For as long as anyone can remember, there was no
need for paper money in this remote corner of the Hindu Kush. The
common currency was what grew in everyone's backyard - opium.
children felt like buying candy, they ran into their father's fields
and returned with a few grams of opium folded inside a leaf. Their
mothers collected it in plastic bags, trading 18 grams for a meter of
fabric or two liters of cooking oil. Even a visit to the barbershop
could be settled in opium.
But the economy of this village sputtered to a halt last year
when the government began aggressively enforcing a ban on opium
production. Villagers were not allowed to plant their only cash crop.
Now shops are empty and farmers are in debt, as entire communities
spiral into poverty.
Opium is one of the biggest problems facing this troubled
country, because it is deeply woven into the fabric of daily life as
well as into the economics of insurgency. Afghanistan supplies 93
percent of the world's opium, and it is one of the main sources of
funding for the growing Taliban movement
Yet the government ban on opium is working at best
unevenly. In areas of the country under Taliban control, opium
production is going strong. In government-held areas such as Shahran,
it has gone down drastically, but at the cost of the livelihood of
hundreds of thousands of people. Their anger is imperiling government
support in one of the few areas of the country that has resisted the
"Now we don't even have 10 Afghanis
($0.25) to give our
children to buy bubble gum," says opium farmer Abdul Hay. "Before they
would go into the field and collect the money themselves."
YEARS ago, opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, grew on
nearly half a million acres in Afghanistan. The harvest was worth about
$4 billion, or equal to nearly half the country's GDP in 2007. As much
as a tenth - almost half a billion dollars - went to local strongmen,
including the Taliban, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Under intense international pressure, the government redoubled
its effort to crack down on opium farmers. By last year, the number of
acres planted with poppy had dropped by a fifth, yet the Taliban's
finances remained largely untouched. Ninety-eight percent of
Afghanistan's opium is now grown in just seven of the country's 34
provinces - all areas under partial or total Taliban control.
Opium was so entrenched in Badakshan province, where Shahran is
located, that it is said Marco Polo sampled it when he passed through
in the 13th century. Until recently, the sloping mountain faces were
awash with pink, purple and magenta poppies, nodding in the wind. But
in the past year, poppy production has gone down 95%.
The villagers here held a meeting and decided two years ago not
to plant opium, after government radio messages warned that poppy
fields would be destroyed and opium growers jailed. Posters distributed
throughout the area showed a man with his hands bound by the stem of
the opium poppy.
The villagers say they did as the government told them, and
planted their fields with wheat, barley, mustard and melons. But these
crops need more care than the tough opium poppy, which will bloom with
little water or fertilizer.
Most of the wheat fields yielded little because the farmers
couldn't afford to fertilize the land. Even where yields were decent,
farmers say they could have earned between two and 10 times more by
planting the same land with opium.
"See this mustard? It can take care of my family for one
month," says 25-year-old farmer Abdul Saboor, pulling up a shoot of the
green plant and snapping it open with his teeth. "When we planted opium
in this same plot, it took care of all our expenses for an entire
THE HOLE in the economy is swallowing up the community, from
the farmer to the turbaned shopkeepers whose scales used for weighing
opium now sit idle.
Every month, shopkeeper Abdul Ahmed used to bring $20,000 worth
of goods to sell in the bazaar. It's been four months since his last
truckload, and he has only sold $1,000. Ahmed is one of 40 traders
left; there used to be 400.
"We open in the morning and go back at night. No money comes
in. No one buys anything," says Ahmed. "There is no money left in this
village. Opium is the only income we had."
Villagers say desperation is pushing hundreds to immigrate to
, where they work as day laborers. Farmers throughout
the region are also sinking deeply into debt. They borrow money to buy
staples such as rice and oil, which they used to buy with opium. They
also take loans to buy seeds and fertilizer and to rent donkeys to take
the wheat to market - an expense opium did not bring because all the
local shops accepted it as legal tender.
