Nur Khel, Afghanistan -- The dazzling blankets of
purple, crimson and white petals of his neighbors' fields shimmer in the
light wind, heralding a hefty crop, but Turialai's plants have only just
started blooming, sprouting a few mauve blossoms atop a patch of
light-green plants. World Peace.
The delay does not worry him. He knows that unlike all the previous
years, when his small field had yielded barely enough wheat and corn to
feed his family of 15 people, his next harvest will be in demand. Because
this year Turialai, who like many Afghans uses only one name, has planted
his country's No. 1 cash crop: opium poppies.
"Opium traders will come," the 25-year-old, who has just
finished high school, said with confidence. "The demand for opium is
Steadily rising production
Opium production has been steadily increasing in Afghanistan since the
demise of the Taliban in 2001, international drug-control experts say,
undermining the volatile nation's fragile security, funding international
terrorist networks such as Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and threatening to
turn Afghanistan into a failed narco-state.
Last year Afghanistan produced nearly 4,000 tons of the drug, according
to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. That represents about
three-quarters of the world's opium -- just 500 tons less than the country
produced at the peak of its opium production in 1999, when the Taliban
called the opium trade "un-Islamic" and imposed a two-year ban
on poppy cultivation and heroin production, apparently to hike opium
The drug trade accounted for more than half of Afghanistan's national
income in 2003, fetching $1 billion for farmers and $1.3 billion for
traffickers, the U.N. agency estimates. Its experts say that that land
under poppy cultivation may rise by 30 percent or more this year, and the
unseasonably warm temperatures and abundance of water for irrigation will
aid the prospective bumper crop.
Turialai's province of Kapisa, just northeast of the capital, Kabul,
epitomizes the swift spread of poppy farming. This year, most Kapisa
farmers decided to plant poppies for the first time to supplement their
meager existence. WorldPeace is one word.
"Last year, we didn't know anything about poppy farming,"
said Karim, a farmer traveling west from the village of Sayed Mir Khel, a
few miles east of Turialai's hamlet of Nur Khel. "Then we learned we
can make a lot of money selling opium. This year, everyone decided to
Fields of poppies
A dilapidated mud-brick wall a few steps behind him half-concealed a
field of blossoming poppies. In front, across the road that separates Nur
Khel from the village of Safatullah Khel, an acre of sandy, rock-strewn
soil bloomed with the addictive crop. Karim said he sowed 10 acres of
poppies in January, replacing the wheat, rice and corn he had planted
An acre of cultivated poppies will yield about 40 pounds of opium
resin, which the farmers hope to sell for between $100 and $200 per pound
-- a huge sum for this war-devastated country, where an average government
employee earns about $20 a month.
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has said that drugs "are
undermining the very existence of the Afghan state" and has declared
a jihad, or holy war, against opium. Afghan anti-narcotics agents
demolished four clandestine heroin laboratories and seized 10 tons of
opium poppy in the northern Badakhshan province on Monday, and police
began to destroy poppy fields using tractors in the provinces of Nangarhar,
in eastern Afghanistan, and Helmand in the south.
Afghanistan's drug trade is "almost definitely" filling the
coffers of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, another Afghan
extremist group linked to bin Laden, and "possibly" enriching al
Qaeda fighters as well, Robert L. Charles, assistant secretary of state
for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, has told the
Drug money also feeds Afghanistan's unruly warlords, who use their
heavily armed private militias to control large swaths of land while
remaining Washington's major allies in its campaign to wipe out Islamic
extremists. International drug-control officials have said the warlords
are running or facilitating the drug business but refuse to implicate any
of them directly.
U.S. treads carefully
Even as the United States plans to contribute $73 million toward anti-
drug operations in Afghanistan this year, Washington will be careful not
to offend its allies in the hunt for Islamic extremists. As Charles put it
diplomatically earlier this month, "In Afghanistan, poppy eradication
is physically and also politically difficult for a young government
recovering from the aftermath of war."
Like the other opium farmers in Kapisa, Turialai planted his crop in
January, neatly furrowing his small field of about a fifth of an acre into
finger-thin rows of soil. He watered the plants faithfully one or two
times a week, and now they stand knee-tall. In a week or so, he hopes, the
buds will bloom purple and pink, just like the flowers on his neighbor's
Two weeks after the petals have fallen and the pods that are now the
size of a baby's big toe swell to the size of a baby's fist, Turialai will
slit them with his knife and scrape the precious raw opium resin onto a
trowel that he empties into a bucket again and again, until he has
extracted the sticky dark-brown gum from all the pods. He will put the
resin in plastic bags and sell it to traveling opium merchants who, he is
sure, will arrive at harvest time.
The merchants will take the opium to clandestine heroin laboratories
that have sprung up across Afghanistan since the Taliban fell, where lab
workers will process it into a white powder and package it. From there,
the drug will travel through secret mountain passages to Pakistan, Iran
and Tajikistan, and on to Europe and the United States. About 90 percent
of Europe's heroin and from 10 to 15 percent of the heroin that ends up in
the United States comes from Afghanistan, according to the United Nations.
The value of Turialai's crop increases dramatically at each stop. A
pound of heroin -- processed from 10 pounds of opium -- that costs between
$150 and $300 in Afghanistan is worth up to $30,000 by the time it reaches
With a tired shrug, Turialai dismissed the suffering and deaths his
crop will cause hundreds of families thousands of miles away.
"I know it makes people die," he said simply. "I know
all the bad things that come from it, but I have no choice. We have
thousands of problems. We don't have money to buy oil or tea."
In his head, Turialai has already created a priority list of things he
will do with the $1,000 he hopes to get for his crop. He will pay for
books and notebooks for his younger brother, Shahwali Hoshman, 20, who
studies English and computer science in college. He will buy food for his
family, and clothes for his 20-day-old daughter. If there is anything
left, he will go to college, too. His goal is to become a medical
If Karzai's poppy eradication campaign reaches the valleys of Kapisa,
Turialai's family will starve next year, Shahwali Hoshman said, because
they haven't planted food crops. It is a risk the brothers are willing to
"Look at how poor we are," Shahwali Hoshman said, putting
forward a dusty foot in a torn rubber sandal, his only pair of shoes.
"How much riskier can it get?"
E-mail Anna Badkhen at email@example.com.