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Burma is No.1 again

[After a year or so in 2nd place, Burma is presumably back to its earlier 
status as
the world's leading producer of heroin, as Afghanistan stops poppy 
cultivation -- DA ]

The New York Times

May 24, 2001

At Heroin's Source, Taliban Do What 'Just Say No' Could Not



This has been heroin's great heartland, where the narcotic came to life as 
an opium resin taken from
fragile buds of red and white poppies. Last year, 75 percent of the world's 
opium crop was grown in
Afghanistan, with the biggest yield sprouting from here in the fertile 
plains of the country's south,
sustained by the meander of the Helmand River.

But something astonishing has become evident with this spring's harvest. 
Behind the narrow dikes of
packed earth, the fields are empty of their most profitable plant. Poor 
farmers, scythes in hand, stoop
among brown stems.

Mile after mile, there is only a dry stubble of wheat to cut from the lumpy 

Last July, the ruling Taliban banned the growing of poppies as a sin 
against the teachings of Islam. The
edict was issued by Mullah Muhammad Omar, referred to as Amir-ul-Momineen, 
the supreme leader of
the faithful.

Almost every farmer complied, some grudgingly, some not. "Even if it means 
my children die, I will obey
my amir," said Nur Ali, sitting in his fields, sipping tea. Like most 
Afghan men, he wore a turban coiled
around his head like a holy bandage. "And the day my amir says I can grow 
poppy again, I will do that
too," he said.

The world is unused to good news coming from Afghanistan, known these days 
as a womb for global
jihad and an unsafe preservation site for Buddhist statues.

But American narcotics officials who visited the country confirmed earlier 
United Nations reports that
the Taliban had, in one growing season, managed a rare triumph in the long 
and losing war on drugs.
And they did it without the usual multimillion-dollar aid packages that 
finance police raids, aerial
surveillance and crop subsidies for farmers.

"We used a soft approach," said Abdul Hamid Akhundzada, who heads the 
Taliban's anti-poppy
program. "When there were violations, we plowed the fields. At most, 
violators spent a few days in jail,
until they paid for the plowing."

The Taliban, of course, are not considered softies. They whip women for 
exposing flesh at midcalf.
They jail men for trimming their beards. They hold public executions in 
stadiums full of cheering people.

But this spring's poppy crop seems to have died a relatively quiet death.

"No one dared disobey," said Saleh Muhammad Agha, a farmer with seven 
children and a meager
wheat field. "If they catch you, they blacken your face and march you 
through the bazaars with a string
of poppies around your neck."

The ban was carried out through the chain of command. The wisdom of the 
Holy Koran guided Mullah
Omar. He in turn communicated with his provincial governors, who informed 
their district administrators.
The administrators then explained the ban to local mullahs and tribal 
elders, who passed the news to the

Violators were few. In the village of Loay Bagh, one elderly man tried to 
conceal his poppies in a patch
of onions. The camouflage proved inadequate.

"He apologized, and we plowed his field and did nothing else," said Mullah 
Shah Wali, the administrator
in Nadali District. He was seated on the roof of his headquarters, not far 
from a 35-millimeter
antiaircraft gun. He eagerly showed off his right leg, atrophied from a war 

Haji Din Muhammad, a tribal elder in the village of Passao, owns 150 acres. 
His land is nourished by an
irrigation system built a half century ago with American aid. Poppies were 
his best crop, and he still sees
nothing wrong with them. After all, he said, he just grew the drugs. He 
never urged anyone to use them.

"But I have readily accepted the ban," he insisted, seated on a fine carpet 
that only a wealthy man could
afford. His four wives -- the maximum allowed under Islamic law -- were 
busy with his 18 children. "I
would never go against Amir-ul-Momineen. And I have no fear. God will 

Mullah Omar hails from southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban began their 
conquest of the country in
1994 as a ragtag group of students and mullahs. They first fought against 
local warlords who had busied
themselves with thievery, rape and murder. The Taliban took Kabul, the 
capital, in 1996, and they now
control 80 to 90 percent of the country. While their stern version of Islam 
often encounters resentment in
the cities, they remain heroes in the countryside.

Most farmers think of Mullah Omar as an Allah-appointed savior whose 
religious zeal has prompted the
poppy ban even in the face of mass hardship it would cause.

The country is in the fourth year of a calamitous drought. More than one 
million people face an
"unbridgeable" shortage of food and water before summer's end, according to 
the United Nations. The
relatively drought-resistant poppy would have provided some of them with 
vital income. Instead they
have parched and stunted wheat.

"A lot of us simply left the land untilled," said Ghulam Muhammad in the 
village of Shin. "The harvest
can't make up for the costs of the planting."

