Christian Parenti

Along the narrow tarmac road linking Kabul to Kandahar you could be in New Mexico: green valleys, with scattered trees turning orange and yellow; clusters of adobe-style walled compounds; and looming above huge barren mountains and empty blue skies. This small road is one of the few signs of progress in an appallingly underdeveloped country; indeed, it is one of only very few paved roads in the whole of Afghanistan. It cost international donors a mere $198 million, and thanks to it remote villages in south-east Afghanistan are building new links with the global economy, though these links aren’t always of the sort imagined by donors and planners.

In Wardak province, several hours west of Kabul, on the edge of the central highlands, the new road has brought with it a wave of smugglers, who have encouraged the local farmers to grow opium poppy. ‘Three years ago we didn’t grow much poppy,’ a farmer tells me. ‘Now everyone grows it, even the police chief. Tomorrow I will get you some.’

I’ve driven out here with a photographer, Teru Kuwayama, and a man I’ll call Mustafa, who has taken a few days off from his work as a driver for an NGO in Kabul to introduce me to his family, or at least his male relatives – as Pashtun custom dictates, the women are kept hidden away from the eyes of strange men. Families in this part of Afghanistan live in qala, fortified compounds, surrounded by thick, high mud walls. We are taken to a carpet-lined second-storey sitting-room, or betek. The room, in which we will eat and sleep, is safely away from the family quarters.

Our hosts are all big, burly men with beards, many of whom fought with the mujahidin warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during the 1980s and 1990s. One of them has just come back from Iran, where he works in an ice-cream cone factory. He’s about to get married to a woman he hasn’t seen since she was 12. The whole family is getting ready for the big day, so this weekend road trip turns into a party, with lots of eating, tea drinking, cigarette smoking, laughing and high-stakes, all-night gambling. One of the men explains that there has been a severe drought, now in its sixth year in some provinces. It has destroyed Wardak’s more traditional crops like grapes, apples and wheat. The drought-resistant poppy is all they have. ‘Everyone around here grows poppy,’ says a farmer called Nazir, whose relatives have decided to call him ‘Mister al-Qaida’ because he still has a Taliban-style beard and skullcap. ‘Look! Take a picture,’ one of the cousins orders, as he draws a .45 automatic pistol and holds it to Nazir’s head. ‘Mister al-Qaida arrested!’ Everyone laughs. Then we take a series of gun photos. Later, a Kalashnikov rifle is produced and everyone poses for more gun photos, some intentionally silly with added props like sunglasses and turbans; some preposterously serious with hyper-macho stares at the camera.

The poppy boom is not unique to Wardak. All across Afghanistan the crop has made a comeback since the defeat of the Taliban. One Western counter-narcotics official estimates that production increased by 50 per cent in 2004. And with the poppy revival comes the consolidation of the heroin processing and smuggling business.

According to UN research, Afghanistan now produces three-quarters of all the world’s illicit opium, most of which is turned into heroin and morphine. Income from poppy and its associated processing and trafficking is said to contribute $2.3 billion a year to the Afghan economy, a sum equal to half the country’s legitimate GDP. Roughly half of this money ends up in the hands of farmers; the other half goes to traffickers. UN researchers believe that 1.7 million of Afghanistan’s 28.5 million inhabitants are directly involved in poppy cultivation, with many more working in processing, trafficking, moneylending, laundering and other associated activities. Warlords tax farmers and traffickers alike, and thanks to Hamid Karzai’s policy of appeasement, many warlords now hold official positions, which further facilitates their exploitation of the drug economy. Globally, Afghan opium is estimated to have a turnover of $28 billion a year, with most of that cash going to players in other countries.

Talk to the counter-narcotics people in Kabul and you would imagine that poppy is an evil fuelling everything from Islamic terrorism to HIV. In fact, the poppy revival has been linked to a decline in rural indebtedness and an improvement in the status and standard of living for many women. Because opium harvesting is both labour-intensive and lucrative, it provides economic opportunities for women who either cultivate poppy on their own land or work for others. The average wage for gathering opium can be as high as seven dollars a day. In Kabul, a day labourer on a construction site can expect to make three dollars a day. Without poppy, many Afghan farmers would starve, or be forced to migrate.

