Flowers Of Destruction

Opium has been a lifesaver for Ghulam Shah. The 35-year-old Afghan farmer could barely feed his family on the few hundred dollars a year he earned growing wheat. But last year, liberated at last from the Taliban and its ban on poppy farming, Shah raised enough to pay all his debts and take his teenage daughter to Pakistan for kidney surgery. He estimates this year's crop at roughly 25 kilos of raw opium--about $9,000, a fortune in a country where most people earn less than $1 a day. "Now I can fill my family's stomachs, send my daughter to school and sleep well," he says, collecting the narcotic sap from his 2i-acre plot in Laghman province, east of Kabul. Shah thanks God and the local warlord, Hazrat Ali, for his good fortune. He says Ali even issued him the AK-47 he uses to protect his family and his crop. "We are all Hazrat Ali's soldiers," the farmer declares. "We all work for him."

Ali--one of the most powerful men in a country that supplies three quarters of the world's opiates--denies any role in the drug business. "These accusations are just lies coming from the thousands of enemies I have," says the warlord at his headquarters, many miles from Shah's little field. "They just want to crush my image and popularity as a jihadi and anti-Taliban fighter." His private army controls the provinces of Laghman, Kunar and Nangarhar, at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Osama bin Laden is rumored to be hiding nearby, in the Spin Ghar mountains. More than a third of Afghanistan's opium has traditionally originated in this area. Nevertheless, Ali says, opium is against Islam, and he has done his best to wipe it out. Within reason, of course: "If we destroy all their fields, people will be without food, become miserable and possibly die."

Opium may be keeping some Afghans alive, but it's killing the hope of rebuilding their country. This year's harvest isn't finished, but U.N. experts say it could reach 4,000 tons or more. (The record, 5,000 tons, was set in 1999, the year before the Taliban outlawed poppy farming.) Roughly 20 percent of the country's GDP comes from narcotics, according to U.N. figures. The fattest share goes not to impoverished farmers but to the local potentates and crooked civil servants who are making President Hamid Karzai's job all but impossible. The countryside is still ruled by gunmen, and drug money makes them even richer and more uncontrollable. At the same time, their lawlessness hinders the flow of aid and investment that would revive Afghanistan's legitimate economy and give credibility to Karzai. In the words of one Western diplomat in the anti-drug fight: "It's really a mess out there."

It's not getting cleaned up. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has only two agents in Afghanistan, and security concerns limit their travels in the countryside. The DEA considers Kabul its most dangerous post--worse even than Bogota. U.S. and British agents have been training a new Afghan rapid-reaction police team to conduct drug raids, but it's not ready for action. Still more problematic, many of the biggest traffickers in Afghanistan are U.S. military allies who were instrumental in overthrowing the Taliban.

At the same time, opium money seems to be helping the Taliban regroup. Their government used to collect a 10 percent tax on the drug before they outlawed its cultivation (but not its sale) in 2000. U.N. sources in Afghanistan think it's no coincidence that the group's presence is increasingly evident in the poppy-growing provinces of Zabol, Uruzgan, Kandahar and Helmand. U.N. sources cite credible reports of an "unholy alliance" between drug kingpins and the insurgents. Local traffickers, seeking to get rid of any outsiders who might give them trouble, are said to be encouraging guerrilla attacks by giving money to the Taliban. In one particular incident this spring, a U.N. official says, drug smugglers paid Taliban assassins for the death of a local commander who had been harassing their convoys.

Some militants view opium as something more than a source of cash; they say it's a legitimate weapon in what they call a "silent jihad." Khurshid, a 20-year-old Nangarhar native, says drugs are Afghanistan's way of striking back at the West for sending "liquor, obsceneTV and pornographic films" into Afghanistan: "Immoral Western culture destroys the minds of our children, so it's only just that we export opium and heroin to destroy Western youths." Ahad, 28, a smuggler and former Taliban official, says trafficking is his way of making war on the Kabul government. He excitedly describes the convoys of dozens of heavily armed Toyota Land Cruisers and 4x4 pickups that make high-speed runs across the southern desert into Iran, equipped with everything from antiaircraft guns to cookware. "No one can touch us," he brags.

The traffic is hard to touch in all sorts of ways. Poppies are an almost ideal crop for Afghan conditions. They thrive where the soil is too dry and poor for wheat. At roughly $350 a kilo, the harvested opium is easy to transport, even over Afghanistan's disastrous roads, and it resists spoilage indefinitely. Bumper crops in some provinces have cut the price of raw opium about 7 percent. At the same time, yields in Ghulam Shah's area are down roughly 30 percent because of a local blight that hit the poppies. You still don't hear Shah complaining.

Afghan officials say eradication efforts can't succeed without a substantial boost in international aid. Yet donor nations are demanding to see results before they waste more money. Law enforcers say farmers never got the eradication funds that have already been sent in. Token crop-destruction campaigns in a few highly visible areas have been more than offset by wholesale planting in other parts of the country, like the mountainous northern provinces of Badakhshan and Kunar.

While officials squabble, the traffickers are evolving. The big morphine-base labs have mostly vanished from Hemland and Nangarhar provinces, replaced by small, mobile labs--basically makeshift setups of buckets, glassware and chemicals in the back of farmers' houses, operated by itinerant chemists. U.N. and Afghan government sources tell of hearing credible reports that a senior general in northern Afghanistan has brought in ethnic Wah experts from Burma to help him operate a string of heroin labs. U.N. sources also believe that a senior police official in northeastern Badakhshan province is operating a heroin lab in the garden of his home. Anti-drug officials still aren't giving up. But sometimes they ask themselves why.