Pubdate: Mon, 26 Nov 2001
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Tim Weiner, New York Times


Taliban Too Weak To Enforce Ban On Growing Poppies

KHERABAD, Afghanistan -- Come spring, the poppies will be blooming in 
Afghanistan again.

"This is the time for planting,'' said Abdul Wakil, a 54-year-old farmer. 
"This year, 400 families here in the village will cultivate it. We take the 
opium and put it in a bag. Then we search for customers at the Friday bazaar.''

"There is no other way to survive,'' he added. "I have 10 children. There 
are 28 people in my house.''

There is nothing to do in Kherabad except farming, and there is not enough 
profit in wheat or corn to make a living, the farmers say. There is only 
one way -- to cultivate poppies and get the money.

The Taliban is gone from here. So is its ban on growing opium poppies. 
Afghanistan's production of raw opium fell from a world-record peak of more 
than a million pounds in 1999 to a mere 40,600 pounds this year, a 96 
percent decline, the U.N. Drug Control Program reported.

Say what one will about the Taliban, it just said no to poppies, 
imprisoning farmers who defied them. But now, barring an unexpected turn of 
events, Afghanistan can be expected to regain its status as the world's 
leading source of heroin in a year or two.

In late April, the children will slit the flowers' fat bulbs and scrape the 
ooze into a sack. Buyers will pay the farmers $100 or more per pound, at 
least one hundred times what fruits and vegetables will bring.

Then thousands of tons of opium will be hauled by trucks, taxis and mules 
over the mountains to Pakistan.

Refiners will turn it into hundreds of thousands of pounds of heroin worth 
billions of dollars to millions of addicts all over the world.

"This is my message to the world,'' Wakil said. "Help us establish 
industries in Afghanistan. We are tough people, hard workers, and we would 
happily quit the cultivation of poppy. But here there are no industries, no 
factories, nothing, and we need to take the money from the one remaining 

The economics of opium in Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest nations, 
are so stark as to defy argument. Aubaidullah, a 22-year-old farmer in 
Kherabad who is sowing poppy seeds, explained them well.

He said he planted one hectare, about 2.5 acres, of poppies last year and 
turned a profit of $13,000, allowing him to feed 15 people in his extended 
family and buy two new oxen to plow his fields. If he had planted wheat and 
vegetables on that land, he might have made $100, he said. Furthermore, 
Afghanistan has gone through a four-year drought, and poppies need far less 
water than vegetables or grain.

"A lot of people under the Taliban tried to plant corn and wheat, and they 
had to leave the country because of their debts,'' said Aubaidullah, who 
uses only one name. "If you plant poppy, the buyers will lend you the money 
you expect to reap from your crop in advance, at planting time.''

Shamshul Haq has the unenviable job of deputy chief drug-control officer in 
Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, the second leading 
opium-producing province in the 1990s.

His duties have become unclear under the new self-proclaimed government in 
eastern Afghanistan, the Eastern Shura. A chief official of the new 
ministry of law and order, Sorhab Qadri, said Sunday that "the top 
authorities have not yet decided whether to let the farmers continue 
cultivating poppies.''

Nangarhar had nearly 50,000 acres planted with poppies in 2000. That was 
enough to produce roughly a quarter of a million pounds of heroin base, Haq 
said, and represented 85 percent or more of all farm income in the 
province. That fell to less than 540 acres in the two growing seasons of 
2001, a nearly 99 percent decline. But Haq said poppy planting is soaring 
now in Afghanistan.

"Nothing is done for the farmers to show them why they should not grow 
poppy,'' Haq said. ``Without a lot of help from the world community, they 
will grow it not only in their fields but on the roofs and in their 

The Taliban's ban on poppy cultivation in no way meant a ban on opium 
sales, farmers and dealers say. Nearly a year's supply had been stashed away.

"We have a lot of people with opium in warehouses,'' said Wakil, the 
farmer. "It doesn't have an expiration date.''

In a hole in the wall deep in the Jalalabad bazaar, surrounded by currency 
traders and tea shops, Gul Zaman conducts his opium business. Business is 
good, he said with a smile. It has been good for two years.

"There never was a ban on selling under the Taliban -- just cultivation,'' 
he said.

Although wholesale prices plummeted from about $400 a pound to about $150 a 
pound after the Taliban fell, they will rebound, as the warehouse supplies 
that kept things running this year are almost dry now, Zaman said. If the 
middlemen ever run out, he has plenty of his own land planted with poppies.

He said he can sell up to 2,500 pounds of opium base on a good day. That 
will produce about 275 pounds of heroin. On an average day, he sells 600 to 
700 pounds of opium.

"The Taliban regime was the first in the history of Afghanistan to stop the 
cultivation of poppy,'' he said. ``It simply isn't possible for anyone 
except the Taliban to stop it. They had real power. The present regime does 
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens