AFGHANISTAN, OPIUM BAZAAR, WARLORDS, HELMAND, OPIUM CAPITAL, KANDAHAR DRUG CONTROL AND COORDINATION UNIT, AHMADULLAH ALIZAI, WAR ON TERROR

The central bazaar here in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is straight out of "The Arabian Nights." Donkey carts piled high with fruit creak past mounds of orange and yellow spices. Men with bulbous black turbans and curled-toe payzar shoes browse at stalls hung with skinned lamb carcasses.

But down one dusty lane a thin young man with a wispy beard, was brandishing something decidedly more modern: a Thuraya satellite phone. "I use it to call my family in Pakistan," says the man, standing in a dimly lit shop with brown handprints staining the walls. He didn't say, but that "family" could easily be The Family--as in the narco-mafia who, based in Pakistan, Iran and former Soviet Central Asian republics, help move thousands of pounds of opium from the two dozen cubby-hole shops in this corner of the bazaar.

Afghanistan was once the largest opium producer in the world. By 1999, it was producing enough to make some 75 percent of the global heroin supply. The country's Taliban rulers stepped in by banning the growing of opium poppies the following year. But they did not destroy existing stocks of the drug, and the country's narcotic trade continued to flourish. Fifty percent of the poppies grown in the country come from Helmand, long known as the opium capital. "By putting a ban on poppy cultivation, the Taliban killed two birds with one stone," Ahmadullah Alizai, director of the Kandahar Drug Control and Coordination Unit says at his office, which lost its fleet of poppy-surveying trucks to Taliban looting. "They increased the market price [by creating a shortage,] which earned them millions of dollars, and they were also able to receive international aid in the process."

My interpreter didn't want to go to the opium bazaar. "The people will think you're going to screw their business and it will be very dangerous," he warned. There was reason to be nervous. Merchants in Lashkar Gah's bazaar--one of several in the province who openly sell opium--have been raking in money since the Taliban banned poppy cultivation in July 2000. But they fear this might be about to change. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim leader, announced a nationwide ban on the cultivation and trafficking of all narcotics in mid-January. Unlike the Taliban, Karzai may also prevent the open sale of opium. So it was reasonable to assume that foreigners would not be welcome in Lashkar Gah.

And we weren't. There were many unsmiling faces as I walked past the palm-thatched awnings of the opium shops with photographer Thorne Anderson, a reluctant interpreter and two armed guards. A crowd of more than 100 quickly gathered around us when Haji Abdul Ali, a 25-year veteran of the opium trade with a large black beard and faint traces of kohl around his eyes, talked about his profession. "Since war started in Afghanistan, there's no other business for us," he said as our guards shouted and pushed the crowd back. "If the new government presented us with an alternative line of work then we wouldn't need to do this."

Ali, who claimed to be the sole breadwinner for an extended family of 22, said he wasn't worried about Karzai's recent ban. He hadn't seen any law enforcement passing through the bazaar and didn't expect to see any. Opium prices, currently at a healthy $600 per kilo (2.2 pounds), had peaked at more than $800 per kilo after the Taliban ban and may rise again if the interim government starts a crackdown. Meanwhile, stocks are running low. Ali expected a flood of opium to hit the market from the heavy planting that had taken place after the fall of the Taliban in November. "Prices are going to crash in two months," he said.

We moved down to another shop and the crowd, decked out in the signature black turbans favored by the Taliban, moved with us. "These are all Talibs," Inayat whispered. The situation seemed to be deteriorating. A teenager who spoke English approached Anderson and asked, "Are you soldiers?" "No," Anderson explained, "We're journalists." "Do you have a gun in your bag?" the boy asked pointing to Anderson's camera bag. "No," Anderson explained patiently, "We aren't with the U.S. Army, we're journalists." "Are you soldiers?" the boy asked again. I felt something hit my back. Thankfully, it was only a gob of spit. We decided it was time to leave.

The opium trade isn't only hidden away in remote cities like Lashkar Gah. Kandahar has its own bustling opium market, which journalists have accessed covertly. Some sneak into the market in motorized rickshaws. Others disguise themselves in Afghan clothes. On one occasion, I slipped into a crowd of spectators and watched the formalized ritual between buyer and seller. A big, sticky bag of opium was brought out by a barefoot salesman wearing the white tunic and pants called shalwar kameez. He dipped in a metal ruler and smeared the opium on a metal tray warmed over a propane heater in the center of the shop. After a few seconds, the opium started to bubble.

The buyer, a broad-shouldered man with a black beard and green eyes, leaned over to inspect the bubbles. Unbroken bubbles mean the opium is good quality and hasn't been cut with other material. With a flick of the wrist, the salesman scraped the opium off with a knife, smeared it on a white cloth and pulled back to show thin, sticky strands--another sign of quality. To avoid curious eyes, the final price was negotiated with finger signals underneath a handkerchief. Opium-stained hands were smeared on the wall. Fumes billowed from the shop throughout the transaction, and I left with my head ringing.

In Helmand, the big money from the opium trade has affected the politics of the region. Whoever controls this province controls the drug source, several people in Kandahar told me. Control of Helmand and neighboring Nimruz province, which is used as a transit point to Iran, allows complete control of the trade and the heavy taxes levied on drug convoys, as well. Many believe the current dispute between Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of Kandahar, and Ismael Khan, the governor of Herat, has its roots in this trade.

The U.S. military understands the significance of the province. We saw a group of Special Forces in plain clothes patrolling the highway between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in brand-new trucks with I LOVE NEW YORK bumper stickers. One aid worker said locals in Helmand had recently complained about American helicopters buzzing the poppy fields.

There are signs of conspicuous wealth around Helmand. Unlike the cities of Kandahar or Herat, or even the capital of Kabul, Lashkar Gah has functioning street lights. The relative affluence trickles down to the farmers, too. Unlike most of Afghanistan, farmers in Helmand use tractors. "Two mans (approximately 20 pounds) of opium is enough to buy a tractor" said Said Gul, a farmer who planted poppies in two thirds of his field outside Lashkar Gah. "That's why you see so many of them here." The incentives for farmers to switch crops is practically nonexistent. One kilo of wheat fetches five cents, one kilo of opium brings in nearly $450. After the Taliban poppy ban, many farmers were forced to take out loans to hedge their losses from growing alternative crops like cotton or wheat. Unable to pay back their loans, some of the farmers landed in jail. "I have so many debts, I can't even show my face in the market," says Said Gul. Baran, a farmer who replanted poppies in a neighboring field last November, said loan sharks confiscated his cow as payment.

Aid organizations like Mercy Corps International are trying to help farmers by rebuilding water canals and giving them seeds for alternative crops. The government is also discussing buyback programs or building schools and hospitals in exchange for a ban on poppy cultivation. But the effectiveness of these programs is questionable. Qodratullah, a farmhand outside of Lashkar Gah, explained the temptation to plant poppies as I bent down to look at his recent crop. "If you look at the leaves carefully, you'll see the dollar signs on them," he says.