Afghanistan’s post-Taliban ‘war on drugs’ has, so far, been a lacklustre affair. The US forces here focus instead on hunting down the Taliban and al-Qaida, and training the new Afghan national army. Afghanistan’s political reconstruction, as laid out at the Bonn Conference of December 2001, allotted each of the main occupying powers a set of tasks. Creating a counter-narcotics directorate fell to the UK. (The French train the officer corps, the Germans train the border police, the Japanese try to get the warlords to disarm and Italy is charged with building the judiciary.)

The poppy question might now be moving up the list of priorities, however. The first signs came in 2003, when Henry Hyde, a Republican congressman, sent a letter to Donald Rumsfeld, expressing his ‘growing concerns about Afghanistan and the impact of illicit drugs on the fight against global terrorism’. Then, on a surprise visit to Kabul in August 2004, Rumsfeld himself said that drugs were a problem ‘too serious to be ignored’. In turn, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, said he expected ‘some broadening’ of the coalition’s military efforts against poppy.

Between $30 and $40 million was invested in an anti-poppy economic development or ‘alternative livelihoods’ programme by the end of 2004, a Western official in Kabul told me, and will be followed by an aggressive campaign of crop eradication beginning in February. ‘In 2005 eradication will be robust. At least five times as much poppy will be cut down as compared to last year.’

On paper it makes sense: poppy funds terrorism, so cut off the enemy’s lifeline. But to destroy the flowers is to destroy the lives of poor farmers. A determined campaign could lead to a new jihad. There are after all those who attribute the quick collapse of the Taliban to its ban on poppy cultivation. The international community’s open alliance with Afghanistan’s mujahidin warlords or jangsalaran would be a further complication. As one US soldier in Kandahar explained to the Independent, ‘we start taking out drug guys, and they will start taking out our guys.’

In many ways, this is an old story. Genghis Khan first introduced poppy into what is now Afghanistan in the 13th century. It took root throughout South Asia when the British encouraged its cultivation and began to export it to China as a weapon of economic warfare (and a source of profit) before and during the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s. The Vietnam War encouraged poppy cultivation throughout South-East Asia. And during the 1980s, production in Afghanistan exploded: the country became the omphalos of world opium supply and its profits were used to fund Washington’s proxies, the mujahidin, in their war against the Russians.

In Wardak, as the night goes on, with dinner, then tea, then cards and more photos, the men become increasingly comfortable and explain the details of the poppy industry. ‘Poppy is cheap to plant. You can find seeds in any bazaar,’ Mahid, a veteran who lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine in the 1990s, tells me. In Wardak there are two seasons for poppy; in hotter and colder climates only one season is possible. The first crop, planted in March and harvested in June and July, is always the better one. Last year the July to November crop, which is never as good, was wiped out by disease. Of the three colours – red, white and purple – white is the best.

‘After you plant and water the poppy, it sprouts in 15 days,’ Mr al-Qaida explains. ‘Then you must weed the crop and keep weeding until the plants are bigger than the weeds. In three months they blossom. Seed pouches emerge and grow in the blossom and then the flower falls away and the seed pouch continues to grow. Then we scratch the seedcase with a ghoza’ – a small home-made trowel with a serrated edge of six teeth. From the wounds a sticky white milk emerges. ‘You scrape the poppy in the morning and then collect the sap in the evening, when it is more sticky and brown. A little from each flower and then you have a ball and that dries and is the opium,’ Mr al-Qaida says, grinning.

In most parts of Afghanistan, a farmer can milk each seedcase up to seven times. Eventually, it is tapped out and left to dry, before being harvested for the next planting. The seeds are also used to make edible oil and are sometimes boiled into a tea that mothers use to drug their infants during the long hours of work.

To illustrate the economic influence of poppy, Mahid starts talking about land measurements. The unit here is a jerib, about half an acre. The men in Wardak say that from one jerib a farmer can usually get 28 kilogrammes of opium, which they can sell for up to $5000. Alternatively, one jerib of wheat might earn a farmer $100 or it might not bring in any money at all, depending on weather and prices.

In some areas, smugglers pay out loans that are repaid in opium. The system in Wardak seems to be more streamlined: farmers borrow from shopkeepers and repay them in cash when they’ve been paid by the smugglers. ‘In the last three years many farms have got out of debt because of poppy. No other crop compares to it. And with the drought we only have 10 per cent of our apples and wheat. These crops use so much water compared to poppy. And the wheat is almost worthless,’ Mr al-Qaida says, before turning back to the cards. Explaining the business to me has broken his concentration and already cost him at least ten dollars. His cousins giggle as they take his money.

