|COMBATING POPPY PRODUCTION|
The United Nations, Western governments and most relief organizations agree that despite their efforts, this year's top-selling crop in Afghanistan will once again be poppy. Afghan growers will produce at least 4,000 tons - a bumper crop - of the flowering plant that is the base ingredient for heroin and morphine.
This year's harvest could also break 1999's all-time record of over 5,000 tons. According to the United Nations, narcotics sales now account for 20 percent of Afghanistan's GDP and the Christian Science Monitor, citing Afghan officials, reported that a kilo of heroin fetches $70,000 to $300,000 in international markets.
According to observers in the country, such runaway production and high profits, fueled by demand in the international drug market, could saddle an already struggling Afghan government with an overwhelming level of crime and corruption.
"The drug trade in Afghanistan is growing more pervasive, powerful and organized, its corrupting reach extending to all aspects of society according to dozens of interviews with international and Afghan anti-narcotics workers, police, poppy farmers, government officials and their critics," Washington Post correspondent April Witt reported from the village of Jata in July.
Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani has said drug trafficking is a "threat to democracy" and said in an interview with the Post's Witt that "the liquid funds from drugs, in the absence of solid institutions, could corrupt voting practices and turn them into a nightmare instead of a realization of the public will."
Control and security in outlying rural provinces is a particular concern for government officials and aid organizations.
"Powerful regional governors and warlords blithely ignore the capital's demands for taxes," London's The Times newspaper reported in June. "Opium poppies are still planted, sometimes in fields never before used for illegal drug crops. The joke in Kabul is that the remit of the interim president, Hamid Karzai, extends little further than his own office."
In June, the London-based Independent newspaper, citing local Afghans, reported that "bags of heroin are used in lieu of currency in some parts of the lawless countryside, where -- more than two years after the Taliban was toppled -- the U.S.-backed interim government has failed to establish control."
The provincial warlords oversee production in the areas they control, taxing farmers' profits and supplying them with weapons and vehicles. Afghanistan's meager police force has been unable to compete with the ever-wealthier warlords.
"Day by day it's growing more organized," a provincial police commander told the Washington Post in July. "If it keeps going like this we won't be able to stop it, ever."
In July, Newsweek reported that the United States Drug Enforcement Administration has just two agents in Kabul, a post considered more dangerous than the Colombian capital, Bogota, where the DEA has a much larger operation.
Although most drug-trafficking experts agree the situation is dire, many Afghans see no other viable way to make a living. They cite the lack of other economic opportunities and high demand as the main reason for so much poppy cultivation.
"There is no immediate solution to the problem," Serge Verniau, the Afghanistan representative for the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, told the International Herald Tribune in July. "Poppy production offers income and employment opportunities. It will take time to build credible alternatives."
One set of poppy farming brothers told the Christian Science Monitor in July that they now make 12 times their former income from farming wheat, a crop hard to cultivate in the country's arid climate. The average estimated family income in Afghanistan is $300; for families that farm poppy the average is $6,500.
Drug traffickers pay top prices for poppy sap, which they usually ship to labs located in the border regions near Pakistan and Iran. Local labs, however, are reportedly springing up inside Afghanistan, nearer to the poppy fields. In the labs the sap is used to produce heroin, which is then shipped to markets around the world.
Despite a ban on poppy cultivation and internationally sponsored eradication programs, agricultural monitors have seen an explosion in production since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban government. The British government, particularly concerned about the heroin trade on its own soil, promised that the war to oust the Taliban would provide an opportunity to stem the tide of illegal drugs. Experts have said the opposite appears to have happened.
In 2000 the Taliban, facing international pressure to curb production, banned poppy growth and labeled it anathema to the values of Islam. The move severely curtailed the practice.
When the successful suppression of cultivation caused a spike in global heroin prices, Taliban officials reportedly made high profits by selling leftover poppy stockpiles they controlled.
During the period of rebuilding that has followed the fall of the Taliban, the regional warlords, some of whom also serve in the central government, have reportedly organized lucrative cultivation, processing and distribution operations.
"The big morphine base labs have mostly vanished from Helmand
and Nangarhar provinces [in southern Afghanistan] replaced small, mobile
labs -- basically makeshift setups of buckets, glassware and chemicals
in the back of farmers' houses operated by itinerant chemists,"
Newsweek reported in July.
"Of course it bothers me," Mohammad Sarwar, 49, a teacher and authority at his local mosque, told the Washington Post in July. "But we have to cultivate it in the current situation where we've had to borrow money, sell household items and don't have enough to eat. This is an emergency."
Other farmers view poppy farming as a legitimate means of income that sates an evil Western appetite. As long as people in London and New York buy heroin, they say, poppy will be grown in Afghanistan's provinces.
"It is banned in Islam but we don't use it, just grow it," one farmer told the Christian Science Monitor. "We will only stop growing once they stop using it."
Radical Islamists, sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida, have reportedly even encouraged the drug trade as a way to damage Western society.
"Immoral Western culture destroys the minds of our children, so it's only just that we export opium and heroin to destroy Western youths," a smuggler and former member of the Taliban told Newsweek.
Already facing financial and religious opposition, recent suppression and eradication efforts aimed at slowing poppy production have had disappointing results.
"There is broad agreement among anti-drug workers, aid agencies and poppy farmers that efforts last year to stop cultivation by paying farmers to eradicate their poppy fields only encouraged more to grow it this year in the hope that they would be paid again," the Washington Post reported in July. "And because aid groups have made food more plentiful, some farmers are feeding their families donated wheat, leaving their fields free for planting poppy."
Experts agree that only costly crop-substitution programs, coupled with serious law-enforcement and eradication efforts, will have an effect on cultivation. The new government, however, is struggling financially and international efforts to impose such programs have been limited.
--By Jason Manning, Online NewsHour