The Killing Fields of Afghanistan

Successive government bans on poppy production have had little impact on a deadly industry that blights lives across the world.

The Killing Fields of Afghanistan

Successive government bans on poppy production have had little impact on a deadly industry that blights lives across the world.

Monday, 15 February, 2010
Afghan fields are once again covered with blood-red poppies that sway in the warm breeze for as far as the eye can see, much to the dismay of the international community.

The government may have officially banned production of the plants, but farmers are working hard to harvest a new crop that will ensure Afghanistan keeps its tarnished crown as the world's biggest supplier of illicit opium.

International efforts to curb the industry have been lost in a familiar maze of weak government, corruption and poverty. In one of the world's poorest countries, farmers see few alternatives to growing the only crop guaranteed to sell for high prices.

"We promised the government that if they met our demands we would let them destroy our poppies," said Barakatullah, a clan elder in Khogiani, part of the key eastern production region of Jalalabad. "We warned them not to come to this area until our demands are met. If they try to wipe out our crops by force, we are ready to fight them."

Jalalabad and the area around the Helmand river in the south are among the few dependable sources of water in this arid country, and as such as are its prime growing areas.

The Taleban regime had cracked down on the opium trade by banning poppy production. The interim administration that succeeded it late last year vowed to uphold the ban, but to no avail.

Even as the student militia was collapsing under US military pressure in November 2001, the country's farmers were rushing to plant poppies.

The new regime staged some high-profile crop destruction, but it had few resources with which to fund the programme.

Besides, compensation offered was far less than farmers could earn by harvesting the poppies, and many complained that the little money they were granted often disappeared into the pockets of local officials.

Barakatullah told IWPR how some local residents were demanding a payment of 3,000 US dollars per hectare for the destruction of their poppy fields, compared to the 350 dollars being offered.

The farmers there are also looking for an economic aid package, which the government could not afford even if it was deemed to be reasonable. "They should provide jobs for our young people. We will cultivate poppies for another five years until we are sure our people have permanent jobs and are able to cover their expenses in other ways," said the clan leader.

If the official campaign to stamp out the opium trade had little impact in Jalalabad, it had no success whatsoever in the former Taleban area of Kandahar, which includes the key region of Helamand. There, a shortage of money and lack of government influence meant the operation never got off the ground.

The current situation stands in stark contrast to that of a year ago. Then, the United Nations Drug Control Programme, UNDCP, was amazed to discover that a Taleban decree made by spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar on July 28, 2000 had been strictly enforced.

Production was suddenly plummeting toward zero. The UNDCP had estimated that in 2000 Afghan farmers produced 3,600 tons of opium - about 75 per cent of the world total - down from the previous year's figure of around 4,500 tons.

That drop was mainly because of drought, but also reflects a 1999 change in policy when the Taleban decreed that poppy cultivation would be reduced by one-third over twelve months.

The student militia claimed poppies were destroyed in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, apparently after an agreement that the UNDCP would fund alternative development projects. There was a 50 per cent reduction in the three UNDCP target districts in Kandahar but overall the Taleban target wasn't met.

The former regime then announced a total ban on poppy growing for 2000-2001. There was scepticism but a UNDCP crop survey early in 2001 reported a dramatic fall in production, with wheat crops where poppies had bloomed the previous year.

The only region to show a rise in production was the small area controlled by the Northern Alliance, which was to join forces with the US to oust the Taleban just a few months later.

According to the official American government estimate for 2001, Afghanistan produced 74 tons of opium from 1,685 hectares of land under poppy cultivation - a substantial decrease from the 3,656 tons harvested the year before.

Shairzay Malik, a local leader in the teeming Afghan refugee camp of Kacha Garrai in Peshawar, urged international charities and non-governmental organisations to work together to solve the problem. "Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan can only be stopped through alternative development projects and by providing education," he said.

Money is at the heart of the problem. Farmers can make far more from poppies than by any other crop, while profit margins are enormous at each stage in the process.

"A hundred dollars of opium gum can be refined into heroin that costs about 20,000 dollars in New York. The smuggling of drugs continues on the Pakistan-Afghan border just as it always has," a Jamrud drug seller told IWPR.

Jamrud, a Pakistani town between Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, is notorious for drugs and weapons smuggling and kidnapping. The town is a clear reminder that while Pakistan's move to ban poppy production won international praise in the Nineties, the country is still involved in the narcotics business.

The refining of opium into heroin goes on inside eastern Afghanistan and in adjoining parts of Pakistan. The rugged tribal lands of Khyber, Bara and Mohmand are particularly well-known processing areas. Laboratories convert opium into morphine base, white heroin or one of three grades of brown heroin, depending on the order received.

Morphine base is usually produced for traffickers based in Turkey and then shipped to the country, where it is converted to heroin prior to hitting the European and North American markets.

Laboratories in Afghanistan also provide heroin for the world market. Chemists in the region are capable of producing heroin hydrochloride with extremely high purity levels, and it is estimated that 80 per cent of opiate products in Europe originate in Afghanistan.

"More than a hundred small heroin factories are operating inside the houses of tribal chiefs and smugglers in Jamrud and Bara," said Gulab Shah, another drug merchant in Jamrud.

He told IWPR that the chemicals used to convert opium into heroin are officially banned in Afghanistan yet come into the country via India. One of the most commonly used is acetic anhydride, AA. According to the World Customs Organisation, China seized 5,670 metric tons of this substance hidden in carpets that were destined for Afghanistan.

The traffic is equally heavy in the other direction. Drug barons collaborate with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to ensure the deadly cargo is trucked safely across the Afghan border to storehouses in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Lahore and other trading centres.

