When Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia issued a decree last summer forbidding the planting of opium poppies, few observers believed the ban was serious. That was because Afghanistan in recent years has been the world's leading producer of opium -- the raw material for heroin and a profitable revenue source for all of Afghanistan's warring factions. But with the current growing season now underway, drug-control officials have found almost no evidence of poppy cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports that many regional drug experts are convinced that the Taliban is in earnest, even as they try to guess at the militia's motives.
Islamabad, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Journalists traveling inside Afghanistan were the first to notice there was something strange about the appearance of the countryside this spring.
Vast stretches of land around the eastern city of Jalalabad and further west around Kandahar -- the home of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar -- were oddly colorless. Usually at this time of year, they would be covered with red poppy flowers, but now there were none.
When the travelers told that to international drug experts in nearby Pakistan, the reaction was disbelief. One Western diplomat recalls that his first thought was that the growing season must be late this year.
Still, the reports were intriguing because they represented the first chance to judge how serious the Taliban had been last year in ordering a total ban on poppy planting. That ban followed an earlier edict to farmers to reduce poppy cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas by a third, an edict so little enforced that cultivation instead doubled.
But if there were many in Islamabad's diplomatic community who were skeptical that the new Taliban decree would be any different than the last, they were soon to change their minds. Early last month, the UN Drug Control Program, or UNDCP, made a quick survey of major poppy-growing fields in Taliban areas and confirmed there were almost no flowers there.
Bernard Frahi, head of the UNDCP's regional office in Islamabad, still recalls his astonishment when his survey team found the poppy farmers this year were growing food crops instead. Bernard Frahi:
"We covered four provinces only, but these four provinces represented about 86 percent of all [of Afghanistan's] poppy cultivation last year and the year before. The outcome was astonishing. Wherever we went, we saw only wheat or uncultivated fields and apparently [there are] more than 70,000 hectares which will not be cultivated this year with poppies."
That is in very sharp contrast to last year, when Afghanistan posted a record season for poppy cultivation, with some 82,000 hectares producing flowers. Such harvests have made the country in recent years the world's leading producer of opium poppies, with the vast majority of the crop grown in Taliban-controlled areas. Last year, the UNDCP also estimated that some 1.4 million Afghans were engaged in poppy cultivation, which earned the farmers some $69 million.
The UNDCP is now carrying out its full, annual assessment survey of Afghanistan's poppy-growing areas, which will provide a detailed picture of the changes. But Frani and other drug experts in the region fully expect Afghanistan this year will be classified as a non-opium-producing country.
"It is astonishing because one country which appeared to be the world's poppy grower or opium producer, with about 75 percent of the world's production last year of opium, will this year appear as a country which does not produce opium."
The reversal has left many experts guessing as to what motivated the Taliban's action. The reasons being discussed in Islamabad range from spiritual to cynical to political.
Western diplomats say they do not rule out that Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered strict enforcement of last year's ban out of a sudden conviction that the drug business in any form is evil. In the past, the Taliban has issued fatwas that prohibited Afghans from using drugs even as the militia profited from the export opium trade.
The Taliban collected revenue taxes from both farmers and drug-processing laboratories which by conservative estimates earned it some $20 to $30 million a year.
Other observers say the ban could be a cynical step to drive up the export price of opium and heroin by cutting back on the poppy supply, perhaps just for a season. They say the price of Afghan opium has now soared to six times its level last year. Some drug experts say the Taliban may hold sizeable stockpiles of opium because farmers sometimes paid the militia's tax on opium cultivation in kind -- that, is in opium paste.
Still others, including Frahi, believe the Taliban enforced the ban to send a message to the international community that they are a responsible government. The Taliban has issued no statement explaining its action but in the past has linked any crackdown on opium poppy production to the United Nations recognizing it as the legitimate government of Afghanistan -- a status it does not now have.
Frahi says the UNDCP has worked hard to convince the Taliban of the need to observe international drug conventions and has progressively seen the militia take a more responsible position.
"We had to convince, and I can tell you it wasn't easy, but gradually we managed to bring the Taliban to decisions on drug control. One was in 1999, a decree by Mullah Omar, calling for a reduction of one-third in poppy cultivation. We told them [one-third] was [an] insignificant [amount] and that they would not get any credit for it."
Yet another possible explanation for the Taliban's reversal is the ongoing drought in Afghanistan, which has raised a threat of famine in some areas.
The militia may have seen a need to use the country's best-irrigated growing areas for food crops instead of poppy flowers.
Whatever the motivation, drug experts agree that the Taliban have done a service by virtually eliminating opium poppy cultivation in the some 90 percent of Afghanistan they control. And that service will be double if it continues into future growing seasons.
But the Taliban's abrupt elimination of poppy cultivation is likely to have a heavy cost for many Afghan farmers. The ban has not been accompanied by any aid to farmers or any alternate work for migrant workers who help bring in the poppy crop. In Afghanistan's war-destroyed economy, opium merchants have until now been one of the few sources farmers could turn to for the loans they need to survive until they sell their next harvest.
That leaves a lot of work to be done to turn the Taliban's decree on banning poppy cultivation into a sustainable economic policy.