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Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), February 12, 2007

Afghanistan heading for record poppy harvest

Provincial officials say 2007 could be the biggest year yet for opium production in the war-torn province

Helmand's status as the opium capital of the world seems secure for the present. Sources inside the provincial government say this year's opium poppy harvest could dwarf even the record levels of 2006. And a team of eradicators sent from Kabul to destroy the crop is meeting with armed resistance even before they begin work, say local residents.

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

"There is almost twice as much land under cultivation for poppy this year," said Engineer Ghulam Nabi, head of Helmand province's agriculture department. "Farmers are not receiving adequate support from the government, so they are growing more poppy."

Helmand is part of the increasingly problematic south of Afghanistan, where a growing insurgency has made it difficult for the government to mount an effective eradication campaign. Farmers, emboldened by the lack of effective counter-measures, as well as by support from the Taliban, are increasing their poppy acreage.

"More and more poppy is being grown in areas under Taliban control," said Ghulam.

In December, the United States government estimated that total opium production in Afghanistan for the year was 26 per cent higher than in 2005, while the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC, cited a higher forecast increase of 49 per cent in the Afghanistan Opium Survey it published in October.

Helmand's dominant role is clear from the statistics on how much land is used to grow opium poppy around the country. The UNODC report estimated that this one province accounted for 42 per cent of all Afghan cultivation in 2006, far more than any other part of the country. The poppy crop area in Helmand has been expanding exponentially - last year it was two-and-a-half times the land used in 2005.

If predictions are correct, 2007 could be the biggest year ever in Helmand. Ghulam said that this year there were 60,000 hectares planted with poppy, compared with 35,000 last year. However, he underlined that his agriculture department only looked at registered agricultural lands. Farmers are also planting poppy in the desert, beyond the scope of his data.

The UNODC's estimated 2006 cultivation figure of 69,000 hectares includes desert areas. There are no estimates for the total area under cultivation in 2007.

The prognosis is especially troubling in view of the large-scale counter narcotics efforts being mounted by the Afghan government, with generous support from America and Britain. Together, the two countries have pledged over two billion US dollars to help Afghanistan deal with its drug problem, including beefing up the police and judiciary, developing alternative livelihoods, and, when all else fails, destroying the poppy crop of those who persist in planting it.


In Helmand, at least, farmers have resisted all efforts to persuade them to switch crops.

"What am I supposed to plant? I have to support my family," said Haji Ramtullah, a farmer in Maarja, a district close to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. "If there was some other work I would never grow poppy. But I can't make enough money from vegetables, and there aren't any jobs. We have no factories, we don't even make matches here."

Some British and American counter-narcotics specialists have remarked privately that Helmand's farmers grow poppy out of greed rather than necessity. But Ramtullah insists he is barely eking out a living.

"We grow poppy, but the drug smugglers take it from us. We sell it cheaply, then they take it over the border into Pakistan. They make twice as much as we do," he said.

This is borne out by the UNODC report, which traces the bulk of profits to a few well-connected "drug lords". Most farmers, according to the report, are making a subsistence-level stipend from the crop.

"I have just two jeribs [approximately one acre] of land," complained Abdul Satar, also from Maarja. "I can grow 20 kilos of poppy, and make just about 100,000 afghani [2,000 dollars], which is barely enough to support my family."

The government has promised to help farmers find other means of earning a living, but farmers and officials alike grumble that support has been slow in coming.

"The government is telling us not to grow poppy but they're not helping us," said Joma Khan, a farmer from Nadali district. "They promised to give us saffron seeds, but they never delivered. If they want us to grow cotton or vegetables, they'll have to help us find markets."

Agriculture official Ghulam confirmed that there was too little government support to keep farmers from turning to poppy.

"Last year we gave seeds and fertiliser to 17,000 families," he said. "This was not enough. This year we will distribute 582 tonnes of seeds."

But farmers complain that vegetables and grains require too much water for Helmand's parched climate, and the market for such produce is not big enough to make it viable.

The list of those suspected of involvement in the drug trade reaches high into Karzai's government.

Nyamat [a former intelligence agent] and an Afghan trafficker singled out Gen. Mohammed Daoud, a former warlord who is Afghanistan's deputy interior minister in charge of the anti-drug effort.

The Kunduz trafficker said he wasn't worried. He counts Daoud as one of his connections. Late in the summer of 2003, he said, Daoud helped him retrieve heroin worth $200,000 that had been seized at the Salang Tunnel.
Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2005

"If I grow vegetables I won't even get back the money I put into it," said a farmer with 30 acres near Lashkar Gah. "That's why everyone is growing poppy."


