Opium production spreading in Afghanistan
First-time growers lured by high prices
amid weak oversight, economy
KABUL, Afghanistan - Mohammad Ashrafy waited for the death of the family figurehead, a respected mullah, before he finally planted opium poppies this year for the first time.
And sometimes, when he gazed out over the huge stretch of poppies he grew in the Ghor province of central Afghanistan this spring and summer, he felt guilty, recalling the admonishments of his late uncle, Mullah Mortaza Kahn.
"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 alternatives seem doomed when a grower can make about $5,200 from an acre of opium but $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 never grew opium began harvesting their crops in May, taught by experienced poppy farmers who have been traveling to new areas to share their skills.
Afghanistan regained its position as the largest opium country last year, producing 3,750 tons, and this year, production is expected to be as high, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Seventy-five percent of the world's heroin, obtained from opium poppies, comes from Afghanistan.
At a congressional hearing in Washington in June, 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 - equal to the international aid to Afghanistan in that period. In a recent report, the International Monetary Fund said opium accounted for up to half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, amounting to $2.5 billion in exports.
Early in the era of the Taliban, the radical Islamic regime that allowed the al-Qaida terror network to flourish in Afghanistan, opium cultivation was permitted. But in July 2000, more than a year before the United States knocked it out of power, the Taliban banned the crop and introduced the death penalty for opium crimes, leading to a sharp 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.
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., a Delaware Democrat, said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on drugs and terrorism in May. "It was a power vacuum created by warlords and drug-traffickers that enabled the Taliban and al-Qaida to turn Afghanistan into an international swamp. ... And now we're back in the same situation again."
Even before the death of his uncle, who had not been involved with the Taliban, Ashrafy learned to harvest poppies by helping with his neighbor's poppy harvest last year.
Ashrafy and his surviving brother are large landowners. In the past 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.
The political fate of the governor of Ghor province, Ebrahim Malakzada, is a telling example of what can happen to those who try to stop farmers from growing poppies.
"This year, the only person who said not to grow opium was the governor," said Ashrafy, the Ghor poppy farmer. "He met with the elders and told them not to let people grow poppies. Then a commander chased him out, and he had to flee."
The deputy governor, Mulladin Mohammad Azimy, seized the official governor's residence, and Malakzada, an ally of Karzai's, was forced to live in Kabul for a time.
An expert on the international drug trade, Rensselaer Lee, told the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the control of drugs has taken a back seat to fighting terrorism, building consensus and strengthening alliances.
"To build these alliances, unfortunately, we've had to make some arrangements, compromises with people who, frankly, may have some history of involvement with the drug trade and may be even currently protecting the drug trade," said Lee, president of Global Advisory Services, a Virginia-based research group.
In early June, Karzai called for $20 billion in foreign aid, warning that without an economic boost, people would have to live on the opium trade.
Afghan Finance Minister Ghani Ahmadzai has also warned that without more international aid, Afghanistan could become reliant on the drug trade and crime - a problem that would be more expensive to fix than giving short-term aid.
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