Struggling for Solutions As Opium Trade Blossoms

Members of the Uruzgan poppy eradication council debate how to curb poppy cultivation.
Members of the Uruzgan poppy eradication council debate how to curb poppy cultivation. (Molly E. Moore - Post)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 21, 2008

TARIN KOT, Afghanistan -- On a recent cold spring day, just as the first small sprouts of poppies began pushing out of the southern Afghanistan earth, the members of Uruzgan province's poppy eradication council gathered around a wood stove in the governor's compound here for their first meeting.

"We should encourage people to eliminate poppies voluntarily," offered one official. "Ministers will go to the radio stations and tell them to stop. Mullahs should go to the mosques and tell people it's forbidden by Islam."

Mohammad Mawlawi, a mullah with a curly black beard extending down the length of his chest, exploded in anger.

"The people won't listen to us if we go to the mosque and say it's against our culture," he insisted. "No one wants to stop because the government has done nothing for us. They say, 'We have no choice, we have to make a living to support our families.'

"The people won't stop!" he repeated, waving his lime-green prayer beads for emphasis.

In the last six years, the international community has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for Afghan poppy eradication, built a state-of-the-art maximum-security facility for drug traffickers outside Kabul and dispatched hundreds of troops to try to persuade farmers to plant wheat, fruit trees and saffron instead of poppies.

The result of those efforts: Last year Afghanistan produced 90 percent of the world's opium and its derivative, heroin -- more than at any time in the country's history. The only major drug traffickers held in the new prison wing were allowed to escape. And a special international fund for motivating Afghan leaders to eradicate poppies has barely been touched, according to international officials involved in Afghan anti-drug efforts.

While 13 provinces in the north and central parts of Afghanistan were poppy-free last year, the number of acres under cultivation nationwide increased 17 percent, according to a U.N. survey. More than three-quarters of the poppy crop is cultivated in areas outside government control, primarily in five southern provinces.

The war against poppies has been undercut by disagreements among NATO allies and Afghan officials over how to stop cultivation, corrupt Afghan officials and inefficient reconstruction efforts, according to U.S., U.N., NATO and Afghan officials involved in the anti-drug effort.

Most militaries are loath to engage in eradication efforts because of the danger to soldiers and the risk of angering the very farmers whose support they are trying to win. Many poor farmers have managed to survive only by selling their crops to the Taliban, the extremist militia that has used profits from the drug trade to fund its resurgence.

"If you support eradication one day, you can't tell the people the next day we're here for you," said Lt. Col. Tjerk Hogeveen, commander of the Dutch combat troops in Uruzgan. "They won't believe you're here to help them if you're destroying their only source of income. If we want to win them over, supporting eradication without alternatives is the wrong symbol."

The United States has pushed aggressively for aerial spraying, similar to years-long programs in Colombia.

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