Afghan Poppies Bloom: The War-Ravaged, Opium-Dependent Country Lives in Fear of a New Drug War

Article excerpt

The rotund landlord, Mr. Attock, sits on the carpeted floor of his little office and living quarters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. From this one room he publishes a slight and sporadic weekly or sometimes monthly newspaper, but like most people around here, his real business is farming opium poppy. Mr. Attock's land lies about an hour and a half away in the countryside of Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, not too far from Tora Bora.

"My dear, everyone grows poppy. Even me," says Mr. Attock in slightly awkward English as he leans over to grab my leg, again. Mr. Attock is a bundle of physical and intellectual energy, not all of it well focused. "My dear, you see. Listen. My dear, wheat is worthless. Everyone grows poppy. We will go to my village and you will see."

The next day we tour the village where Mr. Attock owns or manages a farm (it's not entirely clear who actually owns the establishment, but he is in charge). Nangarhar is one of Afghanistan's top three drug-producing provinces. The surrounding fields rotate between corn and poppies. Mr. Attock says he has almost 100 people living and working here as tenant farmers and laborers.

For the past three years, growing poppy in Afghanistan, as Mr. Attock and his tenants do, has been a relatively risk-free and open business. The Taliban had imposed a ruthlessly successful ban on poppy cultivation in 2000; more than 90 percent of cultivation stopped. But since the US invasion in 2001, eradication efforts have been minimal and ineffective and production has again soared.

Globally, Afghanistan's opium business is estimated to be worth more than $30 billion a year, with the vast majority of that cash being captured by players in other countries. One Western counternarcotics official estimated that poppy production increased by 64 percent in 2004. Afghanistan now produces an estimated 87 percent of the world's opium, most of which becomes heroin and morphine. Income from poppy and its associated processing and trafficking are said to contribute $2.8 billion annually to the Afghan economy, a sum equal to 60 percent of the country's legitimate GDP. About a quarter of this money ends up in the hands of common farmers; the rest goes to traffickers. UN researchers believe that 2.3 million of Afghanistan's 20-25 million people are directly involved in poppy cultivation, with many more working in processing, trafficking, moneylending, laundering and other associated activities. The warlords who run this country tax both farmers and traffickers alike.

The British, who are part of the international coalition now occupying Afghanistan, have been in charge of establishing a Counter Narcotics Directorate in Kabul. Its efforts have not been aggressive, and until recently the Americans have openly avoided the issue of poppy cultivation, preferring to focus instead on hunting down the Taliban and Al Qaeda and training the new Afghan National Army.

But after three years of ignoring poppy cultivation and heroin production, the United States has suddenly changed course. In mid-November Washington pledged $780 million toward Afghanistan's war on drugs. If a rigorous campaign against poppy actually materializes, it could radically destabilize the relative calm that now obtains in much of Afghanistan.

Already there is trouble brewing in Nangarhar, where next year's crop is just starting to sprout. Farmers report low-flying planes spraying poison on their fields. Doctors in the area say they've seen a sudden jump in respiratory illness and skin rashes, while veterinarians are seeing sickened livestock. In a harbinger of what a real war on drugs might bring, one farmer in Nangarhar whose son had been poisoned by the spraying told a local journalist, "If my son dies, I will join the Taliban, and I will kill as many Americans as I can find."

Nangarhar's provincial governor, a former mujahedeen commander named Haji Din Mohammed, has said there is "no doubt that an aerial spray has taken place. …