Poppy Plant Returns to Afghanistan

Poppy Plant Returns to Afghanistan
Posted by FoM on March 05, 2002 at 07:51:22 PT
By Charles J. Hanley, AP Special Correspondent 
Source: Associated Press
Mohammad Gul, tattered shoes planted in the mud, will keep a close watch on his two little acres in the coming weeks, waiting for the buds to bloom. He won't be alone. Five hundred miles up, racing silently through space, U.S. reconnaissance satellites will be watching, too, camera eyes cocked for the first signs of vivid red, the flowering of opium poppies. Here on the edge of Afghanistan's Desert of Death and on east and north across this deeply poor land, the deadly narcotic is again the raw material of life and livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people. 
``All my land is in poppy. I've grown it for 30 years,'' Mohammad Gul said. ``Every year except one.'' That one was last year, when the Taliban, the Muslim zealots who ruled most of Afghanistan, banned poppy growing as un-Islamic. Now the Taliban have been scattered to the harsh Afghan hills, ousted from power in a lightning U.S.-led war, and America and its allies, including the new Afghan regime of Hamid Karzai, have inherited the dilemmas of the land of poppy. Mohammad Gul, who sowed his seeds as he saw the old regime fall, is thankful. ``We hear that this government's a good one, not cruel like the Taliban,'' he told a visitor. ``They banned our poppy. I don't think this new government will come and tear up our crops.'' The rout of the Taliban is only one reason this poppy farmer is indebted to the United States. It was that rich distant nation, after all, that sent engineers here in the 1950s to build a vast irrigation project that turned the arid wastes green. Today those canals and gates channel water to countless fields of poppy along the banks of the Helmand, the slow, silty river that snakes through the biggest opium-producing area of the biggest opium-producing country in the world. On the banks of the far-off Potomac, the challenge of Afghanistan has kept lights burning late in government offices since Sept. 11, not least in the glass-sheathed tower of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in suburban Virginia. It was a stunning turn of events. From one of the great success stories in decades of drug wars -- when the Taliban in July 2000 ``just said no'' -- Afghanistan has reverted overnight to its role as the Iowa of opium, the raw stuff of heroin. Early indications are that this spring's crop will reach the high levels attained before the Taliban edict, drug enforcement officials say. Across the Potomac from DEA headquarters, at the State Department, specialists are conferring with the British, French and other allies about how to attack the Afghan problem. The Europeans are vitally concerned; it's their addicts who consume the great bulk of Afghan heroin. The British have floated the idea of a straight buy-out of spring opium production. That might cost several hundred million dollars. Others stress the need for immediate aid programs steering farmers to alternative crops. The U.N. Drug Control Program is reopening its office in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The DEA is planning to move staff to the U.S. Embassy there. ``The DEA is hopeful that a law enforcement presence will be put in place there that is friendly to work with, that will work with the international community to combat drug trafficking,'' said DEA spokesman Will Glaspy. Despite all the talk and action, however, the spring opium is as good as harvested. The current interim regime in Kabul is too weak to stop it. A few miles from Mohammad Gul's village, in the Helmand province center of Lashkar Gah, a dust-blown place of donkey carts and earthen houses, the new local administration takes a pragmatic view. ``This year we're not able to destroy the crops. If we try to enforce a ban on the farmers, it wouldn't be good for us,'' Haji Pir Mohammed, top deputy to Helmand's governor, said in an interview. In muddy lanes nearby, speedy Toyota pickups, suited for long-distance runs across the desert, came and went bearing loads of opium. Poppy has been cultivated in Afghanistan for centuries, but it wasn't until the wars of the 1980s and 1990s that the red and white flowers began taking over large swaths of prime farmland. Afghan warlords shipped out opium gum to finance their militias. By 1994, the United Nations' annual survey found poppy growing on 177,000 acres, and Afghanistan was supplying more than 70 percent of the world's opium. The narcotic had become the country's major source of income. Heroin use worldwide grew steadily as well. The U.N. Drug Control Program now estimates 9 million users globally, 3 million of them in Europe -- at the end of a processing pipeline that smuggles Afghan opium through the Middle East or the former Soviet Union, and converts it into heroin along the way. The number of ruined lives and overdose deaths goes uncounted. After the Taliban swept the warlords from power in 1996, the hardline Islamists opened on-and-off negotiations over opium with the U.N. drug agency. Finally, in July 2000, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar announced the ban on the crop. Diplomats believe the Taliban, pariahs because of their violations of human rights standards, were seeking international respectability and financial aid. They won some of both. Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, called it ``a decision by the Taliban we welcome.'' Washington sent $43 million in emergency aid. The Taliban may have acted, too, because of the upsurge in addiction in Afghanistan itself, where users generally smoke opium, rather than inject refined heroin. ``Drug Abuse Is Submission To A Gradual Death,'' declares a lone sign the Taliban posted at the entrance to their stronghold city of Kandahar. Last spring, the U.N. agency sent out hundreds of trained workers to inspect more than 10,000 Afghan villages in its annual survey. In mid-2001 it reported that the Taliban edict had been almost totally successful: Opium production was off by 96 percent. The American DEA agreed, relying on satellite imagery. Fear of the Taliban's stern hand had all but rid the countryside of poppy. Then, last October, Washington began its war on the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorists, and the drug fighters saw the sudden remarkable gains in Afghanistan explode among tons of bombs dropped by American B-52s. The new Karzai administration did declare its own opium ban on Jan. 17, but it was too late. The farmers had already done their fall poppy planting. Economics dictated it. They could earn 10 times more profit from an acre of opium than from an acre of wheat, and poppy requires less water, long term, than other crops, a key consideration going into Afghanistan's fourth year of drought. Dirt-poor farmers like Mohammad Gul are locked into the poppy cycle in another way as well. Drug traffickers advanced loans to many of them for seed and supplies. Only the harvest will free them from the debt. Foreign aid organizations, private and governmental, are re-entering Afghanistan with plans to encourage alternative crops -- fruit or cotton, for example. But the challenge is daunting. ``There's no alternative crop near the value of poppy,'' said Kim Johnston, operations director for Mercy Corps International. In a telephone interview from the aid group's Oregon headquarters, Johnston said more than development aid is needed. ``It will work only if there's a simultaneous commitment from the government to support eradication through enforcement.'' But force and eradication are unlikely anytime soon. In this land of feuding tribes and clans, the new central leadership is too weak to risk alienating ordinary Afghan farmers. Besides, it can't: It has no anti-drug police, in fact no real police force at all. And it relies on the good will of tribal chieftains and militia warlords, many of whom themselves have long profited from the heroin trade. A long-faced farmer squinted into the gray afternoon light as he took time to answer a visitor's questions. ``Nobody's come yet from the government,'' he said. ``They're too busy with a hundred other jobs.'' His two young sons went on hurriedly shoveling earth to form the narrow dikes for poppy plots. He was planting very late, and reluctantly, after concluding the family would be ruined if they depended on their money-losing vegetables. ``I know it's wrong. It's bad for human beings. But what can I do?'' said the gray-bearded man. Embarrassed, he wouldn't give his name, citing his position -- agriculture teacher at a local school. Across the sluggish Helmand, in ``Group Six,'' a settlement of 100 families, ``100 percent'' of them planted poppy this year, villagers said. The 80-year-old village elder, Haji Ghulam Dastagir, acknowledged the crop was ``a bad thing.'' ``But the people of Afghanistan are very weak and poor. They have no source of income besides poppy.'' Erect and dignified in gracefully coiled white turban, the chief gestured to a neighbor in a filthy waistcoat. ``Look, this man, I know, has no food for tonight.'' What's needed, Ghulam Dastagir said, is agricultural machinery, seeds and other aid from abroad, to lure farmers away from poppy. ``And it must come straight into our hands, the farmers, not to officials who'll just pocket it.'' A half-mile down the gullied track, in this tiny place with a long name, Mohammad Gul was not looking beyond the late April harvest, when village children will file out into the fields to slit the bulging poppy pods, letting opium ooze out, to be followed by expert harvesters who will scrape the drying lumps into sacks. The 45-year-old farmer feigned ignorance about the crop he's raised most of his life. ``It all goes to foreign countries -- I don't know what for.'' He was more precise, however, about this spring's payoff, possibly the equivalent of $16,000 for 120 pounds of opium. Of that, after the expenses of seed, water, labor, tractor rental and other costs, he might clear a few thousand dollars, still a rewarding sum in one of the world's poorest countries. Mohammad Gul then headed off to tend his two acres, and a visiting journalist turned to go. Just then a voice rose from the gathered crowd, here in this village in the heart of the land of poppy. ``Listen, my friend!'' the man shouted. ``I'll die in my field before I let anyone destroy my crop!'' Noor Mohammad Khan Charai, Afghanistan (AP) Source: Associated PressAuthor: Charles J. Hanley, AP Special Correspondent Published: Monday, March 4, 2002 Copyright: 2002 Associated Press Related Articles:Kabul Bans Opium Poppy Growing, Trafficking Turn To Old Friend: Opium 
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Comment #1 posted by monvor on March 05, 2002 at 12:52:34 PT
Not so secret back scratching
Diplomats believe the Taliban, pariahs because of their violations of human rights standards, were seeking international respectability and financial aid. They won some of both. Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, called it ``a decision by the Taliban we welcome.'' Washington sent $43 million in emergency aid. Lets not forget that at the same time Dick Cheney's Haliburton was negotiating to run an oil pipeline accross the contry. These negotiations lasted all the way to August 2001. Hmmmm
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