As the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan concentrates on military operations, the country's opium poppy crop is quietly growing taller in the fields. Now, as the May to July harvest season approaches, international concern is building over how to keep a new flood of opium and heroin from reaching world markets. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the looming crisis with Afghanistan's poppy crop and what is being done to manage it.
Prague, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It is no secret that fields in Afghanistan's opium poppy growing regions are already green with the shoots of this year's crop.
Farmers across Afghanistan -- and particularly in the south -- planted the tenacious poppy seeds ahead of the winter in November. Now, sucking what moisture they can from the rains and snow -- and despite Afghanistan's three past years of drought -- the hardy plants are growing rapidly. In some areas, the resin from their flower buds can be collected as early as May. In other areas, the harvesting will take place by July.
As the crop grows, so does international concern over the size of the opium motherload it is about to yield. UN drug control experts estimate that by the time this year's crop is fully harvested, the resin will produce some 1,900 to 2,700 metric tons of opium -- the raw material for making heroin. And they are warning that if the harvest is not prevented, markets in Europe, the Arab Gulf states, and in the transit states of Iran and Central Asia will face a dramatic increase in heroin trafficking this year.
But stopping this year's opium poppy crop from going to market is not yet an international priority. At the moment, the attention of both the international community and Afghanistan's interim government is focused on destroying the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and rebuilding the country's economy. To deal with the looming opium crisis will require major new commitments from both sides. And there is no certainty that these commitments can be made in time to impact this year's harvest.
The spokesman for the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP), Kemal Kurspahic, told RFE/RL recently that unless the harvest is prevented, Afghanistan this year will return to the level of opium-poppy production it had in the mid-1990s. The agency, headquartered in Vienna, last week released the results of its annual early assessment of Afghanistan's poppy growing areas, which it conducted last month.
Kurspahic sums up the findings this way: The estimated level of production for 2002 ranges between 1,900 and 2,700 metric tons of opium, which is approximately at the levels of the mid-'90s. It is less than the record year of 1999, which was 4,600 metric tons, but it is at the high levels of the mid-'90s."
The UNDCP, which examined fields around 208 villages, will follow up its early assessment with a full-scale survey during the harvest season. The final results from that survey will be available in August.
Kurspahic says the agency's findings so far indicate that Afghanistan's opium poppy farmers are back in business after almost universally observing a Taliban ban on planting the flowers in 2000. That ban came after 1999 saw a record harvest that made Afghanistan the source of 70 percent of all the world's production of opiates.
The motives for the Taliban's ban on cultivation remain unknown, with explanations ranging from sudden religious scruples about the drug trade to a desire to maximize profits on existing stockpiles. Previously, the Taliban had taxed the annual opium harvest as a substantial source of revenue and permitted the export of drugs abroad, though it banned their use at home.
Kurspahic says Afghanistan's farmers have returned to growing opium poppies for two reasons.
One is that they can sell the poppies for at least 10 times the profit they can make with food crops. A farmer can sell a kilogram of poppy resin directly after harvesting to local opium dealers for some $30. That is equivalent to a month's wages in Afghanistan among those few people lucky enough to have a full-time job.
The second reason is that farmers are already so heavily indebted to opium dealers that they cannot afford to switch to less profitable crops even if they want to. Over the past two decades, opium dealers have become the only source of rural credit left in Afghanistan's war-destroyed economy, where farmers traditionally borrow money at the beginning of the planting season to assure they have enough to live on until the next harvest.
Currently, farmers' debts are particularly high because they had no opium poppy crop last year with which to make repayments. That puts them under intense pressure to grow poppies this year in order to make their repayments in the only currency the opium dealers accept: poppy resin.
Experts say that to break the cycle of opium growing in Afghanistan will be extremely difficult because it involves several tough-to-take steps.
For the still fledgling central government in Kabul, the problems include building up sufficient power to challenge the opium dealers, who often form tight economic relations with powerful local warlords. Previously, media reports have linked both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban opposition, which now holds power in Kabul, with partly funding their activities with opium taxes.
Recently, the Afghan interim administration passed several edicts outlawing opium poppy growing and trafficking in narcotics. But it has yet to test the extent of its authority by enforcing any of those decrees in the provinces.
The head of the interim Interior Ministry's drug control department, Haji Sultan Mohammad Quraishi, told Radio Free Afghanistan last week that Kabul is well aware of the opium poppy crisis. But in an interview with correspondent Ahmad Takal, he presented no program for trying to solve it, other than appealing for the cooperation of regional governors.
"Due to the long-imposed war upon the people of Afghanistan, communication networks and irrigation systems have been ruined. Hospitals and addict treatment centers have been destroyed. Our farmers feel a deep need to have these networks reconstructed. The strategy of the Interior Ministry is to invite the [regional] governors to seminars which will be held in the ministry. Of course, seminars on narcotics are of the utmost priority."
But local officials tell Western reporters they have little power to stop the opium trade alone. Haji Pir Mohammad, the top assistant to the governor of southern Helmand Province -- one of the heaviest opium-growing areas -- told the "Chicago Tribune" last week that "we are powerless to stop it...so we will do nothing."
In Kandahar Province, another major opium-growing area, a local security chief told Britain's daily "The Guardian" that "there is not much we can do this year because the poppies have already been planted.... We'll make a start next year."
International drug experts say that to eradicate the opium trade, the interim government and the international community will have to commit to using a mixture of force and economic inducements. But just as the Afghan interim government so far has refrained from using force, so has the international community yet to target opium-growing areas for substantial new aid programs.
Kurspahic says the international community is now discussing financial strategies for dealing with the opium poppy crisis, including paying farmers not to grow the flowers and assisting villages as they switch to other crops. But no decisions have yet been made.
"Paying the farmgate price (paying farmers the same amount they would receive from opium dealers for their harvest) might be still more reasonable and less expensive than allowing a massive amount of Afghan drugs [to flood into] international markets. There are a number of other ideas, from just destroying the crops, to supporting farmers to voluntarily giving up on production of opiates. And I think all of those decisions are subject to realistic assessment on the ground between international and Afghan partners."
As that kind of assessment takes place, it remains unclear when a course of action will be decided upon. And until a decision is made, Afghanistan's drug trade will continue to take a high toll in the states it transits and in the market states of the Gulf and Europe.
Over the past decade, cheap Afghan opium and heroin have become readily accessible to growing populations of addicts in Iran, the Central Asian states, and Pakistan. In Europe, up to 90 percent of the heroin on the illegal market is reported to be Afghan in origin.