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Bitter-Sweet Harvest: Afghanistan's New War

Source: IRIN, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The Risk of losing the Peace

You need not go far from the southern city of Kandahar, the former spiritual stronghold of the Taliban, to find poppy fields. A 20-minute drive away, farmer Mahbub is busy harvesting his crop, despite the Interim Authority's ban in January 2002 on poppy cultivation. Sap from the poppies is turned into opium - a class-A drug sold for millions of US dollars worldwide.

Is opium bleeding Afghanistan of its
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"There is no way I will stop growing poppies unless you can offer me an alternative crop which will give me the same amount of money," Mahbub told IRIN, scraping the sap from a poppy head, which is then refined into the lethal drug.

Elsewhere in the country, the sentiment is much the same. Standing on his farm holding a shovel and shouldering a Kalashnikov assault rifle, Khak Nasrullah gazes over his sprouting crop of poppies on his land, wondering how he will spend the US $17,000 he is set to earn from the 60 kg of opium he hopes to harvest this season.

"I will buy a power generator and a strong tractor," the 42-year-old farmer told IRIN in Argu, one of the largest poppy-growing districts in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

Located some 75 km from Feyzabad, the former stronghold of the Northern Alliance, in the centre of the province, Argu has a population of 100,000. Deep within its muddy streets, its tiny bazaar surrounded by wooden stalls has become a major dealing centre and exchange point for hundreds of thousands of dollars each poppy season.

More than two years after the fall of the Taliban regime, as Afghanistan works to rebuild itself, poppy cultivation continues to prove a major obstacle in the country's quest for peace and stability. Experts in global counter-narcotics and political analysts warn of the fledgling Central Asian state again descending into lawlessness, with opium as the single largest element of the economy.

The risk of Afghanistan following Colombia and becoming what some describe as a 'narco-state' is high. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is asking Afghans to wage a holy war or 'jihad' - on what he regards as the greatest security threat to the country: opium.

Afghanistan in the global opium market

Afghanistan tries to recover
Afghanistan tries to recover after 24 years of civil war
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

Afghanistan is the leading world producer of opium, replacing the 'Golden Triangle' of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, which led global production in the 1960s and 1970s. As eradication efforts in the 'Triangle' improved, opium production increased significantly in the 'Golden Crescent', comprised of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in the 1980s.

Subsequent, strictly implemented, eradication campaigns in Iran and Pakistan have left Afghanistan today as the main producer, supplying over 75 percent of opiates globally. In 2004, the estimated quantity of opium produced within Afghanistan is expected to be at least 4,000 mt, representing a rising trend, which, according to statistics, looks to outstrip any reduction achieved through eradication efforts.

Opium and the economy

How opium is viewed economically depends on your perception. "It is a curse - it is a beautiful flower; the flower of death for the addicts at the extreme end of the drugs chain and for the farmers," Antonio Maria Costa, head of the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told IRIN.

But tens of thousands of farming families in impoverished Afghanistan don't share that view. According to UNODC statistics, an estimated 1.7 million people are directly involved in opium production, as widespread and family-based poppy cultivation proliferates in 28 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan.

Rural surveys suggest more and more farmers are choosing poppy cultivation as whole communities struggle to survive amid the resulting chaos of the last two and a half decades of war, and more recently, years of drought.

With Kabul's authority particularly weak in these areas, farmers choose to plant illicit crops, knowing the risk of prosecution remains negligible.

It is a curse..
"It is a is a beautiful flower: the flower of death."
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

According to an Economist Intelligence Unit report from May 2004, the aggregate value of opium production in 2003 was $2.3 billion, representing more than 50 percent of Afghanistan's legal gross domestic product.

And with raw opium prices estimated at $280 per kg, the per capita income from poppy cultivation for individual farming families is several times higher than the average for non-poppy cultivating farmers.

In short, in a country as poverty-stricken as Afghanistan, reportedly the world's second poorest according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), there is a massive incentive to continue growing poppy. For individual farmers the benefits can mean the difference between life and death.

"It's not an illicit crop but rather a blessing which saves the lives of my children, grandchildren and two widowed daughters," one female opium farmer in Kandahar told IRIN openly.

But whatever short-term benefits the lucrative cash crop offers, the dangers posed by opium to Afghanistan as a country are considerable.

