Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Opium flourishes once more

Under the Taliban opium production was severely curtailed, but now the country is the source of three-fourths of the world's supply of the drug

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHORABAK, AFGHANISTAN

Across Afghanistan, opium cultivation is surging. Officials are predicting that land under poppy cultivation will rise by 30 percent or more this year, possibly yielding a record crop. Sharecroppers in Badakshan province, Afghanistan, who have planted poppies for the first time this year.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Rahmatullah trudged toward his village with his donkey, as men across Afghanistan have done for centuries. But in this century, men in Jeeps and on motorbikes were passing him by.

So this year the 37-year-old father of three, speaking in front of the village mosque and its mullah, said he would join his neighbors in growing poppies to harvest Afghanistan's most lucrative cash crop, opium.

His hierarchy of dreams is all sketched out. First he will pay off some US$1,200 in debt. Then he will build a house to replace the one room he shares with his family, then buy cows for plowing.

"Then, if I get richer, I'll buy a car," he finished, eyes agleam.

Across Afghanistan, opium cultivation is surging, defying all efforts of the Afghan government and international officials to stop it. Officials are predicting that land under poppy cultivation will rise by 30 percent or more this year, possibly yielding a record crop.

Last year the country produced almost 4,000 tonnes -- three-fourths of the world's opium -- in 28 of its 32 provinces. The trade generated US$1 billion for farmers and US$1.3 billion for traffickers, according to the UN, which is more than half of Afghanistan's national income.

The expansion of the trade presents a gathering threat to the new democratic government and a severe challenge to the US and international forces here. As opium production underpins ever more of Afghanistan's economic life, from new business growth to home construction, officials fear that the economic and political risks of uprooting it will only increase.

Anti-drug war

But US officials, reluctant to open a new front in the campaign against terror or engage in an anti-drug war here, are also conflicted about how aggressively to combat the trade.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, said in a recent interview that with Afghanistan's elections approaching -- they are now scheduled for September -- "the politics of it may require not to go too harsh" with eradication.

To the chagrin of Afghan and international officials, the narcotics industry has far outpaced the legal reconstruction of Afghanistan, with a capitalist intensity they would otherwise applaud.

It has lured private capital for investment and created a transparent free-market system. With their satellite phones, farmers in distant Kandahar, a rival source of poppies in the south, know almost in real time about changing weather conditions here in this northeastern province, Badakshan, and adjust prices accordingly.

`The company'

Landowners and traffickers offer credits to farmers willing to grow poppies. Trafficking has linked Afghanistan to the global economy. Poppies even brought the first real industry here, a heroin processing laboratory that villagers estimated had operated for six months to a year before it was destroyed by Afghan and British forces in January. One local referred to it as "the company."

Afghanistan's opium production peaked under the Taliban, who partly financed their movement from the profits. But in July 2000 the Taliban banned opium cultivation, to the distress of many farmers, and the price soared.

Many experts say the ban was simply meant to drive the price up, amounting to an effective cornering of the market for the Taliban and others who had amassed stockpiles.

British and Afghan officials are now counting on mullahs to spread the word that it is haram, or forbidden, under Islam to cultivate opiates. But interviews in many villages found that such preachings were ignored. Other mullahs were growing it themselves.

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