Taliban, poverty fueling Afghan opium boom
Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan farmer Abdul Ghani looks over his field carpeted in small, green plants and knows this crop will feed his family.
His field is covered in opium poppies, now only leaves about 4 inches high and yet to flower.
Ghani explains his simple logic that makes him part of an illicit industry that the government says is funding terrorism and threatens to destroy the country.
"We're very poor people. To feed our families we grow poppies," said the weather-beaten 50-year-old with a gray beard and turban. His two sons, one 11, the other 12, stood by as they took a break from weeding.
Ghani said he grew wheat and vegetables such as tomatoes, but got a pittance from those crops compared with the opium he sold to traffickers, who appeared on motorbikes and in trucks at harvest time.
"We can't support our families with what we get for our wheat but we can with the income from poppies."
Ghani's field is at the epicenter of Afghanistan's drugs crisis, in the flat Helmand river valley in the southern province of the same name.
For hundreds of years networks of canals brought water to fields and orchards, producing rich crops, but the irrigation system has collapsed over years of conflict.
Now only opium brings wealth.
Taliban insurgents encourage opium growing and roam the mountains that rise from the valley in the north, and across vast tracts of lawless desert that stretch south to the Pakistani border, officials say.
Ensuring security so anti-drug efforts can go ahead in the province that produces a quarter of Afghan opium will be a main task of 3,300 British troops who will soon be based here.
They will have their work cut out.
"The Taliban have promised the farmers to protect their poppy fields," provincial governor Mohammad Daoud told a small group of reporters this week. "They have assured the farmers they will not allow the government forces for eradication."
"First security must be in place, there must be no Taliban there, then the eradication campaign will start."
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium. The heroin refined from it floods city streets across the world.
Production has ballooned since the Taliban, who banned opium at the end of their rule, were ousted in 2001.
The drug gangs have taken advantage of insecurity, weak or non-existent policing, rampant corruption and a reluctance to go after powerful figures involved in drugs but supporting the U.S-led war against the Taliban.
With international pressure mounting to tackle drugs, efforts to eradicate the $2.8 billion a year industry have begun early this season to allow farmers time to replant a legal crop.
Teams have been plowing poppy fields under but only a fraction, at most 10 percent countrywide, can be destroyed, experts say.
The United States and Britain, which fund and oversee drug efforts with the government, also stress getting tough with traffickers and providing farmers with alternatives.
For now at least, they agree with President Hamid Karzai who has ruled out aerial spraying of herbicide over poppy fields.
Karzai's more gentle approach has had results.
Farmers planted more than a fifth less opium last year, largely because of his efforts to shame them and appeals that they stop, coupled with the threat and fear of eradication.
But the U.N. anti-drugs office says production is up again this season in almost half of provinces, including Helmand.
RAISING THE RISK
U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann recalls his visit to Helmand in the 1960s -- when his father was the envoy -- and the United States helped rehabilitate the irrigation system that turned the valley green.
Now he's back and the United States is again helping Helmand fix its canals as part of long-term efforts to fight drugs and the Taliban.
"There is more linkage here in Helmand between the drug trade and the Taliban and terrorism than there is anywhere else in Afghanistan," Neumann told reporters during a visit to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, this week.
Long-term, the answer to drugs was alternative livelihoods, meaning the restoration of the rural economy -- the canals, roads and electricity.
In the meantime, eradication and action against those involved had to convince farmers of the risks, he said.
"You have to raise the risk and the cost of growing poppy even as you provide alternatives," he said.
Farmer Ghani is not risking much: just the money and time spent on his field, if authorities destroy it.
He'd stop growing opium if he got help, he said.
"This isn't something we can eat and we're not opium addicts. If the government helps us, we won't grow it."By Yousuf Azimy