Another Year of Drug War, and the Poppy Crop Flourishes
DA BOLAN DASHT, Afghanistan— Already the green shoots of poppy plants are showing in the fields of Helmand, the top opium producing province in Afghanistan, and this year everyone — government officials, farmers and aid workers alike — says there will be another bumper crop.
"Last year 40 percent of land was used for poppy cultivation," said Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, head of the anti-narcotics department in Helmand. "This year it is up to 80 percent in places."
"Three months ago I came and told these farmers not to grow poppy, but look, it's all poppy," he added, gesturing at the bright green crop now showing across the acres between the mud-walled farmhouses.
The farmers in this village just 20 minutes' drive from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, did not seem the least bit embarrassed to be caught growing the illegal crop, which is processed into opium and heroin. One old farmer, Hajji Habibullah, even weeded his poppy crop while chatting with the anti-drug chief. "We have to grow it," he said. "We need the money."
Another farmer, Ahmad Jan, 62, agreed. He has planted 8 of his 10 acres with poppy. "We will not abandon poppy cultivation until the end of this world," he said. "If the government does not give us anything first, we will not stop."
The Afghan government and its international backers are suffering from a serious lack of credibility when it comes to curbing poppy cultivation here. Despite the strictures of the government and the police, and personal pleas from President Hamid Karzai for farmers not to grow it, they have carried on anyway.
Poppy growing is so uncontrolled that despite millions of aid dollars spent to train anti-drug forces and to help farmers grow other crops, Afghanistan is showing no sign of leaving its position as the world's biggest producer of opium. It accounts for almost three-quarters of global opium production.
Virtually all of the heroin sold in Russia and 75 percent of that sold in Europe originates in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Helmand Province, in Afghanistan's southwest, alone produces 40 percent of the country's poppy harvest.
The farmers in this village say they have little choice. They live on land reclaimed from the desert. Nothing grows in the salty earth except the hardy poppy plant. They have to pump water for irrigation from a well nearly 100 yards deep, they say, and only high-priced opium makes the effort cost-effective. They would lose money if they tried to grow wheat or melons, they said.
"If they destroy the poppy we will have to leave the country," said another farmer, Pahlawan, 24, who uses only one name. "What else can we do in the desert?"
But the farmers seem fairly confident that will not happen. "Even now they think the government will not destroy the poppy," Mr. Sherzad, the anti-drug chief, said of the farmers. "We even took people to Kabul for meetings to tell them, but still they think we will not cut it down."
Not without reason. Eradication last year was something of a joke, nearly all agree. The police brought in tractors to plow up the poppy fields, but much of it grew back and the farmers still managed to harvest a crop, Mr. Sherzad said.
The police can also be bribed to leave part of the crop, said the villagers, out of the hearing of the police. "We have money, so we are not scared," Mr. Pahlawan said.
They watched the neighboring provinces of Kandahar and Farah get away with increased cultivation last year, and even clashes with the eradication force from Kabul, trained by the United States contractor DynCorp, without repercussions.
"In Kandahar last year there was no pressure to stop growing poppy," said Steve Shaulis, who runs the Central Asia Development Group, which helps farmers develop alternative crops. "This is the rebound effect."
Two farmers from the Nawa district south of Lashkar Gah, where the police did destroy the poppy crop last year, said that this year the farmers were hedging in every way they could. Some are growing double the usual amount of poppy because they are calculating that half of the crop may be eradicated. Others are growing smaller amounts behind walled gardens to see if they can get away with it, said one of the farmers, Jamal Khan, 24.
The Taliban, too, are promoting the growing, as a source of income for their operations. They have spread leaflets ordering farmers to grow poppy.
In Helmand, the Taliban have forged an alliance with drug smugglers, providing protection for drug convoys and mounting attacks to keep the government away and the poppy flourishing, the new governor of Helmand, Muhammad Daud, said.
The threat of Taliban reprisals may be just another convenient excuse farmers have thought up, said Col. Muhammad Ayub, the deputy police chief of the province.
But there is little doubt that the Taliban and the drug smugglers have a strong influence in the villages. One agricultural worker employed on a program to develop alternative crops said he continued to grow poppy on some of his land, otherwise the other villagers would accuse him of working for the government.
The one bright spot is the work of agricultural aid organizations, which are quietly persuading farmers to plant fruit trees and vineyards on some of their land, drawing at least a percentage of cultivated land away from poppy and providing work in rural areas to ease widespread dependency on opium as the main cash earner.
But those efforts alone will not change things, said Muhammad Sardar, who runs a rural recovery program for Mercy Corps. "It is government policy and more local government involvement that is needed," he said.