ON A hill flanking the highway in Argu District, a four-hour
drive southeast of here, a thin farmer is bent over cutting wheat with
a hand-held sickle. Abdul Mahin says he is several hundred dollars in
debt to the man who sold him fertilizer.
"If we plant two bags of wheat, then we'll have just enough
money to buy the seeds to plant another two bags of wheat," says the
gray-bearded farmer. "We're going backwards. Of course we're angry at
A small number of farmers in other towns are planting opium
despite the ban. Most are seeing their fields destroyed, as government
agents intensify patrols.
Farmer Abdulhamid, 55, says he has only rain-fed land, and none
of it is irrigated. So he can't grow wheat and barley with much
success. Unless the government helps, he says, he will have to plant
"We are getting poorer day by day," says Abdulhamid, in the
village of Pengani. "What should I do? Kill my children so that I don't
have to feed them?"
WHEN FARMERS were asked to stop planting, they were promised
help from the government. Badakshan is set to receive $1,000 for each
hectare (roughly 10 dunams) of land freed of poppies - some $10 million
this year. It's being used to build three clinics and three schools,
pave a major road and rebuild six fallen bridges.
Farmers say a distant clinic or bridge is not
going to feed their children. But counternarcotics experts and
government officials respond that the opium ban is necessary.
poor farmers are going to get stepped on and get hurt in this effort,"
says former Drug Enforcement Agency official Doug Wankel, who organized
the US counternarcotics effort here in 2003. "But it's a pain that has
to be endured for the good of the masses."
"In the US and the UK, when people do an illegal activity, the
police stops them, right? This is an illegal act, so we need to stop it
in order to enforce the rule of law," says Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman
for the Ministry of Counternarcotics. He also notes the link to the
insurgency: "I try to explain to the farmer that cultivates poppy that
he is buying a coffin for his child."
YET THE poverty created by getting rid of opium may be stoking
terrorism. Nangahar - which became poppy free last year and is held up
as an example of government control - has seen a rapid increase in
extremism, according to a field study by David Mansfield,
counternarcotics consultant for the UN and the World Bank.
By April last year, the province rescinded agreements to limit
the movement of anti-government groups on its border with Pakistan. By
July, these groups were believed to have set up bases in four districts
next to Pakistan. By September, they were attacking government
buildings. And by October, there were Taliban checkpoints.
Also, the crackdown in the country's far north is unlikely to
stop the flow of opium and money to the Taliban in the south. In Zabul
- the home province of Taliban spiritual chief Mullah Omar - poppy
production grew by 45% last year.
Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, grew so
much opium last year that if it was a separate country, it would rank
as the world's top opium producer, according to Gretchen Peters, author
of Seeds of Terror, on how the Taliban is bankrolling itself through
drug smuggling. Peters says the Taliban's video messages now talk about
securing smuggling routes and protecting poppy plantations.
Poppy fields in Taliban areas are so dangerous that eradication
teams comb them for bombs before trying to destroy them. Last year 78
government agents were killed trying to destroy fields in the south. By
contrast, the worst they faced in Badakshan was crying farmers.
Zainuddin, the head security officer for Darayim district in Badakshan, says he feels awful every time he uproots a poppy field.
"Sometimes I cry as I am hitting the poppies," says Zainuddin,
who like many Afghans goes by a single name. "Because I know these are
poor people and I am taking away the only thing they have."
OVER THE past month, dozens of fields have been destroyed in
the mountains of Badakshan. Nasrullah, a 35-year-old farmer, planted
three small plots of white-and-violet poppies inside a hill of wheat,
hoping the taller crop would hide the illegal blossoms.
He stood in silence on a recent morning as nine police officers
crossed a small gulch and climbed the hill. They assaulted his crop,
hitting the flowers with long sticks until they fell to the ground. He
put his face in his hands.
"I didn't plant this for my own pleasure," he says. "I planted
this so that my family could eat. All the rest of this is worth
nothing," he says, waving at the wheat. "The choice I have to make now
is either kill myself. Or leave the country."