Pubdate: Thu, 25 Apr 2002
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Anthony Loyd


IT WAS business as usual in Ghani Khel, eastern Afghanistan, until 10am on 
Monday. In the labyrinthine bazaar of the small town in Nangarhar Province, 
traders jostled with farmers in the dusty alleys, weighing and selling 
their wares as they have done each year, bar one, since 1980.

Then there was a shout of alarm, the sound of approaching engines, a 
scuffle and armed men burst through the bazaar gates. Some traders tried to 
flee, others to hide. Stall shutters were kicked in, merchants were beaten 
and arrested, their scales were thrown to the ground and the searches 
began. The operation, by men loyal to Haji Qadir, Governor of Jalalabad, 
lasted until 5pm.

When it had finished, Ghani Khel's bazaar, the largest open opium market in 
the world, lay gutted and empty.

Afghanistan's interim Government was quick to crow. In Jalalabad, 
provincial capital of the opium-rich Nangarhar, Haji Qadir announced that 
more than 2,000kg (4,400lb) of opium, 250kg of heroin and 400kg of refining 
chemicals had been seized and 69 people had been arrested.

The raid was the latest act in the Government's two-week-old operation to 
eradicate poppy cultivation and opium trading. It was intended to prove to 
the West the authorities' intent to crack down on opium and speed the 
passage of the UKP490 million in aid promised by donors at the Tokyo 
conference for Afghanistan's reconstruction in January.

Yet behind the public face of the anti-drug campaign, backed by British 
soldiers and European money, lurks a mess of corruption and ineptitude that 
falls far short of its intended aim and is instead destabilising eastern 

There are three principal poppy-growing zones in the country: Helmand 
Province in the south, Badakhshan in the north and Nangarhar in the east. 
Farmers use the jirib as a unit of land, each jirib approximating to a 
fifth of a hectare. In a good year one jirib can produce 16kg of raw opium.

In the early Nineties, when the civil war was at its height and opium 
production in overdrive, 1kg could be sold for as little as $40. In 2000, 
the Taleban banned poppy-growing, a move that may have been genuine or may 
have had the intent of reducing availability and raising prices. Whatever 
the reason, opium prices rocketed to more than $800 per kg. The September 
11 attacks reversed the tide.

"Last November, when we saw the Taleban begin to run away and the alliance 
forces move closer, we all began planting poppies again," said Mohammad 
Haliq, a 75-year-old farmer in Nangarhar, one of the men whose labours have 
now stabilised the price at $500 a kg.

Western governments were alarmed. As Tony Blair has claimed that more than 
95 per cent of heroin in Britain is believed to originate in Afghanistan, 
the British Government was particularly attentive.

On April 3, encouraged by the promise of money in Tokyo and a hefty budget 
from the European Union, Hamid Karzai, head of the interim Government, 
began his drug eradication programme. Teams from the Welfare and Relief 
Committee (WRC), an Afghan organisation, were to survey areas of poppy 
cultivation, along with government forces, who were to destroy poppy fields 
after they had been charted. Farmers were to be paid $350 out of the EU 
cash for every jirib of poppies eradicated.

The scheme ran into trouble immediately. Many poppy farmers are dirt poor 
and work on small amounts of land, two or three jiribs in size. After four 
years of drought, they cannot rely on wheat or vegetables as alternative 
cash crops. To survive, most have joined a loansharking scheme, borrowing 
money that puts them permanently in debt to opium traders.

"I don't want to farm poppy," Khan Rasul, 65, a farmer in Jalalabad, said, 
"but I borrowed money five years ago to feed my family. Most of the 
money-lenders are opium traders. I have to pay them back double the money 
in cash, or the equivalent value in opium to the original loan."

Now these farmers see their crops being razed just before harvest. When 
there is no time to plant an alternative crop $350 per jirib is scant 
consolation. Whether through thwarted avarice or deepening poverty, they 
are furious.

Moreover, there is no apparent auditing of the compensation scheme. The EU 
money is given to the Government, which in turn delivers it to WRC. The WRC 
surveyors produce lists pertaining to the amount of land for which they 
have to compensate farmers.

