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A bounty of drugs in Afghanistan
Poppy fields, processing labs are flourishing Image: Kabul residents share an opium cigarette
Legal and illegal drugs, such as opium-laced cigarettes, are available easily and plentifully in Afghanistan. Substance abuse in the country is increasing strongly and the number of drug addicts is rising.
By April Witt
JATA, Afghanistan, July 10 — The village mullah and his superior are smeared with fresh opium sap. It is harvest time, and the holy men are laboring in their poppy field, breaking the laws of Islam and Afghanistan to ease their poverty.

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AS THE day wanes, they wait, fingers aching, for the ubiquitous young men who cross the countryside on shiny new motorbikes, buying up the deadly harvest reaped by local farmers.
“Of course it bothers me,” said Mohammad Sarwar, 49, the mawlawi, or authority on Islamic teachings, at the mosque in this tiny northeastern village. “But we have to cultivate it in the current situation where we’ve had to borrow money, sell household items and don’t have enough to eat. This is an emergency.”
The drug trade in Afghanistan is growing more pervasive, powerful and organized, its corrupting reach extending to all aspects of society, according to dozens of interviews with international and Afghan anti-narcotics workers, police, poppy farmers, government officials and their critics.
Already the world’s largest opium producer last year, Afghanistan appears poised to produce another bumper crop. In rural areas where wheat has historically been the dominant crop, fields of brilliant red, pink and white poppies are proliferating. Many poor farmers, who complain that the Afghan government and other countries have failed to ease their economic woes through legal means, say that they are growing illegal opium poppies for the first time.

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At the same time, drug laboratories where raw opium is processed into morphine or heroin — once rare in Afghanistan — are sprouting at an unprecedented rate, police and anti-narcotics workers say. Many authorities appear less inclined to combat new drug syndicates than to share in their profits. The crude but money-making factories are largely condoned by elders, unmolested by police and guarded by militiamen and their commanders.
In the district of Daryian in Badakhshan province, police chief Abdul Qadeer Raashed said in an interview that he had shut down and destroyed all drug laboratories in villages under his control more than one month ago, after local competitors accused him of running labs and smuggling drugs.
But a Washington Post reporter who insisted on touring the supposedly defunct laboratories with Qadeer on short notice found the four fire pits of one, at a home in the village of Langar, still hot to the touch and firewood smoldering outside.
Hidden in a storeroom and outbuildings — along with the half-eaten lunches of people who had clearly been working there a short time before — were the supplies and equipment needed to produce morphine and heroin. Among them: dozens of empty oil barrels and still-damp vats for mixing and boiling, sacks of lime, more than 50 bags of chemicals such as ammonium chloride and filters for refining.
In the main house was a roster listing workers’ names and duties, instructions for using a satellite telephone, and — hidden under a mound of carpets and cushions — bags of a brown powder that appeared to be heroin. While the reporter searched the property, Qadeer stood by, looking miserable.
“Come back in 48 hours,” Qadeer said, “and I promise you, this will all be gone.”

As Afghanistan tries to put two decades of chaos and combat behind it and move toward rebuilding itself into a stable country, the growing drug trade and the corruption it is spawning threaten to make moot the ongoing debates over such basic issues as law and governance. Left unchecked, worried critics say, it will turn Afghanistan into a narco-mafia state.
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Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani called the drug trade “a threat to democracy” as Afghanistan tries to prepare for elections next year. “Elections are expensive propositions,” he said in an interview last week in the capital, Kabul. “The liquid funds from drugs, in the absence of solid institutions, could corrupt voting practices and turn them into a nightmare instead of a realization of the public will.”
Analysts and observers say that many well-placed politicians, police officers and military officials already are profiting from the drug trade. A high-ranking anti-narcotics official recalled discussing the problem with a U.S. general, who “asked me if I could give him a list of these officials who were involved. I told him it would be easier if I listed officials who weren’t involved. That would be a shorter list.”
While opium poppy has been cultivated in Afghanistan since the 18th century, the drug trade did not flourish here until recent decades, according to a U.N. study published this year.
After the 1979 Soviet invasion spawned a decade-long guerrilla war fought by U.S.-backed Islamic resistance forces, the Afghan government lost control of the rugged hinterlands and never fully regained it. Through the Soviet war and the years of conflict that followed, almost every faction funded itself at least partly through the drug trade.
The seemingly endless fighting also destroyed Afghanistan’s agricultural infrastructure — in particular the irrigation canals essential for nurturing crops and the roads needed to get them to market. Poor farmers increasingly turned to opium to support their families. The opium poppy requires less water than wheat, and the valuable sap it produces could be sold quickly to dealers in the fields or kept indefinitely on a farmhouse shelf and used as barter whenever a family needed something from the local bazaar.
In 1999, Afghanistan produced its largest opium crop to date: 5,060 tons, from about 224,000 acres of land, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The following year, the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that ruled most of the country, banned cultivation of the opium poppy, but not its trade. As a result, the price of opium soared and the Taliban reportedly profited hugely from selling stockpiles of the narcotic. Poppy cultivation plummeted, except in Badakhshan province and other areas not under Taliban control.
After the U.S.-led military campaign in late 2001 toppled the Taliban, the new president, Hamid Karzai, banned every aspect of the drug trade. Governors in some traditional poppy-growing provinces cooperated with aggressive eradication programs, but the poppy has spread rapidly in many areas where it traditionally had not been grown.
As they do every year, U.N. surveyors are trying to quantify this year’s poppy harvest using satellite photography and field inspections. Their findings will be announced in September, but some surveyors say anecdotal evidence already points to an extraordinary year.
In one corner of the Borek district in Badakhshan, for example, Said Amir, a U.N. surveyor, said that “last year I could not find one poppy there. This year it’s on about 40 percent of the land.”
There is broad agreement among anti-drug workers, aid agencies and poppy farmers that efforts last year to stop cultivation by paying farmers to eradicate their poppy fields only encouraged more to grow it this year in the hope that they would be paid again. And because aid groups have made food more plentiful, some farmers are feeding their families donated wheat, leaving their fields free for planting poppy.
In the northern province of Faryab, for example, World Food Progam workers said they noticed the greatest poppy cultivation in areas where they distributed wheat most heavily. In the remote Garziwan district, accessible only by donkey or horse, villagers who used to travel to pick up donated wheat told aid workers that they could not be bothered. Newly flush with opium profits, they wanted the wheat only if aid workers delivered it to them.

