Awash in some places in red poppy flowers as far as the eye can see, Helmand is thought to have produced half of Afghanistan's 9,000 tons of opium this year.
For most poor Afghan farmers and sharecroppers, poppy cultivation is a desperate survival strategy. Highly resilient to drought and disease, opium poppy is also 10 times more profitable than any other cash crop.
One Helmand farmer tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he grows opium poppies out of economic necessity. "I am 20,000 rupees [$350] in debt and I cannot earn even 50 rupees [$1] a day, so I have to plant poppies -- because I am anxious," he explains. "I know that it is a bad thing and the Holy Prophet Muhammad says that 'all intoxicants are forbidden.' But we need it [to survive] and so it is fine to plant it in a situation like ours."
Farmers Caught In Vicious Circle
The anxiety of Afghan farmers and the greed and ambitions of Afghan and international drug traffickers have turned Afghanistan into what some officials call a "narcostate." The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says this year's 9,000-ton Afghan opium crop is unprecedented in the past century and can be only compared to China in the 19th century. This year's Afghan crop alone surpasses estimated global demand by 3,300 tons.
With Helmand and the surrounding southwestern Afghan provinces in the lead, opium production shot up this year despite an increase in the number of poppy-free Afghan provinces from six to 13.
Abdul Ahad Masumi, a Helmand tribal leader, says that Helmand farmers are not part of any organized drug cartel. He says they seldom engage in smuggling, but must plant poppies out of desperation. "Over the past five years, the Afghan regime and the international community have done little to solve the problems of the people of Helmand," he says. "That left our people with little choice, and they have to plant poppies to survive."
Since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001, the Afghan government and the international community have tried several uncoordinated and largely futile policies to combat narcotics. Although the United States is now funding the counternarcotics efforts to tune of $600 million, most efforts still concentrate on poppy eradication -- and little is being done to provide poppy farmers with alternative livelihoods.
A former Helmand governor, Mohammad Daud, says the failure to combat drugs is hindering progress in all areas. He adds that poppy cultivation and the drug trade have enabled the Taliban to stage a comeback in Helmand and stalled reconstruction. "Similar to the fact that the people of Afghanistan are the worst victims of terrorism, people in Helmand are being hounded by [the cultivation] of this evil [poppy] plant," he says.
Peasants and farmers in Helmand frequently mortgage or borrow from drug smugglers against future crops. While the practice guarantees food for families, it also makes it difficult for farmers to exit a vicious cycle.
Links To Insecurity, Crime
Haji Mahuddin Khan, a tribal leader in Helmand, says that international drug rings are the main benefactors in Helmand, while poor peasants remain chained to poppy cultivation. "The farmers have never benefited from poppy cultivation," he says. "The profits are taken by those [officials] who tell farmers to engage in cultivation but then threaten their crops with eradication. The international mafia is the main benefactor, while we are being held responsible for it and portrayed as criminals."
Can Afghan farmers escape the vicious circle? (RFE/RL file photo)
There are indications that Afghan opium is now increasingly being processed inside the country. This year, the estimated number of laboratories processing raw opium into heroin grew from 30 to 50.
While the Taliban have always denied links to the drug trade, poppy cultivation has increased with insecurity and the spike in violence over the past three years. Enemies of the Afghan government encourage poppy cultivation and protect farmers against eradication, and they provide protection to drug smugglers in return for weapons and funding for their war effort.
Even now in the Helmand towns of Marjeh and Nade-Ali, opium bazaars operate with impunity. In the provincial capital, Lashkargah, many new villas belong to drug lords, and locals are clearly intimidated when asked to discuss these newly affluent.
More Carrot, Less Stick Needed
Tribal leader Ali Shah Mazlumyar argues that there is a simple way to rid Helmand of poppy cultivation. "If 1/100th of the antidrug aid dollars were spent on helping poor farmers [through alternative-crops schemes], the situation would be much different -- if the government could buy their crops en masse and then sell them cheaply [on the open market]," he says. "This would be an enormous help and might solve the problem [of poppy cultivation] without the use of guns, artillery, and tanks."
Some experts have expressed similar views recently, citing the example in 2002 when Afghanistan successfully shed old banknotes and replaced them despite strong reservations within the international community.
Most experts agree that transforming a largely rural Afghan economy must be one pillar of a successful policy to combat drugs. A crackdown on drug gangs -- including jailing drug lords -- must accompany economic transformation.
Thus far, the Afghan government has failed to arrest any significant drug traffickers in Helmand or elsewhere. Most arrests have been of low-level drug couriers.
Abdul Haleem Khalid, an adviser to the Afghan Interior Ministry on counternarcotics, was unable to name a single drug baron that the government has apprehended in Helmand. But he maintains that the government is trying hard. "We are in hot pursuit of the drug lords, and we have so far nabbed a few hundred people," he says. "We have plans to prepare a list of the major drug traffickers and put them into prison."
But official pronouncements might provide little solace to those in Helmand who are impatient to see their lives change for the better.