Some is sold to Pakistan's estimated four million heroin addicts, or distributed by a network to the Middle East and western countries.

More drugs head in the opposite direction, with tons moved from laboratories in Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran and the Central Asian countries. Tajikistan is a frequent destination, although it serves mostly as a transit point and storage location rather than a final port of call.

Traffickers quickly adjust their smuggling routes to suit political situations and even the weather. They use airplanes and boats sailed along Pakistan's barren Makran coast. Buses and trucks, and more traditionally camel caravans, bring the drugs overland.

"A hundred armed men escort the drugs caravan through the Baluchistan desert at night," said a drug dealer who used to work in a Jamrud heroin laboratory. "Anyone who tries to stop them will be killed by the guards."

One dealer in Jamrud spoke of using commercial flights to Nepal and Bangladesh, to move heroin and hashish to those countries and then on to India, and a lone train traveling between Lahore and Delhi.

Fortunately for the Indian authorities trying to stamp out trafficking, those routes have been disrupted by tension between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir. Almost all movement between the two countries has ceased since last December.

Yet the drugs still find their way out to the West, with smugglers employing a number of methods to fool the authorities.

"We use a special kind of suitcase to smuggle drugs out of Pakistan," said a smuggler in Landi Kotal. "The substances inside these cases cannot be identified by police at the airports."

Another routine method is to pack drugs inside a condom, and then swallow the lot. However, this is very dangerous for the smuggler, as the latex can burst inside the stomach and release the potentially fatal contents.

Of course, the authorities know all the same tricks. And while corruption, incompetence or indifference allow many smugglers to evade detection, many are caught and are now languishing in prisons.

"Around 500 drug-smuggling Afghan refugees are in Pakistani jails in Peshawar, Swat, Mardan, Charsad and Nowshera in North West Frontier Province. Others are in jails in the Punjab," an officer at Peshawar's central jail said. "These people were searching for a better life but got trapped by the drug mafia."

They are luckier than those caught in Saudi Arabia, where convicted drug smugglers are beheaded.

"My father was a gunman for one of the smugglers," said Jamil Asghar, who lives in Peshawar. "He was sent several times to take heroin abroad but he did not come back after visiting Saudi Arabia three years ago. We think he was killed."

The stakes are high, yet there is profit to be made for those who can move the opium into the marketplace.

Drugs are sold openly around Peshawar. The opium that sells for as little as 19,000 rupees - 316 dollars - a kilo in Jalalabad rises in cost when it reaches Pakistan. In Peshawar's Barra bazaar there are 40 subsidiary markets where a kilo of heroin sells for 70,000 rupees - 1,166 dollars - and a kilo of opium for 30,000 rupees - 500 dollars.

Of course, not all illegal drugs make it that far. Last year, the Pakistani police destroyed several tons of heroin and hashish, while the local governor took the occasion to warn of the danger addiction posed, not just to the West but also to the people of the countries where they are produced.

Pakistan is counting the cost, not just in corruption and a culture of lawlessness, but in its own growing addiction problem. Local opium and heroin consumption has risen in pace with the growing production.

Day and night, drug addicts in Peshawar gather by a railway bridge, bearing the slogan "Keep your city clean", to feed their heroin habit on a supply that costs a mere 100 rupees - just 1.66 dollars - a gram.

The price drops by half in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan where authorities exercise little control. Many addicts go there by bus to save the 50 rupees.

The Pakistan government and drug support groups estimate that almost 2 million of the country's residents are addicted to heroin, including Afghan refugees in the crowded camps.

Most Peshawar addicts live on the roadside and wear ragged, dirty clothes. Their hair is long and filthy, their bodies yellow from the hepatitis that is rife among the community.

"Once my son was suffering from a fever and I was given money to treat him," said Shah Zaman, an addict who lives by stealing. "Instead of taking him to the doctor, I bought some heroin and went back home."

Many beg on the streets and turn to crime. But although Pakistan officially has strong penalties against drug trafficking, police pay little attention to the addicts and their dealers.

President-elect Hamid Karzai knows it is in the national interest to put a stop to those exports that tarnish his country's reputation. "From any perspective - of religion, national interest, or agriculture - Afghanistan must end poppy production," he said.

But even if an effective ban on poppy production was re-introduced, the flow from opium stockpiles could continue for years.

Those who thought the student militia's ban on poppy growing would result in a drop in heroin supplies were quickly disappointed. Although the farmers' income disappeared, the value of any hoarded opium soared in value.

The greatest benefit, of course, went to those dealers with huge stocks. Western countries accused senior figures associated with the Taleban of profiting from the ban. And whether planned or not, it was clear that the huge stockpiles of opium accumulated during the years of ever-increasing harvests rose tenfold in value because of the halt to new production.

Because of the huge mark-ups at each stage, the final price in western markets barely moved but prices in Afghanistan and nearby rocketed.

Now the stocks are probably rising again. The harvest in Afghanistan finished recently and the planting of the new crop will begin in the autumn, when winter rains resume.

The resin carefully collected from each white opium bud is awaiting processing. Dealers who patrol the farmlands will soon advance funds to growers to start the next crop, confident that they will be paid back from the 2003 harvest.

Demand for the addictive white power is unlikely to disappear, so the focus will remain on the producers. The Afghan government, anxious not to anger the western governments that have promised billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, will try to enforce its ban on poppies.

The future of efforts to control drug production, like everything else in Afghanistan, is inextricably linked to the hopes for establishing a strong and stable national government able to enforce an unpopular edict.

Until farmers are given another way to support themselves and their families, Afghanistan will continue to be tainted by the drugs trade.

IWPR trainer Jack Redden assembled this report with contributions from journalism students Fazal Malak and Fazal Qader Andiwal.

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