‘I am sorry there is no nightcap in this night club,’ Mustafa says in English, with a suppressed smile. ‘They were very nice in Moscow.’ He worked for years as a merchant in Russia. ‘You get to know them, the Russians, they are very nice people. And the women. Oh, the women.’ In a low tone and in English, which no one else understands, Mustafa unfolds the tale of his sexual conquests in Moscow. ‘They will fuck just for food. No really. Just for food.’ Having seen the decadence of the developed world up close, Mustafa feels little guilt about poppy farming. But many Afghans are deeply ashamed that they cultivate an intoxicant which, like gambling, is haram – forbidden by Islam.

Mr al-Qaida speaks no English but seems to get the gist of the conversation. He turns away from the cards and asks: ‘Why does America allow people to sell alcohol but not heroin? What is the difference?’ I try to explain but get the impression his question was mostly rhetorical. ‘We have many former Taliban and mujahidin commanders here who are getting angry at America because of what is happening in Palestine and Iraq and because the economy here is no good,’ Mr al-Qaida remarks. ‘Cutting down poppy will only make them more angry.’

Opium used to be processed into heroin in Pakistan, but officials say that the labs where it is boiled down with lye are moving into Afghanistan, which makes smuggling more efficient. Smugglers taking the drug into Pakistan hide it in other commodities such as wheat or rice, or in fuel tankers, and use the official border crossings. To enter Iran, the smugglers often run armed convoys through the desert and routinely clash with Iranian border guards. Tehran reports that it has lost 3100 security personnel over the last two decades in battles with traffickers on the Afghan border. Nearly 200 soldiers and 800 traffickers were killed in 2003 alone.

The province in Afghanistan producing the most poppy is Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, where it juts into the semi-autonomous tribal belt like a mountain peninsula. The road east from Kabul into Nangarhar is a rutted dirt track that ascends and descends high mountains in switchbacks, with thousand-foot drops at the road’s edge; then passes down through parched valleys into a desert strewn with huge boulders. Nangarhar contains the Tora Bora mountain range and is still the haunt of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, though they operate now in a much more restricted fashion.

Even so, roadside bombs are not uncommon: many NGO workers and journalists have been killed on the province’s main road, and most of its districts are official no-go areas. The place is crawling with US Special Forces – out hunting. Wearing no insignia and costumes of mismatched camouflage, Afghan scarves, beards and assorted bush hats, the special ops units look both sinister and absurd as their convoys of Humvees lurch past on the dusty tracks.

The top drug lord here is Hazrat Ali, America’s ally in the Tora Bora campaign, the man who allowed al-Qaida to escape as US forces closed in. Now Hazrat Ali – who gave himself this nom de guerre in honour of the fifth caliph of Islam during the jihad against the Soviets – is also the provincial security chief. Karzai gave him the post at the end of the summer to buy his support in the elections.

In Khakhi, a village east of Jalalabad, I meet a group of four maliks, or village leaders, all of whom farm poppy. They’d been mujahidin during the jihad, but now speak openly of their hatred for commanders like Hazrat Ali. ‘They are thieves. They have big houses and the best land. They will take a man’s daughter if they want. And what do we have? Nothing,’ Askar Khan says, sitting hunched beneath a grape arbour. ‘All of us were wounded fighting the Russians. We fought for America: now we are jobless.’

The poppy crop has already been harvested, but some of the local farmers show me big brown blocks of opium and offer hash. They say that Mirwais Yasini, the head of the Counter-Narcotics Directorate, has done a deal with Hazrat Ali. When the harvest was over, Hazrat Ali told the farmers to burn their fields, so that Mirwais Yasini could tell the British that progress is being made. Officials in Kabul either deny these charges or decline to comment.

American officials have started to claim that Hazrat Ali’s days are numbered. ‘One day, he will wake up and discover he’s out of business,’ David Lamm, chief of staff of US forces in Afghanistan, said in a press interview. But when I went to find Hazrat Ali, he was busy meeting US forces to plan election security. It is thanks to relationships like these that one can easily imagine the poppy economy and the new Afghan state merging into a narco-mafia with a flag and a seat at the UN.

Christian Parenti