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, opium.
  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 agleam.
  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 national income.
  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 increase.
  But U.S. 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.
  With the 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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