When Shah Zada spotted the team of Afghan policemen surveying his field in April, the young farmer grabbed a fistful of cash and raced toward them.
"I found the officer in charge and I begged him, 'Please don't destroy my poppies. I'll give you 3,000 afghanis,' " recalled Zada, 28, whose skin is weathered like an old man's from years of plowing, weeding and harvesting in the sun.
The officer pocketed the bribe, worth $70, with a noncommittal shrug. But several days later, when police brought in tractors to mow down the tall stalks sprouting around this tiny village in Balkh province, Zada said his five-acre plot was among those spared.
"They didn't destroy my neighbor's poppy either -- I guess because they thought it was mine as well. I ought to charge him for half the money!" Zada said with a laugh.
His account, like those of many poppy farmers interviewed in a string of hamlets on the dust-blown steppe of northern Afghanistan, underscores the intractability of Afghanistan's drug problem seven months after President Hamid Karzai declared a holy war on the opium trade there.
Late last year, U.N. experts reported that Afghan farmers had grown record levels of poppy in 2004, with the amount of land dedicated to poppies reaching 323,570 acres -- a two-thirds increase over 2003. Afghan opium poppies were used to produce nearly 90 percent of the world's heroin, they said.
In January, Karzai and his ministers launched a marathon of meetings to persuade local officials and tribal leaders to curb poppy planting in their regions. Their pitch included appeals to national pride and religious faith, promises of international aid and threats of crop destruction.
U.S. officials followed suit, pledging $761 million in aid to farmers and support for law enforcement to combat the drug trade, which they fear could turn this fledgling democracy into a narco-state and fuel insurgents linked to the ousted Taliban militia. That package came on top of several hundred million dollars already budgeted for drug fighting by the United States, Britain and other nations.
Meanwhile, traffickers were keen to boost opium prices after a sharp drop, and farmers whose crops were afflicted by diseases last year were wary of replanting this year.
Within weeks, surveyors were reporting impressive findings: Farmers had almost completely stopped planting poppies across major growing provinces -- Nangahar and Laghman in the east, Uruzgan in the central part of the country and Helmand in the south -- that together accounted for more than 50 percent of national poppy cultivation in 2004.
But like a balloon that expands on one end when pinched on the other, poppy cultivation has substantially increased in several other provinces, such as Kandahar in the south, long a major source of poppy, and Balkh in the north, which had never been a major growing center. In 2003, farmers in Balkh cultivated 2,717 acres of poppy; in 2004, the number leapt to 6,163 acres.
"There has definitely been a major, major increase" in Balkh, said Doris Buddenberg, the Afghan representative for the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, although experts in her office said that nationwide, the amount of land used to grow poppies in 2005 could still prove to be substantially less than last year.
One reason for the increase in Balkh and other areas, according to one U.S. counter-narcotics official, was that both local and central government authorities lacked the will and the means to mount serious crop eradication programs in places where farmers had ignored their pleas not to plant.
The extra money for farmers and law enforcement was passed by the U.S. Congress only a month ago, so very little has been spent. Even though eradication work was supposed to begin in February, the official said, it did not start until April, because of funding delays and "resistance from influential figures in government."
Even when the program got underway, farmers in Balkh said, it was spotty and corrupt or nonexistent.
Of seven farmers interviewed in Langar Khana, only three, who owned fields beside the main road from the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, said they had faced any threat of eradication. Two, who said they did not have cash to pay a bribe, lost their crops.
One grower, Mohammed Asef, 34, found another solution. When a team of local police started approaching the high mud walls concealing a small patch where he was growing poppies, Asef said, he gave them directions to other poppy fields cultivated by farmers from a village several miles away.
In one corner of Asef's walled field, an enormous heap of harvested poppy stalks was drying in the sun, their bulbs marked with tiny slits to draw out opium sap.
Like many farmers, Asef said he had no choice but to grow poppy. His other crops, such as cotton and melons, fetch only a fraction of poppy's price -- far less than he requires to support his wife and six children.
Villagers also said they had seen no sign of the foreign aid promised to farmers in exchange for cutting back on poppy cultivation. Langar Khana still has no running water or electric power and has only tents in place of a school, they noted.
Meanwhile, the proceeds from poppy Asef grew last year have bought him far more than survival. A few steps from his old two-room mud house, he has already built a solid, new three-room structure.
In the yard are two fighting pheasants, a major investment, costing $19 each. Asef said he dotes on them like children, dicing almonds into tiny bits and catching grasshoppers at night to feed them.
"I've wanted a pheasant since I was a boy," said Asef, his blue eyes shining with pleasure. "But this is the first time in my life I could afford them. I'm so happy."
A few miles north, villagers in the hamlet of Sayed Abad were in less cheerful spirits. Five said they had poppy fields next to the main road that had been eradicated.
"At first when the police came to destroy my field, I accepted it," recalled Mohammed Alam. "I felt that Afghanistan has peace and law now, and this is the price of that."
The farmers said they learned several days later that neighboring villagers had paid bribes to avoid losing their poppy crops.
"I feel so angry in my heart now," Alam said. "What kind of a government is this that we have?"
Sherjan Durrani, spokesman for the Afghan police in Balkh province, bristled at the allegations.
"I completely reject this," he said in his cramped office in Mazar-e Sharif. "The police destroyed [the accusers'] lands, so now they are trying to get back by saying, 'The police took money from me.' "
Durrani said the police force was committed to safeguarding peace and law in the province despite low salaries and the lack of vehicles and manpower. He said provincial police, working with a special eradication force from the national police, had succeeded in destroying 7,900 acres of poppy in Balkh.
If so, that would amount to more land than was cultivated for all crops in the province in 2004, according to U.N. statistics.
Gen. Abdul Razaq Amiri, head of the central poppy eradication force, gave a slightly more conservative estimate, saying the unit had destroyed 3,500 acres in Balkh -- equivalent to more than 60 percent of last year's planting. But American and U.N. sources said the true eradication figure was likely to be far lower.
"Percentage-wise, eradication in Balkh and across the country was extremely limited," said Hakan Demirbuken, a regional expert for the U.N. drug office. The U.S. official said the eradication force had destroyed only 313 acres in Balkh province over a nine-day period, and only 533 acres nationwide.
One point on which there is widespread agreement is that, with drug cultivation and trafficking now providing 60 percent of the nation's income, more extensive eradication next year would be counterproductive, even destabilizing, if it is carried out without providing farmers with alternative means of support.
"The aid right now is not sufficient," Amiri said.
Demirbuken noted that international donors had just over three months before the start of the next planting season to get enough assistance to farmers to persuade them not to sow poppies. Many farmers in Balkh have made up their minds already.
"Of course I will plant poppy!" said Alam, one of the villagers in Sayed Abad who said his crop was destroyed this spring. "And if our neighbors give bribes to the police again, then we'll just give bribes that are three times as high. We understand the system now."