The Financial Times, September 4, 2006

Opium cultivation surges by 59% in Afghanistan

Afghanistan now produces 92 per cent (6,100 tons) of the world’s supply of opium used to make heroin.

By Rachel Morarjee in Kabul

Afghanistan’s opium cultivation surged by 59 per cent this year largely as a result of a Taliban-led insurgency that is pushing the southern part of the country to the verge of collapse, the United Nations drugs agency chief said at the weekend.

Opium crops in W. Nooristam (RAWA photo - June 2003) "Some cabinet ministers in Afghanistan are deeply implicated in the drugs trade"
The Telegraph (UK), February 5, 2006

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, said in Kabul that the record harvest of 6,100 tons was “staggering” and “very bad news”. The southern part of Afghanistan, where Nato took control from US-led troops on July 31, was “displaying the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse, with large-scale drug cultivation and trafficking, insurgency and terrorism, crime and corruption”, Mr Costa said in a separate statement released by his office.

Afghanistan now produces 92 per cent of the world’s supply of opium used to make heroin, Mr Costa said. In Helmand, where most British troops are stationed, the area under opium cultivation soared by 162 per cent as a result of corruption and efforts by insurgents to encourage production. Militants, linked either to the Taliban or al-Qaeda, were providing protection to drug convoys travelling to Afghanistan’s borders and demanding money in exchange, Mr Costa added.

That money has been used to fuel the insurgency in which 22 British troops have died since the Nato handover alone.

Afghanistan’s drugs trade now accounts for at least 35 per cent of the economy and is the largest source of employment, foreign investment and income generation.

New York Times, October 22, 2006

An Afghan drug-smuggler:
"The whole country is in our services"


Afghanistan Opium Crop Sets Record

Opium production in Afghanistan, which provides more than 90 percent of the world's heroin, broke all records in 2006, reaching a historic high despite ongoing U.S.-sponsored eradication efforts, the Bush administration reported yesterday.

In addition to a 26 percent production increase over past year -- for a total of 5,644 metric tons -- the amount of land under cultivation in opium poppies grew by 61 percent. Cultivation in the two main production provinces, Helmand in the southwest and Oruzgan in central Afghanistan, was up by 132 percent.

White House drug policy chief John Walters called the news "disappointing."

Opium cultivation was outlawed during Taliban rule in the late 1990s and was nearly eliminated by 2001. After the overthrow of the Taliban government by U.S. forces in the fall of that year, the Bush administration said that keeping a lid on production was among its highest priorities. But corruption and alliances formed by Washington and the Afghan government with anti-Taliban tribal chieftains, some of whom are believed to be deeply involved in the trade, undercut the effort.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently noted that "once we thought terrorism was Afghanistan's biggest enemy" but said that now "poppy, its cultivation and drugs are Afghanistan's major enemy."

Washington Post, December 2, 2006

Down the road from the base stands a lovely new building erected by an N.G.O. for the local Ministry of Women's Affairs. ... She [the ministry's deputy] said that she had just wrapped up the case of a girl who had been kidnapped and raped by Kandahari police officers, something that would not have happened under the Taliban. "Their security was outstanding," she said.

Under the Taliban, she said, a poppy ban was enforced. "Now the governors tell the people, 'Just cultivate a little bit,"' she said. "So people take this opportunity and grow a lot." The farmers lease land to grow poppies. The British and the police eradicate it. The farmer can't pay back the landowner. "So instead of paying, he gives the landowner his daughter."


A few weeks before I arrived in Helmand, John Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told reporters that Afghan authorities were succeeding in reducing opium-poppy cultivation. Yet despite hundreds of millions of dollars being allocated by Congress to stop the trade, a United Nations report in September estimated that this year's crop was breaking all records - 6,100 metric tons compared with 4,100 last year. When I visited Helmand, schools in Lashkar Gah were closed in part because teachers and students were busy harvesting the crop. A prosecutor from the Crimes Department laughed as he told me that his clerk, driver and bodyguard hadn't made it to work. They were all harvesting. It requires a lot of workers, and you can earn $12 a day compared with the $2 you get for wheat. Hence the hundreds of young, poor Talibs from Pakistan's madrasas who had flocked to earn that cash and who made easy converts for the coming jihad.

