The grim axiom defining today’s Afghanistan, 85 percent of whose citizens are farmers, is that its economy relies on two dueling revenue streams. One flows from Western aid, in the hopes that the country will renounce the Taliban. The other flows from opium trafficking supported by the Taliban, which use the proceeds to fund attacks on Western troops. Only recently has the Afghan government seemed to take stock of the obvious: For the outside world’s largesse to continue, the national economy’s addiction to opium must end. The poppy fields must be destroyed. But just as this devoutly Muslim nation did not become the world’s leading opium supplier overnight, uprooting Afghanistan’s poppy mind-set promises to be a complicated endeavor.
Eradication efforts have forced poppy farmers into the margins of the countryside. Their fields are, by design, all but invisible. To find one, you must drive for hours on a crumbled and isolated mountainside road, accompanied by someone who knows the district and will if necessary explain your presence there. You must look far from the roadside, gazing over the rolling terra incognita of northern Afghanistan—studying its monochromatic creases for that rogue burst of color, simultaneously innocent and obscene, that finally screams out what it can only be: a field of poppies.
I ask if he or his neighbors have received any of the millions of dollars being poured into Badakhshan Province by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other Western organizations in an attempt to lure Afghan farmers away from poppies. “They promised the Argo district’s governor that they’d give us bags of wheat seed and fertilizer,” he replies. “But they haven’t.” The remark is similar to one by an elder of the nearby Tashkan district: “The government said, ‘We’ll build roads, bridges, and canals, and you’ll forget poppies forever.’ That was five years ago. They’ve done nothing.”
(…) the chief says he has purged his department of crooked cops. He says he does not know of any elected officials in Badakhshan involved in smuggling—”otherwise, I would have arrested them.” I do not tell him that other sources have fingered a prominent official as a smuggler, as well as another smuggler who was a candidate for the parliament, offering to pay for votes and telling farmers that if elected he would ensure that opium production will continue. Even as Badakhshan becomes poppy free, local commanders and government officials have allegedly reached power-sharing agreements over drug routes taking opium across the northern border into Central Asia. The Afghan economy, even here in the non-Taliban controlled areas of the north, remains reliant on the drug trade.
For centuries, opium wafted over Afghanistan before engulfing it altogether. Though Alexander the Great could not totally conquer this rugged northeastern flank of the Persian Empire in the fourth century B.C., he is credited with leaving behind the drug that ultimately would. Actual cultivation of poppy shows up in Afghanistan’s recorded history about 300 years ago. It was a crop well suited to the loamy soils of Badakhshan and the eastern province of Nangarhar, where it was first grown—requiring little fertilization and rainfall, a short growing season, and about as much expertise as it takes to hand-scatter seeds and cut slits in a bulb. Poppy occupied a benign niche in the country’s agrarian culture throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, even as India’s stranglehold over the opium trade later gave way to Turkey and then to the highlands of Southeast Asia, thanks to the growing market for heroin in Europe and the United States.
In July 2000 Mullah Omar issued a fatwa, or religious decree, declaring opium production a violation of Islam. The Taliban enforced the ban with brutal efficiency, as one former poppy farmer told me, “by threatening to set your house on fire.” The result was a massive 91 percent reduction in poppy growing in one year.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban in 2001, regional warlords once again cranked up opium production. No longer in power, the Taliban now saw opium as a way to fund their insurgency. “They saw the opportunity to generate a tremendous amount of income without sacrificing the subsistence of the people,” says Wes Harris of the United States Department of Agriculture. Poppy is a winter crop, so after the harvest in late spring, a farmer can plant corn, cotton, or beans in the same soil. During years when demand is high, a farmer might make as much as six times more from opium than he would from another crop. When the price of opium is low, the farmer can simply wrap his durable product in plastic and store it until the market is more lucrative. It is now believed that the Taliban had a large stockpile of opium when they enforced their ban in 2000 and were deliberately curtailing supply to drive up prices.
NATO estimates that insurgents get half of their financing from drugs, nearly half a billion dollars. But with Afghanistan’s opium economy totaling up to four billion dollars a year, the Taliban command only a fraction of that enormous sum.
A conundrum still looms for the poppy farmer: Opium is haram, or forbidden by Islam, as the Taliban decreed when they temporarily halted its cultivation. Or is it? Some Afghan mullahs postulate it is haram only to use opium, not to produce it. Other mullahs cite the Koran’s proviso that a starving man may eat haram meat in order to survive. But the religious director of Badakhshan Province, Maulawi Abdul Wali Arshad, says, “We have a law in Islam: Whenever something is illegal, it is illegal from beginning to end. If poppy cultivation is legal, then how do we control opium smuggling? Or opium use? What the Taliban are doing isn’t Islamic. The Taliban’s involvement with the drug mafia shows that they don’t want a truly Islamic government. They just want power.”
“We have two forms of money here: poppy, and American dollars,” says a beardless 33-year-old Helmand farmer named Rehmatou as he leaves the Marine base with his fertilizer. “This is our economy. The Taliban aren’t pressuring me—that’s just a story you see on TV. I grow for myself. I smuggle for myself. The Taliban are not the reason. Poverty is the reason. And they’ll keep growing poppies here—unless they’re forced not to. Force is the solution for everything. As we say in Pashtu, ‘Power can flatten mountains.’
But, I gently ask: as long as the local governments are filled with corrupt officials bribed by those with a stake in Afghanistan remaining an opium haven, does his proposal stand a chance?
“The problem,” he says, “is that the government is involved.”
“And so to eradicate poppy, we would first have to eradicate corruption?” I ask.
“And so realistically, is there a chance the poppy can be eliminated as a major part of Afghanistan’s economy?”
Bakhtani looks thoughtful for a moment. “No,” he then says. “Not possible.”
Grinning, he says, “Sometimes I think I should form my own company, get money from the government, go out into the field and do all of this myself. Go out and show people the way.”
Then, with a weary shrug: “But people would just say I’m corrupt.”
[National Geographic Magazine]