburban Virginia.
It was a stunning turn of events. From one of the great success stories in decades of drug wars — when the Taliban " just said no " in July 2000 — Afghanistan has reverted overnight to its role as the Iowa of opium, the raw stuff of heroin. Early indications are that this spring's crop will reach the high levels attained before the Taliban edict, drug enforcement officials say.
Across the Potomac from DEA headquarters, at the State Department, specialists are conferring with the British, French and other allies about how to attack the Afghan problem. The Europeans are vitally concerned — it's their addicts who consume the bulk of Afghanistan's heroin.
The British have floated the idea of a straight buyout of spring opium production. That might cost several hundred million dollars. Others stress the need for immediate aid programs steering farmers to alternative crops. The U.N. Drug Control Program is reopening its office in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. The DEA is planning to move staff to the U.S. Embassy there.
" The DEA is hopeful that a law-enforcement presence will be put in place there that is friendly to work with, that will work with the international community to combat drug trafficking, " said DEA spokesman Will Glaspy.
Despite all the talk and action, however, the spring opium is as good as harvested. The current interim regime in Kabul is too weak to stop it.
A few miles from Mr. Gul's village, in the Helmand province center of Lashkar Gah, a dust-blown place of donkey carts and earthen houses, the new local administration takes a pragmatic view.
" This year, we're not able to destroy the crops. If we try to enforce a ban on the farmers, it wouldn't be good for us, " Haji Pir Mohammed, top deputy to Helmand's governor, said in an interview. In muddy lanes nearby, speedy Toyota pickups, suited for long-distance runs across the desert, came and went bearing loads of opium.
Poppy has been cultivated in Afghanistan for centuries, but it wasn't until the wars of the 1980s and 1990s that the red and white flowers began taking over large swaths of prime farmland. Afghan warlords shipped out opium gum to finance their militias.
By 1994, the United Nations' annual survey found poppy growing on 177,000 acres, and Afghanistan was supplying more than 70 percent of the world's opium. The narcotic had become the country's major source of income.
Heroin use worldwide grew steadily as well. The U.N. Drug Control Program now estimates there are 9 million users globally, 3 million of them in Europe — at the end of a processing pipeline that smuggles Afghan opium through the Middle East or the former Soviet Union, and converts it into heroin along the way. The number of ruined lives and overdose deaths goes uncounted.
After the Taliban swept the warlords from power in 1996, the hard-line Islamists opened on-and-off negotiations over opium with the U.N. drug agency. Finally, in July 2000, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar announced the ban on the crop.
Diplomats believe the Taliban, pariahs because of their violations of human rights standards elsewhere, were seeking international respectability and financial aid. They won some of both. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called it " a decision by the Taliban we welcome. "
Washington sent $43 million in emergency aid.
The Taliban may have acted, too, because of the upsurge in addiction in Afghanistan, where users generally smoke opium, rather than inject refined heroin. " Drug Abuse Is Submission To A Gradual Death, " declares a lone sign the Taliban posted at the entrance to their stronghold city of Kandahar.
Last spring, the U.N. agency sent out hundreds of trained workers to inspect more than 10,000 Afghan villages in its annual survey. In mid-2001, it reported that the Taliban edict had been almost totally successful: Opium production was off by 96 percent. The American DEA agreed, relying on satellite imagery. Fear of the Taliban's stern hand had all but rid the countryside of poppy.
Then, last October, Washington began its war on the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, al Qaeda (the Base), and the drug fighters saw the sudden remarkable gains in Afghanistan explode among tons of bombs dropped from American B-52s.
The new Karzai administration declared its own opium ban on Jan. 17, but it was too late. The farmers had already done their fall poppy planting.
Economics dictated it. They could earn 10 times more profit from an acre of opium than from an acre of wheat, and poppies require less water, long term, than other crops — a key consideration going into Afghanistan's fourth year of drought.
Dirt-poor farmers like Mr. Gul are locked into the poppy cycle in another way as well. Drug traffickers advanced loans to many of them for seed and supplies. Only the harvest will free them from the debt.
Foreign-aid organizations, private and governmental, are re-entering Afghanistan with plans to encourage alternative crops — fruit or cotton, for example. But the challenge is daunting.
" There's no alternative crop near the value of poppy, " said Kim Johnston, operations director for Mercy Corps International. In a telephone interview from the aid group's Oregon headquarters, Miss Johnston said more than development aid is needed. " It will work only if there's a simultaneous commitment from the government to support eradication through enforcement. "
But force and eradication are unlikely anytime soon.
In this land of feuding tribes and clans, the new central leadership is too weak to risk alienating ordinary Afghan farmers. Besides, it can't: It has no anti-drug police, in fact no real police force at all. And it relies on the good will of tribal chieftains and militia warlords, many of whom have long profited from the heroin trade.
A long-faced farmer squinted into the gray afternoon light as he took time to answer a visitor's questions.
" Nobody's come yet from the government, " he said. " They're too busy with a hundred other jobs. "
His two young sons went on hurriedly shoveling earth to form the narrow dikes for poppy plots. He was planting very late, and reluctantly, after concluding his family would be ruined if they depended on their money-losing vegetables.
" I know it's wrong. It's bad for human beings. But what can I do? " said the gray-bearded man. Embarrassed, he wouldn't give his name, citing his position — agriculture teacher at a local school.
Across the sluggish Helmand, in " Group Six, " a settlement of 100 families, " 100 percent " of them planted poppy this year, villagers said. The 80-year-old village elder, Haji Ghulam Dastagir, acknowledged the crop was " a bad thing. "