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Afghan Poppies Bloom

After three years of ignoring opium poppy cultivation in war-ravaged Afghanistan, the United States has suddenly changed course.
 
 
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The rotund landlord, Mr. Attock, sits on the carpeted floor of his little office and living quarters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. From this one room he publishes a slight and sporadic weekly or sometimes monthly newspaper, but like most people around here, his real business is farming opium poppy. Mr. Attock's land lies about an hour and a half away in the countryside of Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, not too far from Tora Bora.

"My dear, everyone grows poppy. Even me," says Mr. Attock in slightly awkward English as he leans over to grab my leg, again. Mr. Attock is a bundle of physical and intellectual energy, not all of it well focused. "My dear, you see. Listen. My dear, wheat is worthless. Everyone grows poppy. We will go to my village and you will see."

The next day we tour the village where Mr. Attock owns or manages a farm (it's not entirely clear who actually owns the establishment, but he is in charge). Nangarhar is one of Afghanistan's top three drug-producing provinces. The surrounding fields rotate between corn and poppies. Mr. Attock says he has almost 100 people living and working here as tenant farmers and laborers.

For the past three years, growing poppy in Afghanistan, as Mr. Attock and his tenants do, has been a relatively risk-free and open business. The Taliban had imposed a ruthlessly successful ban on poppy cultivation in 2000; more than 90 percent of cultivation stopped. But since the U.S. invasion in 2001, eradication efforts have been minimal and ineffective and production has again soared.

Globally, Afghanistan's opium business is estimated to be worth more than $30 billion a year, with the vast majority of that cash being captured by players in other countries. One Western counternarcotics official estimated that poppy production increased by 64 percent in 2004. Afghanistan now produces an estimated 87 percent of the world's opium, most of which becomes heroin and morphine. Income from poppy and its associated processing and trafficking are said to contribute $2.8 billion annually to the Afghan economy, a sum equal to 60 percent of the country's legitimate GDP. About a quarter of this money ends up in the hands of common farmers; the rest goes to traffickers.

UN researchers believe that 2.3 million of Afghanistan's 20-25 million people are directly involved in poppy cultivation, with many more working in processing, trafficking, moneylending, laundering and other associated activities. The warlords who run this country tax both farmers and traffickers alike.

The British, who are part of the international coalition now occupying Afghanistan, have been in charge of establishing a Counter Narcotics Directorate in Kabul. Its efforts have not been aggressive, and until recently the Americans have openly avoided the issue of poppy cultivation, preferring to focus instead on hunting down the Taliban and al Qaeda and training the new Afghan National Army.

But after three years of ignoring poppy cultivation and heroin production, the United States has suddenly changed course. In mid-November Washington pledged $780 million toward Afghanistan's war on drugs. If a rigorous campaign against poppy actually materializes, it could radically destabilize the relative calm that now obtains in much of Afghanistan.

Already there is trouble brewing in Nangarhar, where next year's crop is just starting to sprout. Farmers report low-flying planes spraying poison on their fields. Doctors in the area say they've seen a sudden jump in respiratory illness and skin rashes, while veterinarians are seeing sickened livestock. In a harbinger of what a real war on drugs might bring, one farmer in Nangarhar whose son had been poisoned by the spraying told a local journalist, "If my son dies, I will join the Taliban, and I will kill as many Americans as I can find."

Nangarhar's provincial governor, a former mujahedeen commander named Haji Din Mohammed, has said there is "no doubt that an aerial spray has taken place." Other Afghan officials have called it illegal. The United States controls Afghan airspace but denies that it has sprayed, though it is promising a "robust" eradication campaign come spring.

Mr. Attock is reveling in his role as country squire and host. At his village we sit on cots made of rope and wood to eat a breakfast of thick clotted butter cream, honey and flat bread, washed down with lots of sweet tea. As I wait beneath a huge tree in the courtyard of Mr. Attock's kala, a fortress-like family compound, he corrals three farmers and tells them to fetch opium and opium seeds, to take seats and to explain the trade to his guest.

