Like many Afghan farmers, Jalaludin Khan waited until late in the season before deciding what to plant on his 18 acres. Though he declines to explain the delay, it is clear to a veteran observer that Khan gauged local officials' appetite for enforcement of a ban on poppy. Though officially illegal, it is by far the most profitable crop for many Afghan farmers.
"We know that planting narcotics is bad but our country is destroyed and we have received little assistance so we have no real alternative to poppy," Khan told EurasiaNet in Nade Ali, one of many poppy-growing districts of the southwestern province of Helmand. Khan and 30 relatives, including four brothers and their wives and children, live on this small farm. Over the past decade he has planted the narcotic crop six times but maintains that it only helped them make ends meet. Recent estimates suggest that Afghan farmers can make 38 times as much from opium as they can from wheat.
In the spring, Khan and many Helmand farmers reportedly destroyed their crop in keeping with a government edict. But they say they received little or no assistance in return.
With the winter planting season approaching fast, aid workers and government officials predict a bumper crop of poppy. Some officials concede that official bans on the crop have become very hard to enforce.
The outlawing of poppy production, which the fundamentalist Taliban enforced, has been nominal in the past two years. According to a September 15 brief from the aid agency Care International and New York University's Center on International Cooperation, the amount of land devoted to poppy cultivation will probably increase in 83 districts and decline in fewer than 20 districts. The same brief reported that Afghanistan produced 76 percent of the world's opium in 2002, up from 12 percent in 2001. Much of this yield comes from poor farmers like Khan. Despite widespread reporting about the illegal trade, farmers do not seem to fear repercussions from selling poppy.
"For the past two years we made a lot of promises to our farmers to deter them from planting poppies but unfortunately, we have delivered very little on those," Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand, told EurasiaNet. Akhundzada added that although they will continue to oppose the illegal practice, he could foresee a boom in poppy cultivation. "People come to me and ask about all the reconstruction projects and aid money I promised them," he said.
Wanting for government aid, many in Helmand see poppy-planting as a path to riches. Late-model Japanese cars roll through the province's capital, Lashkar Gah.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that narcotics production is dominating Afghanistan's economy. "A dangerous potential exists for Afghanistan to progressively slide into a 'narco-state' where all legitimate institutions become penetrated by the power and wealth of (drug) traffickers," the Fund warned at its September meeting, according to wire reports.
Certainly, violence attributed to Taliban instigators has weakened security and social institutions in Helmand. Mercy Corps, a large reconstruction agency based in Oregon, has limited some of its activities after an attack killed one of its employees in August.
Throughout the province, roads, health care, and electricity are unreliable at best. While experts agree that organizations can discourage drug cultivation by encouraging alternate forms of income, such work has stalled in Helmand.
The Central Asia Development Group, an organization that seeks to promote legitimate agriculture, is urging farmers like Khan to cultivate raisins or cotton. In Lashkar Gah, the organization rehabilitated the state-run cotton gin and encouraged some 35 private cotton gins to buy Afghan supply. Despite interest from buyers in China, India, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Indonesia, the state has failed to efficiently bolster privatization.
"There is still a chance here," Steve Shaulis, Central Asia Development Group's chief, told EurasiaNet. "You have to see [alternative crop projects and reconstruction] as an integrated whole and you can't chose bits and pieces and expect spectacular results." But with attention in Kabul focused on the wording of the state constitution and the politics of 2004's presidential election, and Afghan farmers do not see any strong anti-poppy signals from national leaders.
International leaders, meanwhile, continue to stress drug interdiction. So do police forces in neighboring countries Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In August, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, signed a $38 million pledge to fund a new interdiction unit in the Afghan Interior Ministry.
Costa sees some of the same mixed signals that lead Helmand farmers to sow poppy. "The Counter Narcotics Directorate is very weak and needs to be strengthened, the counter narcotics police are very weak and without resources," he said in a recent interview. He added alternative livelihoods to Afghan farmers and investments in infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, schools and hospitals must develop quickly to bolster enforcement efforts.
At his farm, Khan says he will gladly plant anything that delivers higher income than poppy. "You give us good seeds and fertilizers and give us security so we can sell our produce. Then no one will think of planting poppy and getting into all this trouble," he said.
Abubaker Saddique, an independent journalist specializing in South Central Asia, reported this story from Helmand.