This has been heroin’s great heartland, where the narcotic came to life as an opium resin taken from fragile buds of red and white poppies. Last year, 75 percent of the world’s opium crop was grown in Afghanistan, with the biggest yield sprouting from here in the fertile plains of the country’s south, sustained by the meander of the Helmand River.
But something astonishing has become evident with this spring’s harvest. Behind the narrow dikes of packed earth, the fields are empty of their most profitable plant. Poor farmers, scythes in hand, stoop among brown stems.
Mile after mile, there is only a dry stubble of wheat to cut from the lumpy soil.
Last July, the ruling Taliban banned the growing of poppies as a sin against the teachings of Islam. The edict was issued by Mullah Muhammad Omar, referred to as Amir-ul-Momineen, the supreme leader of the faithful.
Almost every farmer complied, some grudgingly, some not. ”Even if it means my children die, I will obey my amir,” said Nur Ali, sitting in his fields, sipping tea. Like most Afghan men, he wore a turban coiled around his head like a holy bandage. ”And the day my amir says I can grow poppy again, I will do that too,” he said.
The world is unused to good news coming from Afghanistan, known these days as a womb for global jihad and an unsafe preservation site for Buddhist statues.
But American narcotics officials who visited the country confirmed earlier United Nations reports that the Taliban had, in one growing season, managed a rare triumph in the long and losing war on drugs. And they did it without the usual multimillion-dollar aid packages that finance police raids, aerial surveillance and crop subsidies for farmers.
”We used a soft approach,” said Abdul Hamid Akhundzada, who heads the Taliban’s anti-poppy program. ”When there were violations, we plowed the fields. At most, violators spent a few days in jail, until they paid for the plowing.”
The Taliban, of course, are not considered softies. They whip women for exposing flesh at midcalf. They jail men for trimming their beards. They hold public executions in stadiums full of cheering people.
But this spring’s poppy crop seems to have died a relatively quiet death.
”No one dared disobey,” said Saleh Muhammad Agha, a farmer with seven children and a meager wheat field. ”If they catch you, they blacken your face and march you through the bazaars with a string of poppies around your neck.”
The ban was carried out through the chain of command. The wisdom of the Holy Koran guided Mullah Omar. He in turn communicated with his provincial governors, who informed their district administrators. The administrators then explained the ban to local mullahs and tribal elders, who passed the news to the farmers.
Violators were few. In the village of Loay Bagh, one elderly man tried to conceal his poppies in a patch of onions. The camouflage proved inadequate.
”He apologized, and we plowed his field and did nothing else,” said Mullah Shah Wali, the administrator in Nadali District. He was seated on the roof of his headquarters, not far from a 35-millimeter antiaircraft gun. He eagerly showed off his right leg, atrophied from a war wound.
Haji Din Muhammad, a tribal elder in the village of Passao, owns 150 acres. His land is nourished by an irrigation system built a half century ago with American aid. Poppies were his best crop, and he still sees nothing wrong with them. After all, he said, he just grew the drugs. He never urged anyone to use them.
”But I have readily accepted the ban,” he insisted, seated on a fine carpet that only a wealthy man could afford. His four wives — the maximum allowed under Islamic law — were busy with his 18 children. ”I would never go against Amir-ul-Momineen. And I have no fear. God will provide.”
Mullah Omar hails from southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban began their conquest of the country in 1994 as a ragtag group of students and mullahs. They first fought against local warlords who had busied themselves with thievery, rape and murder. The Taliban took Kabul, the capital, in 1996, and they now control 80 to 90 percent of the country. While their stern version of Islam often encounters resentment in the cities, they remain heroes in the countryside.
Most farmers think of Mullah Omar as an Allah-appointed savior whose religious zeal has prompted the poppy ban even in the face of mass hardship it would cause.
The country is in the fourth year of a calamitous drought. More than one million people face an ”unbridgeable” shortage of food and water before summer’s end, according to the United Nations. The relatively drought-resistant poppy would have provided some of them with vital income. Instead they have parched and stunted wheat.