The three farmers, all of them lean and sinewy and looking a bit skeptical, take seats and politely start talking shop. For the most part, growing opium in Afghanistan is like growing any other crop. Though technically illicit, it's all rather undramatic: Farmers are concerned with irrigation, weather, pests, disease and prices. Their tasks are similarly prosaic, consisting mainly of weeding, watering and tending the crops.

The most talkative and inquisitive farmer is Abdul Rakmon. For every few questions from me he has one of his own. "Have you been to Fremont, California? Some people from around here live there now. Where exactly is Fremont?"

Rakmon and his less talkative mates explain that in the warm climate of Nangarhar there is one crop of poppy, though in other areas there are two seasons, the second less productive than the first. In Nangarhar the land is fertilized with manure in late October, and then the poppy seeds are sown in November. By February the flowers bloom, then the blossoms fall away to reveal a bulging seedpod. In March the farmers start harvesting the opium by cutting or scraping the seedpods with small trowels.

From the little scrape wounds oozes a sticky white sap – raw opium. The milk-colored opium turns brown with exposure to air. In Nangarhar the farmers cut the seedpods in the evening and collect the congealed sap in the morning.

"We cut the seedpod with a ghoza," says Rakmon, and he gives me a little wooden tool with a serrated metal edge. "You can have this ghoza as a present. People in New York will be impressed when they see that," he says with a grin. He's making a sage but cryptic comment on the huge physical, but even greater social, distance between heroin's site of production and its site of consumption. In front of us sits a big sickly-sweet-smelling block of opium.

Ms. Attock has become bored with the interviews and is done eating. He struts around the dusty courtyard, occasionally hoisting himself up off the ground on a tree branch. He wants my colleague, the photographer Teru Kuwayama, to take snapshots of his buildings and retinue of friends and employees from the village.

"What is his name? He looks like a Hazara," says Attock, referring to the Afghan ethnic minority known for their East Asian facial features.

"His name is Teru."

"Yes, OK. Steve!" shouts Mr. Attock, still unable to get Teru's name right. "Steve! Come. Take photos." The farmers tell me that the flowers come in red, white and purple. "Red flowers are the best," says Rakmon. In cooler climates other farmers inform me that white blossoms are superior.

Rakmon and his two friends explain that in most parts of Afghanistan a farmer can get up to seven collections from each seedpod.

Eventually the plant is tapped out and left to dry. The desiccated seedpods are harvested for next year's planting and the seeds are used to make edible oil. Mothers sometimes boil the dry pods into a tea that they use to drug their infants during long hours of work, or when the children are sick or hungry and unable to sleep.

To illustrate the financial plight that drives people here to grow poppy – which, as good Muslims, they see as a sin – the farmers explain the math of poppy versus wheat. The local unit of land measurement here, a jerib, is roughly half an acre; and this part of Afghanistan is so close to Pakistan that commerce is conducted in Pakistani rupees instead of afghanis.

"It costs 1,000 rupees to plant one jerib of poppy, and that one jerib will yield at least 15 kilograms of poppy, which is worth 300,000 Pakistani rupees [$5,000], at least," says a farmer named Lal Mohammed. (Later in the central highlands, some farmers tell me they can get 28 kilos of opium per jerib.) "Wheat takes twice as long as poppy to grow, and we can buy almost ten times as much wheat as we could produce if we grow poppy instead," says Mohammed. "We have no choice but to grow poppy."

To top it all off, Afghanistan is in the midst of a hellacious six-year drought. Unlike wheat and vegetables or cotton, poppy is very drought-resistant. "All it really needs is a little water early on," says Mohammed.

The farmers confirm what I've heard elsewhere: The opium boom of the past three years has delivered many farmers from onerous debts and allowed them to keep land that they would otherwise have been forced to sell off to the local mujahedeen commanders.