Walters had singled out Helmand for special praise. Yet just a short drive from the provincial capital, I was surrounded by poppy farmers - 12-year-old boys, 75-year-old men - hard at work, their hands caked in opium paste as they scooped figlike pulp off the bulbs into a sack tied around their waists. One little boy was dragging a long poppy stem attached to a car he had made out of bulbs. Haji Abdul, a 73-year-old Moses of a man, was the owner of the farm and one of those nostalgic for the heyday of the Helmand Valley project. He had worked with Americans for 15 years as a welder and manager. He was the first to bring electricity to his district. Now there was none.

"Why do you think people put mines out for the British and Italians doing eradication when they came here to save us?" He answered his own question: "Thousands of lands ready for harvest were destroyed. How difficult will it be for our people to tolerate that! You are taking the food of my children, cutting my feet and disabling me. With one bullet, I will kill you." Fortunately he didn't have to kill anyone. He had paid 2,000 afghanis per jerib (about a half acre) of land to the police, he told me, adding that they would then share the spoils with the district administrator and all the other Interior Ministry officials so that only a small percentage of the poppy would be eradicated.

When I asked Manan Farahi, the director of counterterrorism efforts for Karzai's government, why the Taliban were so strong in Helmand, he said that Helmandis had, in fact, hated the Taliban because of Mullah Omar's ban on poppy cultivation. "The elders were happy this government was coming and they could plant again," Farahi told me. "But then the warlords came back and let their militias roam freely. They were settling old scores - killing people, stealing their opium. And because they belonged to the government, the people couldn't look to the government for protection. And because they had the ear of the Americans, the people couldn't look to the Americans. Into this need stepped the Taliban." And this time the Taliban, far from suppressing the drug trade, agreed to protect it.


Should he ever run into a problem in Afghanistan, he [Razzaq, a drug smuggler] told me, "I simply make a phone call. And my voice is known to ministers, of course. They are in my network. Every network has a big man supporting them in the government." The Interior Ministry's director of counternarcotics in Kabul had told me the same thing. Anyway, if the smugglers have problems on the ground, they say, they just pay the Taliban to destroy the enemy commanders.
Elizabeth Rubin, New York Times, Oct. 22, 2006

To find out how the opium trade works and how it's related to the Taliban's rise, I spent the afternoon with an Afghan who told me his name was Razzaq. He is a medium-level smuggler in his late 20's who learned his trade as a refugee in Iran. He was wearing a traditional Kandahari bejeweled skull cap, a dark blazer and a white shalwar kameez, a traditional outfit consisting of loose pants covered by a tunic. He moved and spoke with the confident ease of a well-protected man. "The whole country is in our services," he told me, "all the way to Turkey." This wasn't bravado. From Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, he brings opium in the form of a gooey paste, packaged in bricks. From Badakhshan in the northeast, he brings crystal - a sugary substance made from heroin. And from Jalalabad, in the east on the road to Peshawar, he brings pure heroin. All of this goes through Baramcha, an unmanned border town in Helmand near Pakistan. Sometimes he pays off the national soldiers to use their vehicles, he said. Sometimes the national policemen. Or he hides it well, and if there is a tough checkpoint, he calls ahead and pays them off. "The soldiers get 2,000 afghanis a month, and I give them 100,000," he explained with an angelic smile. "So even if I had a human head in my car, they'd let me go." It's not hard to see why Razzaq is so successful. He has a certain charm and looks like the modest tailor he once was, not a man steeped in illegal business.


Should he ever run into a problem in Afghanistan, he told me, "I simply make a phone call. And my voice is known to ministers, of course. They are in my network. Every network has a big man supporting them in the government." The Interior Ministry's director of counternarcotics in Kabul had told me the same thing. Anyway, if the smugglers have problems on the ground, they say, they just pay the Taliban to destroy the enemy commanders.

[RAWA Homepage] [More reports from Afghanistan] [RAWA Photo Gallery]