"It's wide open to corruption at every level," a senior foreign official 
remarked, "from the top to the bottom. Everyone is taking a double dip. 
There are deals going on all over the place. Some farmers get paid though 
their crops are hardly touched. Others get nothing but an IOU when their 
entire load has been eradicated, and officials pocket the cash."

Already armed resistance has begun. Although the Afghan authorities in 
Nangarhar deny it, Western officials say in private that last week one WRC 
surveyor was killed at Torkam, near the Pakistani border, and another 
wounded in a clash with farmers. Six farmers were killed and 35 wounded in 
the same incident. Last Sunday, the same officials say, two farmers were 
shot dead and three were wounded in Dara Noor, in Nangarhar, after 
government forces fired on them for disputing compensation cash.

In the remoter areas of Shinwari and Hogani, where armed resistance against 
central control has been a way of life for centuries, mines are being laid 
around poppy fields and bunkers dug.

"The original survey was flawed right from the start," one source said. 
"The UN called off its own independent survey due to worries about the 
process and the violence, and the Afghan surveyors simply were not allowed 
into the tribal areas."

Jalalabad's Governor admits to some, but not all, of the problems. "The 
eradication programme is too late," Mr Qadir said yesterday in his opulent 
residence. "It was delayed, and we have already missed much of the harvest. 
The British pay only $5 for the labour of destroying each jirib, so it's 
hard to find enough men to do it - $5 doesn't go far between 20 men." The 
WRC confesses it has surveyed only 16 of Nangarhar's 22 districts; 162,000 
jiribs of poppy were reported. Yet eradication operations have begun in 
only six districts and, away from the main roads, huge swaths of territory 
lie pincushioned with poppy fields, glistening with resin from the first 
bleeds of harvest.

Insiders in Jalalabad claim that a tussle for power between Mr Qadir, Haji 
Zaman, the province's security chief, and Haji Hazrat Ali, the eastern zone 
military commander, is further complicating matters and affecting the 
loyalties in the tribal zones.

"We are going to hold a shura, leave Qadir, and pledge our allegiance to 
Hazrat Ali," an irate trader told me after the raid in Ghani Khel. The 
raid's lack of control seemed evident: even the town's doctor had his car 
stolen from his clinic. The innocent suffered with the guilty, and in a 
tribal area that leads to bloodshed.

If anyone understands the harsh reality of the Afghan opium trade, it may 
be the British, who pledged in Geneva to co-ordinate international support 
for the Afghan Government over opium. Haji Hazrat Ali and Waliullah Ghulam, 
the WRC's chief executive, speak of "British secret soldiers" doing their 
own surveys and assessments in opium areas and escorting EU money to 
Jalalabad, and of "British helicopters" charting government efforts in 

In hindsight, even the raid on Ghani Khel was not what it seemed. Traders 
who escaped or bribed their way out of arrest admitted that the contents of 
more than 200 opium stalls had been confiscated by the Governor's men.

"Some of those stalls had more than 100 kilos of opium in, some only ten 
kilos," Noor Mohammed said. "Qadir's men took it all away in trucks piled 
to the roofs." Yet by the time the contraband reached Jalalabad, Mr Qadir 
said that only 2,000kg had been seized. By even the most conservative 
estimate, thousands of kilos of opium have gone astray.

Poppy Plant

Resin begins to ooze from the poppy head when it is scraped at harvest time 
with a rambai, a small wooden implement with six shallow, serrated edges.

The next day the farmer scrapes this liquid from each plant head with a 
nashtar - a tool that resembles a small metal half-moon.

The opium resin, which turns dark in colour, is moulded together in a soft 
lump of up to 1kg and wrapped in leaves or polythene.

Each poppy can be bled and scraped up to eight times.

Opium prices have varied according to the pressures of war. Most farmers 
plant in November and harvest in April.

A unit of land, an irib (about one fifth of a hectare) can produce 16kg 
(32.5lb) of raw opium a year.
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MAP posted-by: Alex