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Bittersweet Harvest: Afghanistan's New War

The poppy capsule which is harvested, Afghanistan, 2 August 2004. As soon as the capsule is lanced the heroin sap starts to emerge. The botanical name for opium poppy is 'Papaver somniferum'. According to historians it was Genghis Khan, the 13th century M
The poppy capsule, Afghanistan, 2 August 2004 (IRIN)

“90% of the drugs being sold on the streets of London comes from Afghanistan; 75% of the global production of heroin comes from Afghanistan. This is by far the largest heroin producing nation in the world.”

“It’s a curse. It’s a beautiful flower; it’s the flower of death. For the addicts at the extreme end of the drug scale, and the farmers. It is indeed the threat which could undo many of the accomplishments of the recent past – the constitution, the move towards elections and everything else if indeed the problem is not brought under control.”


“War raged for 23 years but so long as it did not affect the international community they took no interest. But now they are aware that if they do not address the opium problem from the start it will have an extremely negative impact on them and end up costing huge amounts of money to stop.”

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In 1979 Afghanistan became one of the last battlegrounds of the cold war when Soviet troops marched south across its border.

US financed mujahideen groups rose up against the puppet communist government and after a 10-year guerrilla war, saw off the invaders.

But victory failed to deliver peace as the mujahideen squabbled over the spoils of power. And with the superpowers gone, the world forgot about Afghanistan and its people.

Until September 2001 - when Al Qaeda terrorists, many of whom had received training in Afghanistan, launched attacks on New York and Washington.

The world was stunned – while their back was turned, a group of fundamentalist religious students known as the Taliban had conquered most of the country and set Afghanistan on the path of pariah state.

In response, a US-led coalition of states allied to Afghan opposition groups attacked the Taliban and quickly dislodged them from power.

But the coalition forces concentrated their security efforts in and around the capital Kabul, allowing the warlords to retain control of much of the countryside.

Those warlords not already involved in the cultivation of opium soon became involved.

Drugs offered them the profits they needed to recruit and pay their militias and the security vacuum allowed them to traffic their drugs with impunity. The Afghan opium trade is now worth over one billion dollars a year in farm gate prices alone and the profits to be had along the trafficking chain are enormous.

Afghan opium is now believed to be a major source of funding for international terrorism.

Paul O’Brien is Policy Advocacy Coordinator for the aid agency CARE in Afghanistan.

“One of the big problems with the way that drugs is being addressed here is that people don’t think of it enough as a security problem and it fundamentally is.

Most of the security efforts in here after the fall of the Taliban focused on cleaning up the terrorist problem – chasing down Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants. What the international community did not focus on in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban was the security situation on the ground for ordinary afghans – warlords, drug lords, private militias roaming the countryside enforcing their will through the rule of the gun.

If you’re trying to shore up your power base and you’re a regional commander the first thing you’ve got to do is bring in resources so that you can pay your private militias. The best way to pay your private militias in this economy is the drug market.

In that security vacuum poppy cultivation blossomed because there was no rule of law.”

Map graphic:

Regionally the impact of the opium trade is devastating.

1. Since 1984, the production of opium in Afghanistan has increased twenty fold, with over 85% of its provinces now producing the drug.

2. After cultivation, opium and its refined derivative heroin is then trafficked through Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran and on to the rest of the world.

3. Globally, the rate of heroin addiction stands at around 0.3 percent. In Afghanistan that figure doubles, in Pakistan and central Asia it triples.
In Iran there are nine times more opiate addicts than the global average.

Antonio Costa is the head of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime

“The impact is particularly severe in neighbouring countries – Iran has 3.5 million drug addicts, the highest rate in the world, associated to a very high percentage of these drug addicts affected by HIV/AIDS.

In Kyrgyzstan, in Kazakhstan, in Tajikistan – up to 90% of drug addicts are HIV positive and 90% of new HIV cases are coming from drug addicts.”

Badakshan province, in the country’s mountainous northeast, was one of the few areas of Afghanistan to resist the Taliban. Today it is the second largest opium producing area in the country.

Poppy has been grown here for centuries and is widely used for its medicinal qualities, but in the warlord culture, production has gone through the roof.

And in a desperate attempt to stem this trend a British-led poppy eradication programme was launched two years ago.

Last year they paid cash-compensation to farmers whose crops were eradicated under the programme, but this simply encouraged more farmers to grow poppy.

So this year the compensation package has been scrapped, and now, just as the backbreaking seven-month production cycle nears its end, the eradicators are back - and farmers are angry.

“Last year they gave us money as compensation for poppy, but this year they are giving us a beating. Instead of my beating my crops, why don’t you beat me instead? For God’s sake give us food and you can take all of this”

Despite efforts designed to ease the burden on farmers the task of eradication has been assigned to provincial governors – many of whom have a vested interest in the drugs trade.

Ikramuhdin is the governor of Badakshan. He has already been paid more than $100,000 to destroy poppy fields, but with the harvest already underway the eradication has only just begun and evidence suggests the campaign is partial and symbolic.

“The eradication programme has been going on for ten days now and so far our teams in the field have met a very hostile reaction from farmers. Nowadays opium cultivation has become a very important part of people’s lives. If we destroy their crops then we are also destroying their lives.”

Eradicator: “Wherever we go farmers grab us by the scruff of the neck. The people are very poor – we know that. We know that life here is terrible .I think they will be left with no choice but to leave Afghanistan.”

Paul: “Opium cultivation has become a way for many Afghan families – we think it’s asmore many as 1.7 million – to feed their families. We have to recognize that when we start to think of a strategy that’s going to eradicate the drugs problem in this country. You cannot simply go into a community and eradicate an opium farm or field unless you’re also thinking about how that family is going to earn a livelihood.”

Farmer: “We know that its bad to grow poppy but we have to do it, there are no jobs and wheat is worthless. If the government gives us food and jobs then we will stop doing this.”

Our roads and our country are destroyed; there are no factories and no jobs. What else can we do?

While much of Afghanistan’s suffering is man-made and the product of war, five years of drought have taken also taken a heavy toll.

Many farmers have turned to drought resistant poppy in a bid to pay back the crippling debts they accumulated trying to keep their families alive.

Romin researches alternative livelihoods for the Aga Khan Foundation, one of the most active NGOs in Badakhshan.

“The reason that poppy cultivation has increased in Badakshan – to get rid of the debts, to find food for their children and a very good way of income for the people.

Like last year, if they were cultivating wheat in one jereb of land they were getting some amount of money like $100 whilst if they were cultivating opium in one jereb of land they were getting something equivalent to three or four thousand dollars per jereb of land which is a lot.

Now the cultivation season is over and now during the harvest they are eradicating their crops – I’m not against this activity and law enforcement ands I think this is the only and proper way of doing it but if it comes with some sort of alternative that would make it supported and more stronger.

Alternative to poppy is not something like one - it should be multi-sectoral intervention – from micro-financing like agricultural inputs, rehabilitation of infrastructure and irrigation networks.”

But effective crop substitution schemes remain few and far between - and despite nationally implemented strategies to help farmers develop alternatives, opium cultivation looks set to increase.

Paul: “70 percent of farmers in a recent survey said that they would likely either get into, or expand poppy cultivation in the years to come. Non-poppy farmers – 40 percent of them who are not engaged in poppy cultivation said that they were planning to switch over to poppy.

All the signs are that poppy cultivation will continue to go in the wrong direction unless there is a big change in the counter narcotics resources and effort in this country.”

Poppy cultivation is highly labour-intensive, requiring ten times more-man hours than wheat. Each seed capsule must be individually lanced 7 times to release the milky sap, which the sun then bakes to a reddish paste.

Indeed, labour demands are so high that teams of itinerant workers now follow the harvest across the country.

For women in particular poppy cultivation offers unique opportunities. With unprecedented labour demands poppy allows them to cast off the Burka and work in the fields to earn an income.

Dr. Anis, is head of the Badakhshan department of the women’s ministry.

“When a woman grows poppy she strengthens her economy and when she finds a source of income she can become a breadwinner just like a man.”

Back in Kabul meanwhile Afghanistan’s interim government is struggling to contain the entrenched corruption and abuse of power that is fuelling the drugs trade.

General Helal is Deputy Minister of the Interior.

“Some people are using their positions in the government to get involved in drugs, and I strongly believe that if government officials were not involved in the trade then drug trafficking would never have become as widespread as it is now.”

And in the absence of the rule of law, corrupt officials operate in a culture of impunity.

Mirwais Yasini is the head of the Counter Narcotics Directorate.

“It is very very serious – as long as you don’t have a clean law-enforcement capacity then you are never expecting to eradicate the drugs and in the presence of the warlords it is very difficult to have a strong central government – it is very difficult and almost impossible to have a proper measure of law enforcement and a proper eradication.”

Despite these constraints there have been some successes.

The authorities have made some significant narcotic seizures but these represent just the tip of the iceberg.

Mobile stop and search units can act as a deterrent to the traffic of drugs in and around Kabul but their authority is challenged and most narcotics leave the country direct from the provinces.

Indeed if the opium economy is to be seriously challenged, greater effort must be made to persuade the people of Afghanistan of the imminent danger of their country becoming a narco-state.

Costa: “I think that the international community needs to appreciate that this remains a geo-political crossroads – a crossroads of trafficking, a crossroads of violence, a crossroads of profiteering which has to be eradicated – I’m not talking about eradicating stems of opium, I’m talking about eradicating from this land, removing a cancer which could otherwise significantly threaten the future.”

Helal: “The fight against narcotics requires great cooperation from the international community – cooperation is the only way to rescue this country from drowning in a sea of opium.”

But perhaps the greatest threat that the opium economy poses is to Afghanistan’s nascent democracy and its ability to hold free and fair elections later this year.

So long as drug resources remain in the hands of regional commanders central government will continued to be thwarted in its efforts to impose the rule of law.

And without the rule of law, democracy and reconstruction will continue to elude the afghan people.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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