Poppies surface again in Afghan heroin heartland

The Guardian

Kabul, January 1:

Snow drifted across the sawtooth peaks of Tora Bora, the mountain redoubt where three years ago Osama bin Laden wriggled through an American dragnet as soldiers reached his secret cave complex.

Today the Al-Qaeda leader is on the run and his Taliban allies have scattered. But further down the wooded slopes a potent new threat to Afghanistan’s future is quietly pushing to the surface. Tens of thousands of tiny green poppies, sown in the winter soil last month, are growing fast. The innocent-looking plants are the raw material for a drugs boom that experts say could turn Afghanistan into a lawless narco-state. Almost 90 per cent of all heroin will come from Afghanistan this year, according to a UN report. The $2.8bn trade accounts for 40 per cent of the country’s economy, employs 10 per cent of the population, and has fuelled the rise of drug lords who threaten to upend the fragile democratic transition.

The province of Nangarhar, along the Pakistani border, is the heroin heartland. Here drug production is not limited to a criminal minority; it is a community endeavour. Four out of five families are involved in opium and the province grew 23 per cent of the most recent national crop. The economics are simple, said Haji Silamer, a Pachir tribal leader: “We grow a field of wheat and make $300. We grow opium, we earn $3,000.” Tackling the trade is a priority for the newly inaugurated president, Hamid Karzai. Last month hundreds of tribal leaders

gathered at his fortress-like

palace to hear him make an impassioned appeal. Opium cultivation was a “cancer”, even worse than the Soviet occupation, he said. “Please stop this disgrace and dishonour. I want respect and honour for my country.” Some are listening. Significant numbers of farmers in Nangarhar have spurned opium for wheat in some districts, said the deputy governor, Muhammad Asif Qazi Zada. Diplomats in Kabul have received reports of a similar drop in Hilmand, another top drugs province.

The claims can only be fully verified during April’s harvest. But in three areas visited by the London-based Guardian newspaper, there was real evidence of change. In Pachir wa Agam, a few miles from the Pakistani border, Shah Wazir stood on a plot that was carpeted with poppies last year. Now there is wheat.

“When we voted for Karzai we promised to stop the poppy in return for irrigation and good roads,” he said. “We are keeping our side of the bargain. Now he must keep his.”

Civic spirit is not the only factor in the change of heart in this remote district. Crop disease last year turned some farmers from opium. Others have been scared by a concerted anti-opium drive by the governor and provincial police chief.

The area’s Pashtuns are also hoping international promises of help will finally come good.

The US recently donated 500 tonnes of wheat seed, but after a seven-year drought farmers say much more is needed.

If new wells, roads and irrigation systems do not materialise soon, they would resort to their “insurance policy”, said Mr Silamer. “If the government doesn’t keep its promises, we go back to poppy,” he said.