After all the details of poppy growing are explained, Mr. Attock takes us on a tour of his village and invites me to shoot at a tree with one of his double-barreled shotguns. "Into the leaves, my dear. Up into the leaves. Yes!" The tree survives. Then we have more tea.

Later about six of us pack into a little Toyota four-wheel drive and slowly bounce and lurch down a sandy road lined with tall reeds through a string of small villages. At one of these clusters of mud-walled compounds we stop, interview another group of farmers about local politics and opium, then have a lunch of greasy rice and lamb and smoke hash with our hosts. This is haram, forbidden, in Islam. But way out here, is Allah really counting the minor indiscretions? Apparently some farmers think not.

On the dirt road back to Jalalabad, we stop to take photos. Around the bend rolls a small convoy of menacing U.S. Special Forces, all mirrored sunglasses, beards and guns. The dreamy afternoon starts to feel creepy and not safe.

In the central highlands of Wardak province – which along with Nangarhar is one of the top opium-producing areas in Afghanistan and set to be targeted in the upcoming American-led eradication efforts – a different group of poppy farmers explains other aspects of the trade and the process of smuggling.

Teru and I are visiting friends of his who live in a series of picturesque villages strung out along a stunningly beautiful valley – lush and green at the bottom but hemmed in by huge, dry rocky mountains.

The family we're staying with is fairly prosperous, with some brothers and cousins working in Kabul, others involved in trucking and many others farming the valley's abundantly watered land. We spend most of our time drinking tea, cracking jokes and eating. There's growing political tension around here, so our hosts allow us to take only one hike. Nor do they want too many people to see them wandering around with foreigners.

I ask the farmers here about loans, because debt is said to be one of the ways big traffickers control little farmers. "No, no. The smugglers do not lend money," says a man named Nazir. "Mostly we have to borrow from merchants in the bazaar. You have to come up with your own money." Western experts had told me the smugglers make cash loans that are repaid at 100 percent interest, but in opium instead of cash. The system in Wardak seems to be less onerous, more streamlined, less formalized. And it externalizes risk for the lenders: Farmers purchase on credit from shopkeepers to survive, then repay in cash after payment from smugglers.

"Why would the smugglers want to lend us money? They know we have to grow poppy to survive," says Nazir, sounding like he wishes he could get a cash loan instead of store credit.

"The smugglers who take the opium away have the most dangerous job, you know. They get robbed. The commanders and police can attack them. It's very dangerous," says Nazir. "The worst that happens to farmers is their crops get destroyed. And this year we lost most of our poppy to disease anyway."

Nazir and his cousins say that the smaller smugglers tend to sell their loads to wholesalers, who often work with the authorities and use official vehicles and state-issued travel documents to move their consolidated loads into Iran and Pakistan. But such cover isn't always necessary.

"The border at Chaman, in Pakistan, is wide open," says one of Nazir's cousins. "I've crossed there without talking to anyone. You just drive across."

To turn opium into heroin it must be boiled down with lye to make morphine, then further refined with other chemicals. Western counternarcotics specialists and UN researchers say that Afghan opium has typically been processed into heroin by labs in Pakistan. But with the new opium boom, these labs are said to be moving into Afghanistan, making the smuggling operations more efficient and profitable. The guys in Wardak say there are some small labs in the area around their group of villages.

"Some young people smoke heroin, about 100 of them around here. That's a big problem for us," says a man named Hazrad. He speaks English, which most of his cousins can't understand too well. "They dip cigarettes in it and just smoke it. Some of them steal to get money." When I ask how the community is dealing with this he grows reticent and uncomfortable.

According to the farmers, the route into Pakistan seems to rely heavily on concealment within other commodities like wheat and rice or in fuel tankers, and the official border crossing is used. Smuggling into Iran is usually done with long, well-armed convoys of trucks or camels that try to avoid, or if necessary outgun, any Iranian border police they might meet. Violent clashes are routine, and Tehran reports that it has lost 3,100 security personnel over the past two decades in battles with well-armed and -organized smugglers on the Afghan border. Almost 200 soldiers and 800 traffickers were killed in 2003 alone.