”A lot of us simply left the land untilled,” said Ghulam Muhammad in the village of Shin. ”The harvest can’t make up for the costs of the planting.”
Poppy was not only profitable; it spread the money around. The work was labor intensive. Landowners had to hire field hands to turn the soil and collect the opium paste. The ban has denied jobs to hundreds of thousands.
Many of these laborers have now fled to Pakistan or Iran or the huge camps that have filled up like arenas near the city of Herat. Others are found eating roots and grass. In some villages, flour is considered too precious to be used in bread; it lasts longer if mixed with water and cooked as a soup.
”The only money in my life is the money I owe,” said a weathered old man named Jamaluddin. He was tarrying around a wheat field, hoping to trade a few hours of work for a cup of tea. ”Life is unbearable,” he said.
International reaction to the poppy ban has largely been skeptical.
Inspection teams, including the American one, have found little or no poppy. But many critics question the Taliban’s motives. In earlier years, the poppy harvest had multiplied. Why did Mullah Omar finally now decide to just say no?
Some suspect political artifice: only three nations, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, officially recognize the Taliban as a government. Perhaps the poppy ban was a push for legitimacy.
Recent swoons in opium prices are also mentioned. The Taliban stopped poppy cultivation, but they have not outlawed the drug’s possession or sale. Stockpiles exist. With the price quadrupling, and more, Mullah Omar’s edict has handed some a windfall.
But aid workers in Afghanistan tend to regard the ban as straightforward and commendable. ”Most anyone else would have said: we’ll do this if you’ll do that,” said Leslie Oqvist, coordinator for the United Nations regional office in Kandahar. ”But the Taliban acted unilaterally, and now they’re rightfully concerned that no assistance is forthcoming.”
Taliban officials stress that the poppy ban is rooted in religious principles and not in any quid pro quo. Nevertheless, they are well aware that wealthier nations often gratefully compensate third world allies in the drug war. American assistance to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia is mentioned by example.
”A fair reply to what we have done would have been some acknowledgment of the achievement,” said Mullah Muhammad Hassan, the governor of Kandahar Province and one of the Taliban’s top figures. Like many of the leaders, he was maimed in the 1980’s in the jihad against Soviet troops here. Mullah Omar lost an eye in the war; Mullah Hassan drags a peg along the floor instead of a right leg.
”Our people are very needy,” the governor said, speaking softly but pointedly. ”They have given up the poppy crop, and timely financial assistance is very important.”
Little aid has arrived for the poppy farmers. Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced a $43 million grant for drought relief in Afghanistan. His statement mentioned ”those farmers who have felt the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome.”
But most of that money is likely to be directed to emergency food and shelter. Torn by war hunger, Afghanistan is a bottomless well of need, and poppy farmers will become poppy refugees unless they find something else to plant that will feed their families.
”People require seed, fertilizer and pesticides — the things that will again make them successful farmers,” said Bernard Frahi, who oversees the Afghanistan situation for the United Nations Drug Control Program. ”We must provide roads, water and bridges or the poppy will come back.”
But the betting is that the ban will hold up. On a dusty lane in Kandahar, where a few dozen narrow stalls make up the city’s main opium bazaar, the traders not only talk of the poppy farmer in the past tense, but also themselves as well.
”It’s obvious our stocks are going down, and they won’t be replaced,” said Muhammad Sadiq, a drug dealer in a gold prayer cap. He sat with a handful of friends, all of them pouring tea out of small green pots.
The smarter traders, like Mr. Sadiq, have squirreled away their opium and now have the look of men watching straw spun into gold. Last year, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of the drug sold for $110; now it is as high as $500.
Mr. Sadiq reached behind a hanging white blanket at the rear of his stall and opened two metal chests. Inside were heavy bags of opium stuffed into heavy brown plastic. He pulled a few out.
”The days of the poppy in Afghanistan are over,” he said. ”Opium will get scarcer, the price will get higher. I’m holding on to this as long as I can.”