Afghanistan's Poppy Conundrum

LASHKAR GAH, Helmand, Afghanistan, March 15, 2007 (ENS) - The start was impressive enough - television footage showed distraught farmers and tough looking police. Tractors made determined runs over two foot high opium poppy plants. Afghan government officials issued sweeping declarations that this time, there would be no compromise.

After last year's failed eradication campaign and the ensuing record breaking harvest, 2007 was supposed to be the year Afghanistan finally moved away from its headlong race to become a narco-state.

The results, however, look all too familiar. Within days, village councils had come to agreements with police on the price they would pay for their poppy crop to be saved. Farmers pooled resources to buy off the eradicators.

With the harvest just weeks away, Helmand's 2007 yield may make even last year's bumper crop pale by comparison.

Afghanistan produces close to 90 percent of the world's opium, the raw material from which heroin is made. Helmand is the undisputed centre of the poppy industry, last year accounting for 42 percent of the country's record harvest.

"I have not even seen the eradication teams," said one farmer in Nadali district, where the campaign kicked off in mid-February. "I gave money – 500 afghani (US$10) per jerib (2,000 square metres). The whole village got together and gave the money to the elders, and it was they who approached the police."

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A Helmand farmer in his poppy field (Photo courtesy UNDOC)
The farmer, who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from retaliation by government authorities, added, "Those who pay money don't have to worry. That is as sure as the sun shines. Now that I know how to protect my poppy, I will grow even more next year. I will keep on growing it until the government fulfils its promises to the people."

Others tell similar tales, although the amounts paid in bribes vary. One farmer said that his family was paying close to 3,000 afghani per jerib.

Helmand province's Deputy Governor Haji Pir Mohammad voiced the official sense of optimism about this year's effort to destroy the crop.

"We will eradicate 50 percent of the poppy in Helmand province this year," he said, saying that by March 3, three weeks from the start of operations, an area of 10,000 jeribs, or 2,000 hectares had been cleared.

But it is a race against time. According to officials in the provincial agriculture department, Helmand has more than 100,000 hectares of land planted with opium poppy this year. Before harvesting begins in early April, the present eradication rate of 600 to 700 hectares per week suggests that the outcome will only be a fraction of the 50 percent target cited by the deputy governor.

Security is also an issue. In districts under Taliban control, eradication teams have little chance of success.

"No has destroyed my poppy and no one will be able to destroy it," said Hamidullah, a farmer in Musa Qala, which fell to the Taliban in early February. "We are not paying the Taliban, but they tell us, ‘As long as we are here, no one can destroy your poppy.'"

"This year we have grown more than ever."

The central government has sent out 600 police from the capital Kabul to work alongside 230 local forces to destroy poppy fields. Officials say the deployment of forces from outside Helmand should counter the ubiquitous corruption that sank previous eradication efforts.

But if local reports are anything to go by, this year will be no different from last.

"They could send 600,000 police and it wouldn't help," sighed one local government official, who did not want to be named.

Even the deputy governor acknowledged that the well greased wheels of graft were operating smoothly.

"We have received some complaints," said Pir Mohammad. "And we plan to send inspectors out to arrest those who are taking money. But we haven't been able to catch anyone yet."

Fazeli Ahmad Sherzad, chief of counter-narcotics for Helmand, described the urgent need to achieve results in the eradication campaign, which is being funded by Afghanistan's interior ministry.

Patterson

Anne Patterson is U.S. assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Dept.)
"We have more than 100 tractors and 50 motorcycles," he said. "We have to do something. If we do not eradicate poppy, it will have a strong negative effect on the economy and on the military. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson has said that poppy benefits the Taliban and others who are against the government. They spend the money fighting NATO and Afghan government forces."

It has now commonly accepted that the Taliban are using the proceeds of the drug trade to finance their efforts to unseat the Afghan government and drive foreign forces out of the country. But there is little hard evidence to support the claim.

Farmers, landowners and even drug traffickers say that they are not being forced to contribute to the insurgents' war chest.

"I see the Taliban walking around, but they don't ask us to give them money," said Janaan, a 28 year old farmer in the Taliban-dominated district of Washir.

Traffickers also dismiss the Taliban connection. "We don't give money to the Taliban, and we don't ask them for protection." said one drug smuggler, who did not give his name. "We have our own armed people to escort the drugs out of the country."

The Taliban themselves deny the charge vigorously.

"We are not telling people to grow poppy" insisted one high-ranking Taliban commander in Helmand province, who would not give his name. "We would never tell the people to grow anything that is haram [forbidden by Islam]. And if farmers give us money, it is because they support the jihad."

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Itinerant harvesters in a Helmand poppy field (Photo courtesy UNDOC)
The commander also denied that the Taliban were spearheading attacks on the poppy eradication teams. In the first few days of this year's eradication campaign, several armed raids were mounted on police teams in Nadali and one vehicle was bombed, killing two policemen.

"It is the people who are doing that - we have no role in the eradication campaign," insisted the commander. "We do plant bombs, and we do fight the government. That has nothing to do with poppy – we are fighting jihad."

Whether or not the Taliban are profiting economically from the eradication campaign, they seem to be benefiting from the anger it engenders among those whose livelihoods are at stake. Given Helmand's prominence as a poppy growing center, this seems to encompass a huge swath of the population.

"If the government destroys our poppy, I will join the Taliban," said the farmer from Nadali.

Janaan, the farmer from Washir, was equally emphatic, saying, "I will join the Taliban, I will pay money, I will do whatever it takes to protect my poppy."

Some farmers have been temporarily flooding their fields to keep out the tractors. When the eradication teams leave, they drain the water and continue growing their crop.

Much of the opium is processed in Afghanistan, and then smuggled out of the country as heroin or morphine. The main trafficking routes are Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, and from there to Europe. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, close to 90 percent of the heroin sold in the United Kingdom originates in Afghanistan. If this year's harvest is as high as is predicted, almost half of that will come from Helmand alone.

Even if they claim not to be funding the Taliban, the traffickers in Helmand seem to be getting on well with the insurgents.

"I am a small-scale smuggler," said one man, Rahmatullah. "I just buy poppy from farmers and sell it to bigger drug traffickers."

Rahmatullah said he was not forced to give money to the Taliban when he operated in areas that they controlled.

"We don't have a problem with the Taliban," he said. "If we give them money, we give by choice, like the zakat [tithe prescribed by Islam]. People support the Taliban. Why shouldn't they?"

Another man, involved in the illicit trade on a larger scale, told a similar story.

"We have no problems in the areas under Taliban control," he said. "May Allah bless them."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. IWPR has recently begun a journalism training program in Helmand province. This story was compiled from reports written by the trainees.}