One pillar of the counter-narcotics effort has been an information campaign designed to tell farmers that growing poppy is "haram", or contrary to Islam. The provincial government in Helmand has sought to enlist the help of religious leaders who can use their highly respected position to spread the word.

In some instances, this has backfired. While mullahs affiliated with the government have helped spread the message, some figures in the religious community have not been so cooperative.

"Poppy is the answer of the south," said one mullah who did not want to be named. "Foreigners make wine and send it out to the world. We have poppy. They kill our people, then tell us not to grow poppy. But we will not obey their orders. We will not be their slaves."

Even those who accept that producing opium violates the tenets of Islam can see alternative. "I know it is haram, but I have to feed my family," said Joma Khan.

One of the major fears about the massive poppy crop is that proceeds will be used to fund the growing Taliban insurgency. Taliban leaders deny forcing farmers to grow the plant, and also reject persistent reports that they are taking protection money from drug traffickers.

"We are not telling the people to grow poppy. It is up to the individual farmer," said a Taliban commander in Nawa district. "We are not getting any money from traffickers. The drug traffickers are the enemies of the people and the nation. They are our enemies."

But Taliban do not deny that they are supportive of the crop. And there is growing evidence that it is Taliban forces who are the most actively engaged in battling eradication efforts.


The first week in February saw persistent attacks on eradication teams sent out from Kabul.

"When the anti-poppy police came, they were based one kilometer away from my house," said Rahmatullah, a farmer from the Nadali district. "There was always fighting. I think it was the Taliban. Farmers aren't strong enough to fight the police."

But another farmer confirmed that locals were engaged in the attacks as well, "Some of the farmers have joined with the Taliban since the police came in. I am happy about it - if everyone is busy fighting, I can grow my poppy in peace."

Whoever is leading the fight, the Taliban are quick to reap the benefits.

"Most of the attacks are by local people," said a Taliban spokesman in Nadali district. "But the Taliban are helping them. This is a good opportunity for the Taliban to win local support. We can continue our jihad, and local people can keep their lands. Our Taliban are ready to go anywhere in Helmand to help people fight the eradication campaign."

According to General Daud Daud, deputy interior minister in charge of counter-narcotics, there are approximately 500 police in Helmand who were sent from the capital to spearhead eradication efforts.

"The attacks are normal," said Daud. "It is the Taliban or other enemies of the government."

If necessary, the interior ministry will send more police, he added.

Last year's eradication campaign failed largely because of wholesale corruption among the police.

"The richer farmers can pay bribes to avoid eradication, while the poorer ones can't," said Abdul Manan, head of the government's counter-narcotics department in Helmand.

Counter-narcotics officials in Kabul hope they will get better results by drafting in police from outside the target area.

"It is no simple matter to eradicate poppy," said presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi. "There will be a big reaction from people, but we will not listen. We are serious. We will use all our power to remove poppy from our lands."

The government has ruled out the use of chemical spraying for this year, but will consider it next season if poppy cultivation continues, said Sayed Mohammand Azam, spokesman for the ministry of counter-narcotics.


Yields have been so high that there is a risk of market saturation. According to UNODC, last year's harvest exceeded world demand for opium poppy by almost 30 per cent.

Another record year could send the market price of the raw material plummeting.

This explains why some drug traders are applauding the anti-poppy campaign.

"I'll be very happy if the eradicators are successful," said one trafficker in Lashkar Gah. "I have lots of poppy stored. If they don't destroy poppy, I'm afraid the price will come down."

Ordinary people welcome the short-term benefits the poppy crop bring, and give little thought to the damage that it can do over time.

"I hope the poppy crop is successful," said a shopkeeper in Lashkar Gah. "If the government cuts down poppy, people won't have any money and I won't be able to sell anything."

A prospective groom also expressed satisfaction at the benefits of poppy, explaining, "It used to be that a young man would have to go to Pakistan or Iran to earn enough money to get married. By the time he came back, he was already old. Now we can make money from poppy, and we don't have to go away."

One group of people know all too well the disastrous effects poppy can have on their lives - the growing number of Afghan drug addicts.

"When I was gathering poppy, I got the poppy milk on my fingers and began to taste it," said Raz Mohammad, now 64. "Over time, I started using more, and also smoking hashish. My relatives are ashamed of me. My message to everyone is - don't use hashish, and never work on the poppy harvest."

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