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Afghanistan: Despite Violence, Opium Eradication Continues

  • Ron Synovitz

Despite violent clashes with Afghan farmers recently, the country's interim administration is moving forward with a highly publicized campaign to destroy the country's most lucrative agricultural crop -- poppies grown to produce heroin and other illegal opiates. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports on the internationally backed opium eradication campaign.

Prague, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the security forces of the Afghan interim administration began to cut down poppies in several provinces, as part of a program to eradicate illegal opium farming, they were faced with violent protests from the farmers who had planted the flowers.

So far, at least nine Afghan farmers have died in clashes with security forces over the destruction of the plants, parts of which are used to produce heroin and other illegal opiates.

The farmers say the poppies are their only reliable form of income. And they say the offers of compensation made by the interim administration -- funds that ultimately come from foreign governments in the form of reconstruction donations -- have been inadequate.

Interim administration leader Hamid Karzai passed a decree in early April that calls for the destruction of opium poppy crops. The decree also says farmers who suffer financial losses as a result should be compensated. In January, the interim administration declared a ban on the cultivation of poppies.

Hazrat Ali is a local warlord from an area near Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangahar. He says the interim Afghan government has promised to pay some farmers in that region substantially more in compensation than it initially announced. He says the offer followed a failed assassination attempt against Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim in Jalalabad on 8 April -- the first day the eradication program was implemented.

Senior aides of Karzai are downplaying reports about plans for increased compensation. But Kemal Kursphahic, a spokesman for the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), told RFE/RL today that his latest information suggests that negotiations are, indeed, under way.

"According to information that I have received, the initial offer [by the interim administration to the poppy farmers] was in the range of about $1,250 per hectare, which is far less than the current drug market price. Probably it is about 10 percent of what they would get on the drug market now. But now there is reconsideration. There is some negotiation with farmers. And there is flexibility on the part of the interim administration, which I believe fully understands the concerns of Afghani farmers. They want to help them implement that ban," Kursphahic said.

Kursphahic described the current ban on opium farming as the most stringent decree on the issue in years. But he said he recognizes the interim administration also is facing challenges as it tries to enforce the ban.

"The decree [by Karzai] on the ban was even more comprehensive than the one issued by the Taliban in the year 2000 because the Taliban ban was only on cultivation, while the interim authority has banned all cultivation, processing, trafficking, abuse of opiates. The only problem, of course, is that the interim administration still does not have the law enforcement capacity to enforce its decree throughout Afghanistan. That's where the international community's role comes," Kursphahic said.

Kursphahic described a two-pronged aid strategy of the international community aimed at making Afghan farmers less dependent on opium farming.

"We believe that effective drug control rests on two pillars. One is effective law enforcement, and the other is community development -- which will give Afghani farmers some alternative, some way to live on commercial crops instead of opium cultivation that they grew dependent upon during the last decade," Kursphahic said.

On the one hand, Kursphahic said, international aid already is going to help the central government build up its security forces. That includes an extensive training program for law enforcement officers being undertaken by German troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"The international community is helping to develop and strengthen that law enforcement capacity, which is, of course, a long term project. It can't be done overnight in a country that is emerging from 23 years of conflict, devastation and war as Afghanistan [is]," Kursphahic said.

But Kursphahic also described a variety of aid programs aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan's agriculture infrastructure so that farming traditional food crops can become a reliable alternative to opium farming.

"The interim administration is trying to accommodate farmers' concerns as much as they can with the help of international donors. It's not only giving them money for compensating their losses. It's not only money. It's also seeds for the next sowing season. It's also irrigation efforts. It's also building the roads and infrastructure to make the alternatives [to growing opium] a more sustainable and long-lasting solution," Kursphahic said.

But Kursphahic said such reconstruction efforts will take time, and that Afghan farmers need help if they are going to switch from a crop upon which they have become economically dependent.

"Afghanistan is the single largest producer of opiates in the world -- amounting to 70 percent of global production of opiates in 2000 and up to 90 percent of all heroin found in Europe. So from the standpoint of the international drug control community, controlling drugs in Afghanistan is one of the top priorities," Kursphahic said.

The raw opium obtained from the flower pods of poppies often is converted into a morphine base, or into heroin, within Afghanistan. It is then smuggled to international markets along several key routes -- a northern overland route through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, west into Iran or east into Pakistan.

Ashraf Ghani, a special adviser to Karzai, said during the launch of the eradication program this week that there will be no backing down on the campaign to destroy cultivated poppies. He said Karzai's administration will listen to the concerns being raised by poppy farmers, but he warned that negotiations should not become a tactic used by farmers to postpone the eradication efforts.

For his part, Karzai told RFE/RL this week that it is in Afghanistan's national interest to end opium poppy cultivation. Karzai said opium poppy production is detrimental to both the economy and integrity of Afghanistan.

He said most of the profits from the illegal drug trade go abroad and are invested in foreign banks where the money doesn't do Afghanistan any good. Instead, he said, foreigners are benefiting from the drugs trade, while Afghanistan only acquires a bad reputation.

Karzai also said a flourishing drug trade in Afghanistan means the country's economy becomes a monopoly in the hands of Mafia groups and criminal gangs.

"From any perspective you look, from the perspective of religion, from the perspective of the country's national interest, from the perspective of the country's agriculture, Afghanistan must end poppy production, no matter what, and we have launched a program in this field. And we have received aid from international organizations to pay the farmers $250 per quarter hectare [not to plant poppies]," Karzai said.

Despite the eradication campaign, the UNDCP predicts farmers in Afghanistan will produce some 1,900 to 2,700 metric tons of opium in 2002.