Poppy was not only profitable; it spread the money around. The work was 
labor intensive. Landowners
had to hire field hands to turn the soil and collect the opium paste. The 
ban has denied jobs to hundreds
of thousands.

Many of these laborers have now fled to Pakistan or Iran or the huge camps 
that have filled up like
arenas near the city of Herat. Others are found eating roots and grass. In 
some villages, flour is
considered too precious to be used in bread; it lasts longer if mixed with 
water and cooked as a soup.

"The only money in my life is the money I owe," said a weathered old man 
named Jamaluddin. He was
tarrying around a wheat field, hoping to trade a few hours of work for a 
cup of tea. "Life is unbearable,"
he said.

International reaction to the poppy ban has largely been skeptical.

Inspection teams, including the American one, have found little or no 
poppy. But many critics question
the Taliban's motives. In earlier years, the poppy harvest had multiplied. 
Why did Mullah Omar finally
now decide to just say no?

Some suspect political artifice: only three nations, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia 
and the United Arab Emirates,
officially recognize the Taliban as a government. Perhaps the poppy ban was 
a push for legitimacy.

Recent swoons in opium prices are also mentioned. The Taliban stopped poppy 
cultivation, but they
have not outlawed the drug's possession or sale. Stockpiles exist. With the 
price quadrupling, and more,
Mullah Omar's edict has handed some a windfall.

But aid workers in Afghanistan tend to regard the ban as straightforward 
and commendable. "Most
anyone else would have said: we'll do this if you'll do that," said Leslie 
Oqvist, coordinator for the
United Nations regional office in Kandahar. "But the Taliban acted 
unilaterally, and now they're
rightfully concerned that no assistance is forthcoming."

Taliban officials stress that the poppy ban is rooted in religious 
principles and not in any quid pro quo.
Nevertheless, they are well aware that wealthier nations often gratefully 
compensate third world allies in
the drug war. American assistance to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia is 
mentioned by example.

"A fair reply to what we have done would have been some acknowledgment of 
the achievement," said
Mullah Muhammad Hassan, the governor of Kandahar Province and one of the 
Taliban's top figures.
Like many of the leaders, he was maimed in the 1980's in the jihad against 
Soviet troops here. Mullah
Omar lost an eye in the war; Mullah Hassan drags a peg along the floor 
instead of a right leg.

"Our people are very needy," the governor said, speaking softly but 
pointedly. "They have given up the
poppy crop, and timely financial assistance is very important."

Little aid has arrived for the poppy farmers. Last week, Secretary of State 
Colin L. Powell announced a
$43 million grant for drought relief in Afghanistan. His statement 
mentioned "those farmers who have felt
the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome."

But most of that money is likely to be directed to emergency food and 
shelter. Torn by war hunger,
Afghanistan is a bottomless well of need, and poppy farmers will become 
poppy refugees unless they
find something else to plant that will feed their families.

"People require seed, fertilizer and pesticides -- the things that will 
again make them successful farmers,"
said Bernard Frahi, who oversees the Afghanistan situation for the United 
Nations Drug Control
Program. "We must provide roads, water and bridges or the poppy will come 

But the betting is that the ban will hold up. On a dusty lane in Kandahar, 
where a few dozen narrow
stalls make up the city's main opium bazaar, the traders not only talk of 
the poppy farmer in the past
tense, but also themselves as well.

"It's obvious our stocks are going down, and they won't be replaced," said 
Muhammad Sadiq, a drug
dealer in a gold prayer cap. He sat with a handful of friends, all of them 
pouring tea out of small green

The smarter traders, like Mr. Sadiq, have squirreled away their opium and 
now have the look of men
watching straw spun into gold. Last year, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of the drug 
sold for $110; now it is as high
as $500.

Mr. Sadiq reached behind a hanging white blanket at the rear of his stall 
and opened two metal chests.
Inside were heavy bags of opium stuffed into heavy brown plastic. He pulled 
a few out.

"The days of the poppy in Afghanistan are over," he said. "Opium will get 
scarcer, the price will get
higher. I'm holding on to this as long as I can."


GRAPHIC: Photos: With poppy growing banned, many farmers have switched to 
wheat and have lost
income. (Barry Bearak/The New York Times)(pg. A1); Two Afghan farmers in 
their field of parched
and stunted wheat in Helmand Province. They obeyed the Taliban's ban on the 
growing of opium
poppies, and they are pleading for some kind of foreign assistance. 
(Photographs by Barry Bearak/The
New York Times)(pg. A12)

Map of Afghanistan highlighting the Helmand Province: The poppy ban has 
sent the price of opium
soaring. In a stall in Kandahar, left, the opium in the heavy bags is now 
selling for as much as $500 for
2.2 pounds. (pg. A12)