Poppy Fields Forever?

Booming opium production in Afghanistan is the latest—and potentially greatest—threat to the beleaguered country’s steps toward democracy.

poppy fields in afghanistan
Poppy fields near Kandahar. Close to 2.3 million Afghanis are now involved in producing 87 percent of the world’s opium supply. / Photograph by Darko Zeljikovic

The German soldier hunching over his machine gun in the door of our transport helicopter was humming Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as we rose in tight formation out of the mountain fortress of Feyzabad. Valkyries underscored one of the darker scenes in Apocalypse Now, and it suddenly seemed appropriate as we soared over ancient walls that once sheltered Northern Alliance forces against attacks from the Taliban during the 1990s. Minutes later our choppers, grey and detailed with the Iron Cross of the German air force, were heading toward some of the vast poppy fields in northeast Afghanistan that the United Nations claims feed nearly 87 percent of the world’s heroin trade. The crop is worth almost $30 billion (US) annually, and our pilot, fearing an attack from recalcitrant growers firing surface-to-air missiles, dropped decoy flares and flew within a few metres of the ground through jagged mountain passes.

As the rear crew strained to see if there was a pillar of smoke from a missile gaining on us, large fields of brown, dormant plants came into view. At first I thought these were cotton crops, but they were actually the husks of harvested poppy plants stretching far into the distance. Despite the presence of thousands of foreign soldiers in the country, the amount of opium being produced is twenty-one times greater than it was prior to the US-led invasion in 2001. The government, isolated in Kabul, is largely powerless to act, but in Feyzabad they have at least managed to erect a large, anti-drug billboard that features the image of a black skull mated to a red poppy along a dusty stretch of road. The advertisement poses a question: Will the people of Afghanistan choose peace and democracy or the heroin trade that rival factions have long used to finance terrorism and the purchase of weapons?

The question, so starkly symbolized by the black skull, is also one that 1,200 Canadian troops, deployed in Afghanistan under US command, will have a role in answering. Earlier this summer, the first Canadians left the relative safety of Kabul and travelled southwest in a convoy (at times led by a minesweeper) along 482 kilometres of the newly paved Highway One to Kandahar, once a Taliban stronghold and still an area where Islamic insurgents are active. The Canadians’ job is to stabilize the rugged desert-and-mountain region along Pakistan’s western border to make it safe for aid workers and allow the authority of the central government in Kabul to take root. It was in the desert on the outskirts of Kandahar in 2002 that an American bomb killed four Canadian soldiers in a friendly fire incident, and they are expecting more casualties—this time from enemy attack.

At the outset of the Afghanistan war, pundits warned that the conflict would quickly turn into another Vietnam. They predicted the abject failure of the US effort to stabilize the country—a nation racked by thirty years of almost continuous war. When the United States quickly ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan was repackaged as “Colombia.” But what did this mean? It was actually coded language to describe a country occupied by warlords with private armies that control the production and sale of drugs and flout the edicts of a weak central government. Coupled with the word “quagmire,” a “Colombia” is a situation where violence has no end. Is Afghanistan now becoming Colombia? If so, what exactly is Canada getting into as it deploys deep into Taliban territory?

For Prime Minister Paul Martin, accepting a wider role in Afghanistan, which could allow the United States to redeploy some of its troops to Iraq, sends a message to Washington that Canada is willing to take on a meaningful role in the war on terrorism. It also plays well at home, where the public has long supported sending soldiers abroad as nation-builders. But the Canadians are actually on a combat mission, and the situation they face in Afghanistan is far more dangerous and complex than Ottawa has let on. Several overlapping conflicts are taking place in a diverse country desperate to restore some semblance of central government—an institution it hasn’t had since 1973, when the royal family fled and was replaced by a series of communist or radical Islamist regimes. Into this Gordian knot of ethnic and religious rivalries is woven the narcotics trade, which, according to the UN, generates $2.8 billion in revenue, nearly 60 percent of the gross domestic product.

Almost 10 million addicts (two-thirds of users worldwide) consume heroin produced from Afghan poppies, and international criminal gangs earn nearly $28 billion annually supplying them. And the problem is getting worse. Close to 2.3 million, or nearly 8 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million people, are now involved in poppy production, which has spread to all thirty-two provinces. Farmers can earn a princely $4,600 per hectare in a nation where the annual average income is just $200. As the drug economy has taken root, consumer products, such as televisions, refrigerators, and cars, are appearing in some villages for the first time.

