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Growth of Poppies Explodes in Afghanistan


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Less than four years after the United States and its allies overthrew the Taliban, Afghanistan is in danger of become a narcostate; that is to say a country so dominated by the illegal drug trade that establishing an effective central government could prove impossible. Washington is leaning on President Hamid Karzai to act, and Karzai has responded. He says this year opium cultivation will drop. NPR's Philip Reeves visited Afghanistan and sent this report.

Mr. MUHAMMED ANIF(ph) (Former Poppy Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Nothing about Muhammed Anif's home suggests he was once in the lucrative opium business. It's a small, sparse farmhouse overlooking his taros fields and, beyond that, the foothills of the Hindu Kush. Not so long ago those fields were covered with opium poppies. Not anymore.

Mr. ANIF: (Through Translator) This year we didn't grow poppy actually because the government had ordered it. And when I walk from here until the end of the road, I cannot see any plant of poppy here.

REEVES: Anif has lived in this village in eastern Afghanistan for all his 66 years. He says he turned to opium farming after the Taliban was ousted. Afghanistan was in chaos. It was the only way he could find to support his large family. Sitting cross-legged, sipping green tea, the old man morosely recalls the day late last year when his life of crime came to an end.

Mr. ANIF: (Through Translator) Friday prayer, the governor showed up in the mosque and said that nobody has the right to grow poppy anymore.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

REEVES: A walk through the fields suggests the governor's order was taken seriously. The village is in Lagman province. It's just off the old Silk Road, the ancient trade route still used for smuggling narcotics. The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime says opium cultivation last year rose in parts of this area by up to 50 percent. There's now no sign of that. Anif's nephew, Muhammed Dayib(ph), says all the neighboring farmers have stopped growing poppies. He says that's because they're frightened.

Mr. MUHAMMED DAYIB (Former Poppy Farmer): (Through Translator) The chief of police is very famous in finding people, so people are very afraid about this.

REEVES: Afghanistan supplies almost 90 percent of the world's opium, which is what heroin is made from. Pressure's been building on Karzai to clamp down, especially after the UN declared Afghanistan's opium cultivation rose last year by two-thirds to unprecedented levels and had spread to all Afghanistan's provinces. Western officials won't confirm Karzai's prediction that this year will see a drop in cultivation of nearly a third, but they are expecting a reduction, which they say is urgently needed if efforts to rebuild Afghanistan are to succeed.

Mr. DOUG WANKEL (Director, Office of Drug Control, US Embassy in Afghanistan): We are probably just a year or two away, if this continues to worsen, from being to the point of having a narcostate.

REEVES: Doug Wankel is director of the Office of Drug Control at the US Embassy in Afghanistan.

Mr. WANKEL: And if you have a narcostate, then that means your government is so permeated with corruption, you will lose the government potentially. And then you have another fertile breeding ground for the next al-Qaeda to come into Afghanistan to reap the type of havoc that we saw on 9/11.

REEVES: Opium's a more than $2 billion business in Afghanistan, equal to at least 40 percent of the legally generated GDP. Paul Fishtein heads the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank. He says weaning the country's economy off its dependency on drug production is a precarious undertaking.

Mr. PAUL FISHTEIN (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit): It's hard to whack even 50 percent or 20 percent or 75 percent of the most important output and not expect serious repercussions in the economy. This is not an argument for growing opium or growing poppy, but it is a caution that removing the main economic activity from an area will have downsides for the rest of the economy. And that, in turn, can have knock-on political effects in terms of local unrest and dissatisfaction.

REEVES: The United States, Britain and the EU are funding programs designed to help. This is about more than just providing farmers with different crops. Analysts say it requires a combination of law enforcement and poppy eradication coupled with a range of economic assistance, such as credit schemes, improved infrastructure and jobs programs.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Narrator: From 1979 to 1989, Russian invaders destroyed more than 3,000 of Afghanistan's once world-renowned irrigation system.

Mr. JEFF RALEIGH (Counternarcotics Information Campaign): This is a video that we have done, and it shows the people who are cleaning the canals, very similar to the WPA back in the United States during the Depression. These folks are actually out getting paid cash to clean canals in various agricultural districts.

REEVES: Jeff Raleigh runs a US government counternarcotics information campaign in Afghanistan. His job is to spread the word to Afghans that opium growing's illegal and that there are alternatives--in this case, a jobs program building irrigation systems. He says he's trying everything he can.

Mr. RALEIGH: We're actually sending out mobile cinemas with some of the great masters of comedy. We first started with some Chaplin pictures and some "Three Stooges," which I particularly love. But before that, we do about a three-minute spot on counternarcotics issues.

REEVES: It's complex work. Last year's huge surge in the area of land being used to grow poppies suggests many Afghans have only just got into opium farming, some to cash in on possible compensation. Should they qualify for assistance in finding alternative livelihoods? Doug Wankel says they shouldn't.

Mr. WANKEL: It is not something that's necessary or is developed to assist those people who jump into opium business to be able to blackmail or get the perverse incentive effect so that, `Hey, I'm in this thing, too. Give me something, and then I'll get out of the business.'

Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) In the name of God, I would like to welcome all the journalists. We launched a very successful operation in the border areas of Helmand province a few days ago. It was the most famous market of drugs. Hundreds of...

REEVES: In Kabul, officials from the Afghan government called a press conference to advertise their counternarcotics efforts. Afghanistan's opium barons are armed and dangerous. They've been known to use landmines against their opponents.

(Soundbite of explosion)

REEVES: Karzai's government has several new anti-narcotics forces.

(Soundbite of explosion)

REEVES: Journalists are shown a grainy DVD of them in action. The operation was only partially successful. There were no arrests. The drug smugglers fled across the nearby Pakistani border.

They're not the only ones to escape the law. Afghans are involved in the opium business from top to bottom of society. Police, warlords, government officials all have a hand in the pie. Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal.

Mr. LUTFULLAH MASHAL (Spokesman, Afghan Interior Ministry): This is a reality that we admit that there are some governmental authorities involved in the cultivation and also in the drug business.

REEVES: Mashal says the authorities have identified around 100 officials suspected of being in the narcotics industry, but they're not yet ready to act.

Mr. MASHAL: Unless we have concrete evidences that could help us in courts, we will not publish the list. But, yes, we are working on a list, and we have identified most of these prominent drug lords or traffickers.

(Soundbite of chicken)

REEVES: Back in Muhammed Anif's village, such debates seem a world away. Anif's chief worry is the loss he's suffering now that he's growing wheat instead of poppies.

Mr. ANIF: (Through Translator) The money of poppy is 20 or 30 times higher than the money we make for wheat. We cannot make a living with that. It's impossible.

REEVES: He says he's been promised government aid, but so far he's received nothing. If help doesn't come, he knows what he'll likely do.

Mr. ANIF: (Through Translator) The economy's very weak, and we've got a proverb saying that necessity is the mother of invention.

REEVES: That means next year Anif's fields may well be ablaze with poppies again. Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.