Afghan opium trade grows
It accounts for more
than half of the national income
By Amy Waldman; The New York Times: April 10, 2004
SHORABAK Afghanistan - Rahmatullah nudged toward his village
with his donkey, as men across Afghanistan have done for centuries. Out
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 Afghanistans most lucrative cash crop,
His hierarchy of dreams is all sketched out First he will pay
offsome $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
Across Afghanistan, opium cultivation is surging, defying all
efforts of the Afghan government and international officials to stop
it. Officials predict land under poppy cultivation ill rise by 30
percent or more this year, possibly yielding a record crop.
Last year the country
produced almost 4,000 tons - three-fourths of the world's opium
- in 28 of its 32 provinces. The trade generated
$1billion for farmers and $1.3 billion for traffickers,
according to the United Nations, more than half of Afghanistan's
The expansion of the trade presents a threat to the new
government and a severe challenge to the U.S. 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
officials, reluctant to open a new front in the campaign against terror
or engage in an anti-drug war here, are conflicted about how
aggressively to fight the trade.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. 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 investment and created a transparent
free-market system. With Thuraya satellite phones, farmers in distant
Kandahar, a rival source of poppies in the south, know almost in real
time about changing weather here in this northeastern province,
Badakshan, and adjust prices accordingly
Landowners and traffickers offer credits to farmers willing to
grow poppies. Poppies even brought the first real industry to Shorabak,
a heroin-processing laboratory that villagers said operated for six
months to a year before Afghan and British forces destroyed it 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 stockpiles.
The growth in opium production is among the gravest threats
facing President Hamid Karzai's administration. It has corrupted the
government from bottom to top, including governors and Cabinet
officials, according to senior Afghan and U.S. officials. They say
opium is financing regional warlords and local militias, the Taliban
and the fighters loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and possibly al-Qaida.
U.N. and British officials are urging the U.S.led military
alliance to take on laboratories and traffickers.
The Americans, who will put
$73 million toward anti-drug operations in Afghanistan this year,
say such an approach will simply send the laboratories over the boarder
to places such as Pakistan’s tribal areas, while doing nothing to stop
the surge in new cultivation.
Ideally, officials say, eradication efforts would focus on
wealthy landowners growing poppy, not poor farmers. But many struggling
farmers have become sharecroppers on vast fields of the rich.
price of opium stubbornly stuck at more than $135 a pound, no legal
crop can compete.
“We see in
Daryan” – a district thick in poppies – “ other people getting rich,”
said Rahmatullah, who like many Afghans uses one name. “Their life is better. We
want to make our life better too.”
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