After living in poverty for decades, it is unlikely that the growers will turn away from poppy production. This is why President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly warned that if the West does not provide enough aid to build a legitimate economy, the country’s fledgling steps toward democracy will fail and Afghanistan, like Colombia, will become a narco-state ruled by gangsters and terrorists. “The Afghans have lost their pomegranate orchards to poppy fields. The Afghans have lost their vineyards to poppy fields, their apricot orchards to poppy fields,” said Karzai. “Opium cultivation is more dangerous than factional fighting, more dangerous than terrorism.”

Of course opium production wasn’t an issue for the US Army and its allies when they invaded, targeting Kabul, the ouster of the Taliban, and the destruction of al Qaeda. The regime not only shielded Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda operatives as it trained a foreign legion of terrorists, it allowed them to develop biological and chemical weapons at rudimentary labs in Kabul and Kandahar. By the end of 2002, Western forces had routed the Taliban and al Qaeda, the remnants of which pushed into western Pakistan, where bin Laden is still believed to be hiding. But al Qaeda continues to bolster the Taliban with training and money as they wage a low-level insurgency in the east and southeast, including Kandahar, against US forces and unprotected aid workers. The violence can be random and when I was travelling in Zabol, in the northeast, one hapless individual from the Red Cross was hacked apart by a rent-a-mob, whose passions had been stirred by a generous financial offering from Taliban operatives.

In addition to suppressing the insurgents, the most important task facing Western armies has been to incorporate regional chieftains and their armies—who control much of the country—into the central government. Several of these warlords had been loosely grouped into what became known as the Northern Alliance, and they played a key role in the defeat of the Taliban. These people had long been reliant on opium production to finance military operations against the Taliban—but what is not generally known is that the Taliban, despite its Islamic orthodoxy, also funded its operations by taxing the same drug supply.

How then do you now tell the warlords who helped the West that they need to change their ways? And how do you prevent the Taliban and al Qaeda from exploiting the potential divisions that might emerge if the poppy crops are destroyed? That is clearly the toughest challenge facing the country and the Canadian troops.

Some analysts and international aid groups believe the West should simply strip the warlords of their power and replace them with outsiders loyal to Kabul. But this is naive. The warlords have to be accommodated. The international community cannot afford to fight the popular victors of the war, no matter what unsavoury activities these groups are involved in.

Instead, Western countries with forces in Afghanistan—primarily Canada, the United States, Japan, Britain, and Germany—are taking an incremental approach designed to strengthen Afghan governance without attacking the poppy fields directly. The formation of a legitimate central government and the election of Karzai in the fall of 2004 was a significant first step, as will be the parliamentary and provincial elections this September, in which several thousand candidates are expected to run for 250 positions. Karzai’s election was followed by the creation of a multi-ethnic national army and a program that gradually removes heavy weapons belonging to warlords and demobilizes their armies.

One site I visited in Konduz was packed with artillery, tanks, combat vehicles, and helicopters. This equipment belonged to the forces that took Taloqan and then Konduz from the Taliban. Western countries would have had great difficulty dislodging such well-armed militias, putting foreign troops in the same boat as the Soviets in the 1980s or the British in the 1830s and 1850s.

The Western forces’ goal is to reduce the local power of the chieftains without triggering a civil war. This has to be done with some care: the warlords cannot just be pensioned off and left to their own devices. There has to be a buy-in. The demand being made by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, among others, to prosecute these same leaders for war crimes is as naive as it is destabilizing.

There is ample room for mistakes here. And this is where the narcotics issue comes in. Growing poppies is a lucrative business, and one that hundreds of former fighters have entered. These are small, well-armed groups and, though they are incapable of mounting a co-ordinated insurgency, they are still a parallel power and have killed several members of Afghanistan’s fledgling anti-narcotics force. They can also influence the outcome of the September elections. In fact, at one point the governor of the central Ghor province was forced to flee when he spoke out against the growers. Said one farmer: “The only person in Ghor who said not to grow opium was the governor.”

Until the government is able to train and deploy a large number of troops and narcotics police (and this is dependent on a stable security situation), the growing of poppies and the flow of heroin will not be reduced. Still, in what may be an indication of a broader attack on the poppy fields to come, the international community has been assisting the narcotics police. In Konduz, while I was there, three raids were conducted by unmarked helicopters. Labs were blown up and at least six people seized. The long-term effects of these counter-narcotic operations are unclear. The Afghan judiciary has not yet evolved in pace with other enforcement efforts, so what can authorities do with the growers they arrest?

As the black skull in Feyzabad asks them to, Afghans will ultimately have to decide what they want to do about narcotics. Canadian troops, by leaving the safety of Kabul behind for the wilds of Kandahar, are helping buy Karzai time to prove that a democratic government can build a country that is not based on opium production. The alternative is another Colombia.

Sean Maloney