Victorious warlords set to open the opium floodgates
Paul Harris in Peshawar
Saturday November 24 2001
Sayed Ali welcomed the fall of the Taliban, but the new political and social freedoms now on offer mean little to the poverty-stricken Afghan farmer. What is important is that he can grow opium poppies again - he has already planted his first crop.
In the small mud-brick village of Chinar Khalia, near the eastern city of Jalalabad, Ali and other local farmers are now looking forward to a bumper harvest around mid-April. The Taliban ban on poppy-growing, which slashed Afghan opium production by 94 per cent last year, is over. And the impact on the West will be huge - 90 per cent of Europe's heroin comes from opium grown in Afghanistan.
'The Taliban order on poppy-growing was false,' Ali said. 'It hurt many farmers that they could not grow poppies. Now I will earn money again.'
But the wrinkled old farmer, whose leathery skin has been baked nut-brown after a lifetime in the fields, is not the only one set to cash in. The new warlords, who have replaced the Taliban across large swaths of Afghanistan, will earn millions of dollars too. The Northern Alliance has always indulged in opium production, but now it has captured some of the richest opium-growing lands in the country.
Of Afghanistan's 29 provinces, 10 grow poppies. Of these the richest are Helmand in the south, still under Taliban control, and Nangrahar in the east, which has fallen to local warlords. With massive potential riches from opium at stake, the province is experiencing fierce factional fighting.
Ali expects the new rulers of the province to encourage him to grow as much opium as possible. 'Before the ban the government used to collect taxes on my poppies, now the warlords will collect them. We will have no problems from them,' he said.
Opium-growing has a long history in Afghanistan, a tradition shattered by last year's sudden Taliban ban on poppy planting after several years of unofficial tolerance and profit from the crop. 'Last year was the first time in 50 years that poppies had not been grown in my village,' Ali said.
During the ban the only source of poppy production was territory held by the Northern Alliance. It tripled its production. In the high valleys of Badakhshan - an area controlled by troops loyal to the former President Burhannudin Rabbani - the number of hectares planted last year jumped from 2,458 to 6,342. Alliance fields accounted for 83 per cent of total Afghan production of 185 tonnes of opium during the ban.
Now that the Alliance has captured such rich poppy-growing areas as Nangrahar, production is set to rocket. Helmand, too, is being replanted by its Taliban rulers, who have abandoned their anti-opium stance and want to cash in on their remaining sources of revenue.
Western and Pakistani officials fear that, within a year or two, Afghanistan could again reach its peak production figures of 60,000 hectares of poppies producing 2,800 tonnes of opium - more than half the world's output.
Alliance factions and other warlords deny benefiting from opium production, but it is an open secret that nearly all tolerate it. Most are happy just to cream off the taxes, but others have been more directly involved. Hazrat Ali, one of the new warlords in control in Nangrahar, ran Jalalabad airport in the mid-Nineties at a time when weekly flights to India and the Gulf carried huge amounts of opium to Western markets. During the war against the Russians, the huge and illicit drugs trade nurtured by the mujahideen was ignored and tolerated by the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies in return for their commitment to fight the Soviet Union.
Now, with the Taliban ban on poppy- growing lifted, it would appear that Afghanistan is facing a return to those days. The main Nangrahar opium bazaar of Ghani Khel has reopened for business. Afghan opium traders arriving in the Pakistani city of Peshawar claim 100 of the market's 300 stalls now sell opium blocks stockpiled during the ban. The same is true of Kandahar, where the city's main opium bazaar escaped the US bombing.
'All our evidence is consistent. They are replanting in a major way,' said Bernard Frahi of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention located in Islamabad.
For Afghan farmers it is a simple choice. A farmer can earn £6,000 for a hectare of opium, compared to just £34 for wheat.
Ali knows opium produces heroin and disapproves of drug use, but he has a family of 14 to feed and his land has been gripped by three years of drought. 'I am poor and need money for clothes and food. Perhaps if Afghanistan becomes rich and there is peace, I will not need to grow poppies,' he said.
In the quiet Peshawar suburb of University Town, nestled between the offices of Western aid agencies, a crowd gathers each morning outside a forbidding steel gate. Inside, the roof of a sprawling mansion can be seen. The beggars are here for alms. The man who lives here is Peshawar's most powerful drugs baron and the poor know he can afford to be generous. Other large houses dotted around Peshawar tell the same story. Locals refer to them as 'the houses that drugs built'. Peshawar lies on the main smuggling route south. It was also the home of the Afghan opposition during Soviet and Taliban rule.
In the lawless Pashtun tribal areas just outside the city limits, opium is sold openly. It is easy, although illegal, to buy. In a shop on the main road to Afghanistan, 26-year-old Imran cuts off a 50g piece of sticky, dark brown opium resin, known as tor . It costs just £7.
Foreigners are not allowed here, but it is just a short drive over the tribal boundary past police guards who pay no attention to the traffic. On the wall behind Imran hang a Kalashnikov machine gun and a shotgun - a sign of the dangers of the drugs trade. But business will soon be good, he says. The Northern Alliance warlords will see to that. 'They would be stupid to try and ban the poppies. They make so much money.'
It is estimated that when production picks up, about one million Afghan farmers will earn £70 million from growing poppies. That is a huge industry in a country with little other obvious sources of foreign money exchange.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited