Afghanistan tries again to eradicate opium

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — For years, opium was the monster too big to kill. One Afghan government after another has pledged to eradicate ...


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — For years, opium was the monster too big to kill. One Afghan government after another has pledged to eradicate opium production and trafficking, only to prove unable to withstand billions of dollars in illicit profits.

The Taliban government of the 1990s finally succeeded in reduce opium cultivation. But after the US-led invasion in 2001, opium taxes and smuggling helped fuel the Taliban’s own 20-year-old insurgency.

Today, with the Taliban back in power, insurgents-turned-politicians are once again struggling to eradicate opium cultivation and the endemic addiction problem that accompanies it. The Taliban announced on April 3 that poppy cultivation had been prohibitedoffenders to be punished under Sharia.

But eradicating opium will be harder than ever as poppy farmers switch to green energy.

Water pumps powered by inexpensive and highly efficient motors solar panels are able to drill deep into rapidly shrinking desert aquifers. Solar panels have helped generate bumper crops of opium year after year since farmers in the poppy-growing belt of southern Afghanistan began installing them around 2014.

Today, solar power is a defining feature of life in southern Afghanistan. Tiny solar panels power light bulbs in mud huts, and solar pumps irrigate cash crops such as wheat and pomegranates, as well as the vegetable gardens of subsistence farmers.

Solar panels have played a pivotal role in securing Afghanistan’s status as a world leader in opium. Afghanistan produced 83% of the world’s opium from 2015 to 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Despite a bitter war and persistent droughts, opium cultivation in Afghanistan has shifted to 224,000 hectares in 2020 123,000 hectares in 2009, according to the UN.

The previous US-backed government had spent $8.6 billion on poppy eradication, but senior Afghan officials were deeply accomplice in the opium trade, building garish “poppy palaces” in Kabul, the capital, and buying garish villas in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A government of 2018 inspector general’s report concluded that the campaign “did not have a lasting impact”.

The Taliban, for their part, have condemned opium as un-Islamic because poppy cultivation in Afghanistan supports drug addicts in Europe and Middle East, as well as a large number inside Afghanistan. But given their own deep ties to opium smuggling during the insurgency, Taliban leaders walk a fine line between hypocrisy and sanctity.

A widespread crackdown would exacerbate Afghanistan’s already devastating post-war economic collapse and antagonize the hard core Taliban among Pashtun farmers, impoverishing families who depend on the harvest to afford food. Eradication would require not only seizing farmers’ solar panels, but also confronting Taliban commanders complicit in the trade – at a time when the movement faces internal discontent as the money dries up.

The opium trade brought in about $1.8 billion to $2.7 billion last year, the United Nations said. Opium sales provided 9-14% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, against 9% provided by legal exports of goods and services.

“The cultivation of opium and the export of opiates extremely important for the Afghan economy as a whole, and any implementation of the ban will have far-reaching consequences,” the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research group, wrote in a report last month.

According to a study funded by the European Union research project by David Mansfield, a consultant who has studied illicit economies and rural livelihoods in Afghanistan for two decades.

The panels, which replaced more expensive and less reliable diesel to run water pumps, helped turn the desert green. The population of a previously uninhabited desert According to Dr. Mansfield’s research, areas of Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces have reached at least 1.4 million people in recent years as solar pumps have helped expand arable land.

“For many opium growers, plenty of water is now a given,” he said. “No one perceives that this has a cost.”

The Taliban targeted some solar-powered pumps. On May 13, the governor of Helmand province, adjacent to Kandahar province in the opium belt, ordered police to confiscate signs and pumps so that newly planted poppies would die in parched fields.

“Do not destroy the fields, but drain them,” Governor Maulave Talib Akhund said in a statement. He added: “We are committed to respecting the Opium Decree”.

The opium ban comes amid catastrophic levels of hunger, poverty and drought. The UN believes that 23 million Afghans suffer from acute food deprivation. An economy once supported by Western aid has collapsed under sanctions and the freezing of Afghan government funds abroad.

“It’s a pity for Afghans because poppy is the wealth of the Afghan people,” Shah Agha, 35, a poppy farmer from Kandahar’s Zari district, said of the ban.

After investing around $500 in seeds, fertilizer, labor and other expenses, Mr. Agha said, he hoped to earn around $5,000 after selling the 20 kilograms of opium he planned to harvest this spring. .

The opium ban was met with a collective shrug this spring by southern farmers, many of whom were already harvesting their spring crops. Opium prices jumped almost immediately, several farmers said, from around $180 per kilogram to around $60 per kilogram.

“I think they banned it for their own benefit because most smugglers and Taliban commanders have tons of opium, and they might want to raise the prices,” Agha said.

Taliban forces this spring seemed unable or uninterested in launching a rapid eradication campaign. Taliban patrols quietly passed plentiful opium fields where the spring crop was being harvested. Workers flanked by glowing solar panels used curved knives to scrape sticky opium paste from poppy bulbs

The government has indicated that it will allow the spring harvest as it is already underway. But the Taliban have vowed to crack down on farmers trying to grow new crops.

As the United States has done during its long presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban has suggested switching to alternative crops such as wheat, pomegranates, cumin and almonds. But even if poppy cultivation were eliminated, alternative crops would still be at risk as desert aquifers are rapidly depleting.

Dr Mansfield said determining how long aquifers could continue to supply water was uncharted territory because no one had been able to conduct a rigorous scientific study of desert groundwater.

Amir Jan Armani, 45, who said he hoped to make around $4,000 from the 45 kilograms of opium he harvested in Kandahar province this spring, said he had seen the water levels fall precipitously since the arrival of solar panels.

When farmers used diesel-powered pumps, groundwater levels fell about three meters a year, Armani said. But since the arrival of solar panels, they have sometimes sunk up to nine meters a year. His well is 30 meters deep, he said, but his neighbor’s well across the river is 60 meters deep.

“We have to keep digging our wells deeper and deeper,” Armani said.

He and other farmers saved money this spring by not paying the opium taxes imposed by the Taliban in previous years. No such tax has been levied this year, said Noor Ahmad Saied, the Taliban’s information director in Kandahar.

Many farmers in Arghandab, a district of Kandahar famous for its pomegranates, have grenadiers shot down killed by drought or fighting. They planted poppies instead.

Even when prices are high, many poppy growers say, they only earn about $2 a day for each member of the family. They are the basis of a drug trafficking system in which profits increase exponentially, from producers to middlemen, from processing laboratories to major cross-border traffickers.

Ehsanullah Shakir, 31, an opium trafficker in Helmand province, said the Taliban’s enforcement of the ban this year had been spotty so far. Some farmers had planted almonds, cumin or basil after harvesting their spring poppies, he said, but others had ignored the ban and planted poppies for a second harvest. And opium markets continue to operate as usual in many regions, Shakir said.

Farmers whose poppy fields were plowed by the previous government could send their sons off to paid jobs as soldiers or police – or to the constellation of unskilled jobs provided by the United States and NATO. But those options disappeared and unemployment soared under the Taliban.

In Kandahar’s Maiwand district, Nek Nazar, 41, worked to install a new water pump at the edge of his poppy field. He started growing poppies five years ago, he said, because they produced much more income than the wheat he had grown.

Mr. Nazar spoke as if culture change was predestined and not a matter of choice. For him, it was either plant poppies or starve.

“Poppy cultivation is the only option to survive right now,” he said.

Taimoor Shah contributed to reporting from Kandahar.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Afghanistan tries again to eradicate opium
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