When I ask about U.S. plans to target Wardak in the spring of 2005, Nazir and the others grow concerned. "We have many former Taliban and mujahedeen commanders here who are getting angry at America because of what is happening in Palestine and Iraq and because the economy here is no good," says Nazir. "Cutting down poppy will only make them more angry." Already violence is on the rise in Wardak. People who work with the occupying forces are starting to be targeted by unknown assassins.

If poppy eradication threatens instability in Afghanistan, why is the United States now stepping up its war on drugs? Officially, the counternarcotics wonks in Kabul give all the right ethical arguments: Poppy is an evil fueling everything from Islamic terrorism to the spread of HIV.

But the poppy revival has also been clearly linked to a decline in rural indebtedness and an improvement in the status and standard of living of many women. Because opium harvesting is both labor-intensive and lucrative, it provides economic opportunities for Afghan women, many of whom either cultivate poppy on their own land or work as relatively well-compensated wage laborers in the fields of others. The average wage for gathering opium can be as high as $7 a day. In Kabul a day laborer who works on a construction site or hauls goods can expect to make only $3 a day.

And the practice of turning a blind eye to the opium industry has functioned as a de facto development strategy in Afghanistan: It is probable that ordinary Afghans receive more income from drugs than they do from all the international aid they receive.

But across the planet in Washington, Afghanistan's poppy crop is viewed through the lens of reactionary moralism and domestic political theater rather than imperial pragmatism. And now powerful politicians want a better Afghan drug war.

The first demands came in 2003, when Republican Rep. Henry Hyde sent a high-profile letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressing his "growing concern about Afghanistan and the impact of illicit drugs on the fight against global terrorism."

This plea seemed to bear fruit. On a surprise visit to Kabul in August 2004, Rumsfeld singled out drugs as a problem "too serious to be ignored." In turn, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he expected "some broadening" of the U.S.-led coalition's military efforts against poppy.

A Western official in Kabul told me that the United States was indeed ramping up its war on drugs and building a "pretty full partnership with the UK and Afghan government." He said that economic aid of between $30 million and $40 million had already arrived and would soon be invested in antipoppy economic development, or "the alternative livelihoods program." This scheme will involve creating cold storage facilities, communications links and improved roads, all with the aim of connecting traditional crops such as apples and raisins to world markets. But even the program's proponents admit that "nothing will replace opium." This bit of carrot will then be followed by the stick: an aggressive campaign of crop eradication to begin in February.

"In 2005 eradication will be considerably more robust. At least five times as much poppy will be cut down as compared to last year," said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

But to destroy the flowers is to destroy the lives of poor farmers. If wide and aggressive, such an assault could lead to a new jihad. Some observers have even credited the quick fall of the Taliban to the former regime's unpopular ban on poppy cultivation, a policy that left them with very few allies once the U.S. bombs began falling.

Further complicating any real war on drugs would be the international community's open alliance with Afghanistan's mujahedeen warlords, or jangsalaran, many of whom might turn on the occupation if their sub rosa economic activities are attacked. As one U.S. soldier in Kandahar explained to the English Independent, "We start taking out drug guys, and they will start taking out our guys." The security chief in Nangarhar, Hazrat Ali, a U.S. ally, is said to be heavily involved in the drug trade. And now American officials have started to threaten him. "One day, he will wake up and find out he's out of business," Col. David Lamm, chief of staff for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said of Hazrat Ali in a recent press interview. If Hazrat Ali is targeted, it's unlikely that he'll go quietly.

Back in Wardak the impending war on poppy is viewed by the Muslim farmers as hypocritical and cruel. Just before we take leave of Nazir and his cousins, he asks me: "Why does America allow people to sell alcohol but not heroin? What is the difference? At least in Islam both are haram."

Christian Parenti is the author of The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press) and a visiting fellow at CUNY's Center for Place, Culture and Politics.