When the Taliban ordered Afghanistan’s fields cleared of opium poppies seven years ago because of Islam’s ban on drugs, fearful farmers complied en masse.
Today, officials say the militia nets tens of millions by forcing farmers to plant poppies and taxing the harvest, driving the country’s skyrocketing opium production to fund the fight against what they consider an even greater evil — U.S. and NATO troops.
“Drugs are bad. The Quran is very clear about it,” said Gafus Scheltem, NATO’s political adviser in southern Afghanistan. But to fight the enemy, he said, “all things are allowed. They need money and the only way they can get money is from Arabs that support them in the (Persian) Gulf, or poppies.”
Corrupt government officials, both low-level police and high-level leaders, also protect the drug trade in exchange for bribes, a recent U.N. report found. Warlords and major landowners welcome the instability the Taliban brings to the country’s southern regions, causing poppy eradication efforts to fail.
The Taliban denies it supports poppies. Mullah Abdul Qassim, a top commander in Helmand province, told The Associated Press last month that the militia’s goal is to defeat foreign troops and it doesn’t have time to regulate poppies. He noted that the militia virtually eliminated poppies after leader Mullah Omar banned them in July 2000.
Diplomats at the time believed the Taliban, pariahs because of their violations of human rights standards, was seeking international respectability and financial aid. Washington sent $43 million in emergency funds to Afghanistan after poppy growing was banned.
Western officials cry hypocrisy
But Western officials say it appears the ban was meant at least in part to increase the price of opium stockpiles.
“Originally they said ’It’s bad for you, it’s against Islam,’ but when they realized how much money they could make off of it they said it was OK to grow but not consume it. That’s the hypocrisy of it,” said Spc. Zach Khan, a cultural adviser in the U.S. Army who was born in Pakistan and lives in Nashville, Tenn.
The Taliban is also telling farmers in the south they must grow poppies but if the militia returns to power, the plants will once again be outlawed, said a Western official familiar with Afghanistan’s drug trade who asked not to be identified because of the nature of his job.
Afghanistan’s opium crop grew 59 percent in 2006 to 407,000 acres, yielding a record crop of 6,100 tons, enough to make 610 tons of heroin — 90 percent of the world’s supply, according to the U.N. Western and Afghan officials say they expect a similar crop this year.
The street value of the heroin was estimated at $3.5 billion, said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Of that, Afghan farmers earned an estimated $700 million last year, while the bulk of the rest went to traffickers who smuggled the drugs to the Middle East and Europe.
An unknown cash crop
No one knows the Taliban’s exact take from poppy cultivation, and guesses range from the low tens of millions of dollars to an estimate of $140 million by Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan’s deputy minister for counter-narcotics. His figure was based on various Taliban taxes that could add up to 20 percent of the farmers’ $700 million.
The Taliban uses the money to buy weapons and pay soldiers, and as one Western official put it: “You can buy quite a bit of insurgency for $10 million.”
In Helmand province — the Taliban’s main stronghold — poppy farmer Karimullah Khan said the traditional religious tax, called an oshar, used to be paid to religious leaders. Now, he said, “If the government is weak in some districts, and the Taliban is stronger, we give the oshar to the Taliban.”
For farmers, poppies pay up to 10 times as much as wheat. Militants protect the poppy fields, and corrupt government officials are paid to turn a blind eye.
“The Taliban need the money and the narco-traffickers need the instability. In chaos, there’s profit,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. Brian Mennes said during a recent mission in southern Afghanistan.
A cut of the action
The Taliban takes a cut all along the way — a percentage at harvest, at heroin labs, and to ensure the crop’s passage through dangerous lands, said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
“Now if you put all these percentages together, out of an opium economy of about $3.5 billion, you get a significant amount of money which could be potentially seen as the funding of terrorism,” Costa said last month.
Of five poppy farmers in southern Afghanistan that spoke to The Associated Press, three paid bribes to the Taliban and to local police, who work for the Afghan Interior Ministry, which a U.N. report said has many officials involved in the drug trade.
Some farmers paid in opium, others in cash. Two farmers who live in more secure areas paid local clerics a 10 percent religious tax.
The mountain town of Chinar straddles the Kandahar-Helmand border and is anchored by a large, mud-brick compound housing district police headquarters. Twenty yards away sits a large field of flourishing poppies, with other fields all around. Khan said most farmers are forced to grow the crop by the Taliban — but the police are also implicated.
Capt. Said Farad, an Afghan army commander based just outside the town on a recent NATO operation, said the district chief in the region has to cooperate with the Taliban or face death. The last three chiefs sent here by the governor were killed, he said.
“The police definitely have a hand in the poppies. Those two police vehicles near the compound help with the drug smuggling and run supplies for the Taliban,” Farad said. “Nobody will kill the current chief because he has a deal with the Taliban.”
At a recent council of elders put together by U.S. forces operating around Chinar, a man with a black turban and gray beard defended the residents.
“The only problem with these people is poverty. Whatever they’re doing they’re doing out of poverty,” he said.
Farid Jan, a poppy farmer in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar, said he pays 10 percent of his crop to the Taliban and negotiates a separate percentage for police.
Last year, a pound of opium fetched up to $100 in the province, though less in other areas, the U.N. said. This year, Jan expects to earn $130,000 — before “taxes” — on his land, 10 times what he would make from wheat.
“Now you tell me what’s the best crop for us?” he said.