Poppies bring prosperity

Across Afghanistan, opium cultivation is surging, defying all efforts of the Afghan government and international officials to stop it. Officials are predicting that land under poppy cultivation will rise by 30 percent or more this year. Last year the country produced almost 4,000 tons — three-fourths of the world’s opium — in 28 of its 32 provinces. The opium trade generated $1 billion for farmers and $1.3 billion for drug traffickers, according to the United Nations — more than half of Afghanistan’s national income!

To the chagrin of Afghan and international officials, the narcotics industry has far outpaced the legal reconstruction of Afghanistan. As opium production underpins ever more of Afghanistan’s economic life, from new business growth to home construction, officials also fear that the economic and political risks of uprooting it will only increase.

Today, growing poppies is less about survival than about upward mobility. It is about a new consumer class and an even larger class of aspirants to it. In the last four years, said Abdul Rahman, 18, poppy provided his family with a motorbike, a television, an electric generator, a VCR and a CD player — and a new house to hold it all. Last year his family accumulated $4,000 in poppy profits. With the price of opium stuck at more than $135 a pound, no legal crop can compete.

For many Afghans, the poppy has even funded piety. A United Nations report on Afghanistan’s opium economy noted that 85 percent of opium traders surveyed had performed the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is incumbent on every Muslim but too costly for most Afghans.

The growth in opium production is among the gravest threats facing the administration of President Hamid Karzai. It has corrupted the government from bottom to top, including governors and cabinet officials, according to senior Afghan and American officials. But American officials are reluctant to engage in an antidrug war there. One official pointed out that many of those in the drug trade "are the guys who helped us liberate this place in 2001" from the Taliban and on whom the American military continues to rely in its hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

– edited from The New York Times
PeaceMeal, May/June 2004

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