Travelling through Afghanistan at this time of year, you would be hard pressed to believe it. Last week as I crossed Takher province, field after field of the delicate pink flowers were in full bloom, their deadly sap being lanced from the long-stemmed green bulbs by an army of farmers.
Mahmoud Yusef is typical of many. A genial elderly man with long, grey sideburns and beard, and wearing a woollen bobble hat, he more resembles the cartoon image of Santa’s little helper than the cultivator and salesman of the opium resin that contributes to Afghanistan’s renewed claim to fame as the world’s number-one heroin producer.
“This is only my first year, I’ve never grown poppy before,” he assures me as his fingers nimbly draw the wooden lancing tool quickly across the bulb. For now, just a trickle of brown, sticky sap oozes out. Once dried in a day or two, however, it will be scraped into buckets, ready to be sold in the bazaar to middlemen and smugglers.
Asked how much money he gets for this first yield, Mahmoud is cagey.
“I’m only a poor man, I don’t even own this land,” he insists.
He says that for about five kilograms of opium, he gets 4000 to 5000 Afghanis, about £65. And no, he is not sure where the opium ends up or what it is used for.
Afghanistan might be heading for its first free and fair elections, according to the United States, but its drug trade is growing so quickly that some fear the country could become a narco-state ruled by drugs barons, not the government.
The 2004 White House National Drug Control Strategy reports that after a two-year lapse, Afghanistan is again “the world’s largest cultivator and producer” of opium and heroin. The province of Helmand alone is said to account for 75% of that output. In 2003 Afghan crops were more than double the 2002 crop, and this year’s yield is expected to be even higher.
“Just as the Bush administration's Iraqi mission has been damaged by the scandal of prisoner abuse and other failures,” the US anti-terror policy in Afghanistan “has been undercut by the rebirth of the Afghan poppy, the main ingredient in heroin”, says Robert Weiner, a former spokesman for the United States Office of National Drug Policy and the US House Narcotics Committee.He adds: “While the administration has made inroads into eradicating Colombian coca fields and is attacking Colombia’s heroin as well, it has dangerously ignored Afghanistan’s poppy problem.”
Many Afghan local government politicians are equally bemused by the mixed messages coming from the central government, and from religious leaders.
In some eastern provinces – where poppy cultivation is well established – it is claimed that Friday prayer leaders have been telling worshippers that it’s legal to grow opium, but not legal to use it.
Many say that such confusion is nothing new, and stems from the likes of past policies of the British government, which is leading international efforts to combat Afghan drugs. Initially, it tried offering farmers money to destroy their poppy crops. But as word spread, many grew the crop deliberately, expecting the British cash.
“When it did not come, they harvested the opium, so it made things far worse,” says General Daud, the commander of the militia force known as the 6th Corps, and the real power in one of the big producing areas of Kunduz and Takher provinces.
The confusion about Afghan government policy continues.
It has decreed that 25% of the poppy crop should be eradicated or cut down. But Daud says many farmers have interpreted that to mean the other 75% is legal.
Weiner says: “Some of the worst culprits in this illicit trade have even been our closest allies, the members of the Northern Alliance – the opposition to the Taliban with whom we worked to retake the nation.
“While they were helping US forces weed out the Taliban, it seems that they were doing some gardening of their own too.”
The question most people are asking now is how, with thousands of US troops on the ground, there has been a failure to control if not eradicate opium cultivation.
Many observers in Kabul say that given the approaching election, the reappearance of the opium trade is hardly surprising.
As one UN source put it: “The US needs [Afghanistan president Hamid] Karzai, Karzai needs the warlords, and the warlords need opium to finance themselves, otherwise they get troublesome. It’s simply a case of expediency. What would you do with an election looming?”
Perhaps even more worrying is a UN report suggesting that the problem will get worse, with two out of every three Afghan farmers planning to increase their poppy crop in the next year or so.
While this might be Mahmoud Yusef’s first year as a poppy farmer, it is unlikely to be his last.
David Pratt’s film report can be seen on STV’s Seven Days at noon today
13 June 2004