In Badakhshan province, known for the tenacity of its opposition to the Taliban and the beauty of its mountainous terrain, the drug trade is exerting a gravitational pull on the local economy and power structure.
The increase of poppy fields and drug labs has driven the price of a day’s labor from about $3 to $10 — beyond the reach of farmers tending low-priced legal crops, but affordable for poppy growers.
‘Almost all the U.N. projects have stopped because there is no labor. People are working with the poppy.’
U.N. mission in Afghanistan
The rising labor costs have also stalled road and bridge projects and other reconstruction efforts that are desperately needed in the province, which is poor even by Afghan standards, said Mohammad Hakim, 30, political officer for the Badakhshan office of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan.
“Almost all the U.N. projects have stopped because there is no labor,” he said. “People are working with the poppy. Roof construction, school projects — all stopped. Everybody is affected.”
Last year, Hakim said, several militia commanders scattered throughout the province tried to halt the spread of poppy cultivation and drug-processing labs. “This year, there was only one,” he said. “Next year, maybe none. In some districts, the commander is the owner of the factory. The people who are getting involved are getting powerful.”
Cmdr. Fazel Ahmad Nazari, head of criminal investigations for the Badakhshan police, said: “Day by day, it’s growing more organized. If it keeps going like this we won’t be able to combat it, ever.”
As the drug trade spreads, law enforcement efforts to combat it remain rudimentary.
The fledgling national government’s new Counter-Narcotics Department is still struggling to establish itself. Kabul-based anti-narcotics police units are largely in the planning and training stage. No one is seriously investigating official drug corruption. “We don’t have the capacity yet,” said Mirwais Yasini, director general of the Counter Narcotics Department.
In the eastern province of Logar, convoys of trucks loaded with drugs and guarded by men armed with semi-automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades travel toward the Pakistani border at least two or three times a week. The police chief says that his men don’t have the firepower to stop them and that some well-armed militiamen are in league with the smugglers.
“It’s out of our control,” said Maj. Gen. Noor Mohammad Pakteen, who has been a law enforcement officer for 36 of his 59 years. “The drug mafia is getting worse daily. When nobody will help us, we can’t do anything. . . . I’m so frustrated, actually, I’m ready to leave my job.”
Police across the country not only do not have the might to confront well-armed drug smugglers, they also lack such basics as cars, telephones and radios.
In mountainous Badakhshan, the police have just one vehicle, a pickup truck. When police at headquarters in the provincial capital, Faizabad, receive a tip about a smuggling operation in a far-flung district, Nazari often has to send an officer on foot. A round trip can take a month and leave an officer in trouble with no way to call for help.
“These mafia who are very active in Afghanistan have everything,” Nazari said. “They have motorbikes, pistols, mobile phones and tight communication. The police who are trying to combat those smugglers have nothing.”
Police in Badakhshan are supposed to receive a monthly salary of up to 1,500 afghanis — about $30. But the national government has failed to pay them for months at a time.
A demoralized police officer is ripe for bribes. “For $100, he’ll be hired,” Nazari said. “The drug smugglers will give him some money and tell him that even though he knows about a laboratory he should say that he doesn’t. It’s happened lots of times.”

The elder of Boymalasi village — a doctor — last year criticized the spread of poppy fields throughout the Argo district of Badakhshan. This year he’s growing poppy.
“I feel 100 percent terrible about it,” said Hasamudin, 44, looking down at his feet. “There is no rule in Afghanistan. If there was rule, the people could not do this. They would have to obey the orders of the government. There is no government in Afghanistan, just the name of government. Who will come and ask us about our crime?”
Ghulam Mohammad, 60, expressed no such misgivings. He has lived most of his life in a one-room house in Argo, farming wheat on a small plot to support his family of 10. “We never had a good life,” he said.
This season he and his son-in-law Safar planted poppy. Mohammad borrowed against anticipated profits of $1,800 — 30 times more than he ever earned selling wheat, he said — to add three rooms to his house.
Nobody, not even the local mullahs, is telling the wizened farmer and his neighbors that what they are doing is wrong. In fact, they laugh at the notion.
“In my village, the mullah himself has cultivated it,” Safar, 45, said.
“All the mullahs are cultivating it,” Mohammad said.
Along the banks of the nearby Kokcha River, Mullah Abdul Rashid of the Jata mosque is indeed laboring in his poppy field. Working with his business partner — Sarwar, the mosque’s mawlawi — the mullah deftly slices one ovoid poppy pod after another to release opium sap. All 80 families in their village are growing poppy this year, the clerics said.
“Of course we believe that growing this poppy will have a very bad moral effect on the people of Badakhshan,” the mullah, 36, said. “In the future, we hope it will be eradicated. Now, it’s everywhere because the people need it to survive.
“I won’t allow anyone to eradicate this field,” the mullah said. “In the future, if my situation got better, I’ll destroy it myself.”

2003 The Washington Post Company

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