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Opium Again Hooks Struggling Farmers

Although the Afghan government and Islam frown on the planting of poppies, it's far more profitable than wheat.

October 05, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — Mohammad Ashrafy waited for the death of the family figurehead, a respected mullah, before he finally planted opium for the first time this year.

And sometimes, when he gazed out over the huge stretch of poppies he grew on his land in the Ghor province of central Afghanistan this spring and summer, he felt guilty, recalling the admonishments of his late uncle, Mullah Mortaza Khan.

"We know growing opium is against Islam, but we have to do it," said Ashrafy, 38. "I was the only person left here not growing it and there was no mullah telling me to stop."

The United Nations estimates that half of Ghor's farmers don't earn enough to cover basic needs. So exhortations to plant alternative crops seem doomed when a grower can make about $5,200 from an acre of opium but just $121 from an acre of wheat.

Ashrafy and his brother support 35 relatives, including the widows and children of two other brothers killed in the country's long wars.

Last year, Ashrafy grew wheat, but it provided only half of what the family needed. "If I don't grow [opium]," he said, "I'm sure we'll die because we cannot grow enough wheat for ourselves."

So he prays to make peace with Allah.

Throughout Afghanistan, thousands who had not grown opium before began harvesting their crops in May, taught by experienced poppy farmers who have been traveling to new growing areas to share their skills.

"It's much easier than wheat and you get more money too," said Ashrafy, interviewed in Kabul. "Last year, [opium] was about 10% in our area. This year it's 100%."

Afghanistan regained its position as the largest opium producing country last year, yielding 3,750 tons, and production is expected to be as high this year, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reports. Seventy-five percent of the world's heroin, which is obtained from opium poppies, comes from Afghanistan.

At a June congressional hearing in Washington, Bernard Farhi, chief of the operations branch of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said opium brought Afghanistan $1.2 billion last year, equaling the total of international aid to the country in that period. In a recent report, the International Monetary Fund said opium accounted for as much as half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, amounting to $2.5 billion in exports.

Opium cultivation was permitted for years by the Taliban, the radical Islamic regime that allowed the Al Qaeda terror network to flourish in Afghanistan. But in July 2000, more than a year before the United States ousted it, the Taliban banned the crop and instituted the death penalty for opium crimes, leading to a dramatic decline in production.

Now the regions outside Kabul are under the control of warlords, many of whom benefit from the trade. Last year's production was nine times higher than during the final year of Taliban rule.

Without a national police force or army, President Hamid Karzai's interim government cannot enforce its poppy ban, leaving drug-eradication workers exposed to retaliation. In June, seven of them were mobbed and killed by enraged poppy farmers in Oruzgan province, 250 miles southwest of Kabul, where authorities were making a major effort to reduce the poppy crops.

Some critics complain that the war to oust the Taliban and subsequent political deals with warlords have resulted in U.S. support for men linked to the opium trade.

Other critics charge that the U.S. anti-drug campaign focuses on the Andean region of South America while overlooking more pressing concerns, such as the extent to which the Taliban and Al Qaeda may now be funded by the drug trade in Afghanistan.

Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated sharply in recent months with an increase in attacks by anti-government militants. Many argue that without better security in the provinces, efforts to control poppy growing will fail.

"The fact of the matter is you can't stop opium production when the warlords control the regions and when we don't expand security beyond Kabul," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said at a May hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on drugs and terrorism. "It was a power vacuum created by warlords and drug traffickers that enabled the Taliban and Al Qaeda to turn Afghanistan into an international swamp ... and now we're back in the same situation again."

In the last four years of devastating drought, many smaller farmers went into debt. This year, many of them were given loans and seeds by drug traders, to be repaid upon harvest.

Barbara Stapleton, advocacy and policy coordinator for the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, said the poppy business "amounts to the development of indentured labor in Afghanistan."

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