Afghan Opium Business Defies U.S.-Led Attacks Afghanistan is still trying to eradicate opium poppies from a southern region that remains a Taliban stronghold. But a campaign by U.S. and Afghan forces has yet to make much of a dent in a major capital of opium production.
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Afghan Opium Business Defies U.S.-Led Attacks

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Afghan Opium Business Defies U.S.-Led Attacks

Afghan Opium Business Defies U.S.-Led Attacks

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

People grow so much opium in southern Afghanistan that authorities destroyed 19,000 acres of it and there may still be a record crop.

Nineteen thousand acres were destroyed and an Afghan official calls it a failure. He compares it to emptying the sea with a cup. The official is in Helmand Province, which is virtually the capital of world opium production right now. It's also a major stronghold for the Taliban. Afghanistan's former rulers are said to profit from opium. And even after eliminating part of the crop, so much remains that farmers are hiring thousands of migrant workers to harvest what remains.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

MAHMOUD (Farmer, Bolan Village): (Speaking in foreign language)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: In the village of Bolan, Mahmoud wades in plastic sandals through waist-high poppies that cover his farm like a white blanket. The 23-year-old farmer in a silver prayer cap and checkered shawl points to poppies with the thickest bulbs.

These flowers, Mahmoud says, will make him the most money. In total, his acre of illicit crop could bring in $2,400. Even after paying laborers to harvest paste from the bulbs, and middlemen to sell it in neighboring Lashkargah, Mahmoud expects to earn enough to feed his family of 10 for a year. He says the money is 10 times what he'll earn from his wheat crop.

LALJAN (Farmer): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Across the dirty road, a 25-year-old neighbor Laljan complains he will earn nothing. His two acres of poppies were destroyed by a government tractor that tore through his field last month. He and other farmers say they are sick of their government interfering with their livelihoods. They know that growing poppies is illegal, but more important is getting the most out of their small farms. Particularly frustrating, Laljan says, is that he and his neighbors each paid up to $20 in bribes to local policemen to spare their poppies from eradication.

Their frustration is exactly what Doug Wankel likes to here. Wankel, who heads the counter-narcotics task force at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, says three years of ever-widening eradication campaigns conducted by Afghan police under American guidance are having the desired effect, that despite the strong Taliban hold on Helmand, a province the size of West Virginia. The presence of the insurgents limited the poppy assault by ATVs and tractors to a 60-mile radius around Lashkargah.

Mr. DOUG WANKEL (Director, Office of Drug Control, U.S. Embassy): Poppy cultivation is so extensive in Afghanistan that you can never do enough of an eradication effort to have meaningful impact on that. The purpose of eradication is to interject threat and risk into the farmer's calculations as he decides whether to plant next year or not.

NELSON: Wankel says if they run an ad campaign this summer warning Afghan farmers that next year's eradication will be worse, it might just convince them to plant something legal. Abdul Mana does not share Wankel's optimism. The engineer who heads the Afghan government's counter-narcotics ministry in Helmand believes the punitive campaigns only alienate farmers.

Mr. ABDUL MANA (Ministry of Counter Narcotics): (Through translator) This method where for a month or so eradicators come and destroy maybe 12,000 acres of poppies has no effect. In Helmand, hundreds of thousand of acres are being grown. Can you empty the sea with a bucket or a cup? No.

NELSON: Abdul Mana says that with his government in control of so little of Helmand, officials need to get on farmers' good side. He says he'd like to see the government give farmers seeds for lucrative alternatives like saffron and cotton, then subsidize those markets to make sure prices stay high. His suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. The embassy's Doug Wankel agrees eradication is not perfect.

Mr. WANKEL: We do understand that in Afghanistan we're sort of seeing two results this year in the area where there is security. Where there is governance we can see a strategy that's working. In the areas where we don't have security, we see there are huge challenges, and Helmand is one of those.

NELSON: But he says what Abdul Mana is proposing won't work. The Taliban and smugglers exert too much pressure on farmers to grow poppy. Many farmers are tenants, he adds, so there is also pressure from landlords seeking to make a quick buck. Farmer Mahmud says eradication or not, he plans to grow poppies again next year.

MAHMOUD: In Afghanistan, we don't have jobs or anything. So we have to grow poppy. The alternative is stealing.

NELSON: But officials say another factor might help put the brakes on Helmand's opium production in 2008 - market economics. With poppies so prolific this year, the price of opium paste is expected to drop to 80 or $90 per kilo. That's down from last year's high of $140 per kilo.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Lashkargah.

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