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Burma is No.1 again
[After a year or so in 2nd place, Burma is presumably back to its earlier
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
BYLINE: By BARRY BEARAK
DATELINE: HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan, May 20
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
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
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
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,"
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
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)