Internationally condemned as illegal

The cultivation and trade of opium is illegal under Afghan and international law and therefore problematic for the international community, which sees high levels of heroin addiction and drug-related crime on the streets of Moscow, London and beyond.

Afghan farmer weighing opium paste
Afghan farmer weighing opium paste

Opiates are specifically prohibited under the '1988 Convention', which is the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, and is policed by the quasi-judicial Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). Some Afghans also know that the crop is illegal under international law and that it damages their credibility in the world. One villager in northeast Afghanistan told IRIN that "if we continue to grow opium Afghanistan will have a bad name. If it was a good thing our forefathers would have cultivated it".

According to a recent UNODC survey, among farmers who did not grow poppy, 24 percent cited religious reasons as the primary motivating factor against its cultivation. At government level, President Karzai is aware that he needs to achieve results in reducing the opium supply. At the Berlin donors' conference in April 2004, the US closely linked its aid package of $2.3 billion to the Afghan government's implementation of its opium reduction strategy.

A corrupting influence

Secondly, the temptation for government officers, law enforcement officials and local authorities to become involved in the multi-million dollar trade has proved too much for many and an entrenched culture of corruption prevails.

Helaluddin Helal, the deputy Minister of the Interior, and Mirwais Yasini, head of the Counter-Narcotics Directorate, both told IRIN that the corrupting influence of the opium economy was all-pervasive, severely threatening the rule of law.

Such corruption comes precisely at a time when Karzai's new government needs to rebuild authority and trust and show his people the benefits of reconstruction and national unity. Despite that, UNODC's Costa, who described corruption as the "major lubricant for drug traffickers" believed the country had yet to demonstrate the necessary commitment in its campaign against poppy cultivation.

Opium production is forbidden
Opium production is forbidden by Islamic religious law
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

Funding of warlords and terrorists

Thirdly, the opium business provides a lucrative and virtually risk-free resource base for warlords and provincial commanders who want to resist central control and continue to see Afghanistan under the rule of the gun instead of the rule of law. This danger is perhaps the greatest threat to Afghanistan, for it undermines all the processes currently guiding the country towards democracy and the development of civil society.

This is a fear voiced by most commentators, donors and Afghan politicians. A vivid example of what may occur elsewhere is the attempt made to reject government control in the province of Ghor in June, when a warlord enriched by opium overran the capital town, Chaghcharan, and declared independence.

Once local commanders are fortified with narco-dollars, with militias and a population under their control, it is feared they will fight hard to maintain control rather than cede power to Kabul. The country's national Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme has been slow to have an impact on Afghanistan's gun culture, allowing druglords and warlords time to recruit their militias and fill any existing power-vacuums.

Meanwhile, resurgent Taliban remnants and other groups, regarded as terrorists by the government and the international community, are reportedly being funded by the opium economy. They present not only Afghanistan, but also the region of Central Asia and the rest of the world with potential long-term problems. The US State Department says it is this threat which is driving its policy to support rapid eradication of poppy production.

Opium as a major threat

Militia men in the North of Afghanistan
Militia men in the North of Afghanistan: Strongmen and Warlord still hold sway in the provinces.
Credit: IRIN

President Karzai believes opium represents the greatest security threat to Afghanistan and is urgently seeking international support to fight those, both organised (warlords) and farmers, who perpetuate and expand this illicit crop. His stated fear, and that of many in the international community, is that Afghanistan could be derailed by opium before the institutions that could establish the rule of law can be put in place.

But while presidential elections planned for October 2004, and parliamentary elections set for April 2005 offer Afghanistan a chance to move towards national unity within a democratic process, rising insecurity throughout the country threatens to derail this unprecedented Afghan experiment in democracy.

In neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, poppy cultivation was largely stamped out during the 1980s and 1990s using strict methods of law enforcement. Both countries have existing state institutions and functioning police, and national armies able to enforce counter-narcotic laws. Conditions in Afghanistan, however, are not comparable and for some experts Afghanistan has effectively already become a narco-state: a state where regional strongmen hold more power than central government.

If they are correct, the struggle to disengage powerful interests from opium production - with so few viable or lucrative alternatives for those involved - will be long and hard.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

... Payvand News - 8/20/04 ... --

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