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Afghan poppy industry eludes U.S. control

  • Story Highlights
  • U.N.: Afghanistan now produces 93 percent of the world's illicit opium poppies
  • Proceeds from the sale of poppies help finance Taliban activities
  • U.S. officials are partnering with local forces to eradicate poppies, bust dealers
  • These efforts have yet to slow down poppy production
  • Next Article in World »
From Tresha Mabile
Special to CNN
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NANGARHAR, Afghanistan -- In a small district in southern Afghanistan, U.S.-backed Afghan drug forces opened fire on farmers who were blocking roads and throwing rocks to protest the destruction of their poppy fields earlier this year. Scores were injured in the firefight.

Poppy farmer

A farmer stands in an illegal opium producing poppy farm one hour away from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Undeterred by the violence, a group of angry farmers gathered around Masood Azizi, the Afghan official supervising the eradication. They maintained that cultivating poppy for opium is the only way they can survive. "We are hungry, thirsty, and we don't have any money. We are in debt," one said.

It's a message that reverberates throughout this impoverished, war-torn country.

Poppy production in this part of Afghanistan -- the Nangarhar province -- was nearly wiped out in 2005, but it rebounded this year with a staggering increase of 285 percent, according to a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report.

Eradicating opium poppies has been a key pillar of U.S. policy in Afghanistan since 2004, said Doug Wankel, director of the U.S. Counter-Narcotics Task Force in Afghanistan.

Yet today, Afghanistan produces roughly 93 percent of the world's illicit opium, according to the UNODC report, and the Taliban are making inroads in remote areas of the country thanks, in part, to proceeds from the drug trade. Check out some top provinces for opium production »

Experts say more farmers are producing poppies because they have been unable to earn a living by growing other crops like wheat and vegetables. They say that the money promised by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community to plant these alternative crops has not materialized. Video Tour an illegal poppy farm during harvest season »

"Not only are they back to cultivating poppy because they did not receive any alternative livelihoods, but they're angry at the broken promises, and they don't trust us anymore," said Norine MacDonald of SENLIS, an international think tank focusing on drug policy.

Afghanistan's poppy farmers said there is little the United States can do to halt production.

"You can try to kill us, but we will still grow poppy," one farmer told CNN.

Afghan poppies, which start as flowers in farmers' fields and often wind up as heroin on U.S. streets, fuel a $3 billion a year industry in Afghanistan. The industry is filling the coffers of the Taliban, the group who gave safe haven to al Qaeda before and after 9/11, and it is destabilizing the Afghan government. Learn how poppies are turned into heroin »

"The Taliban pretty much were ancient history four years ago, and now they are back, because they are deriving money from the drug trade," said Peter Bergen, a CNN terrorism analyst.

Disenchanted farmers find ready allies in the Taliban, who provide protection for them and their fields. Both groups align with drug lords who provide upfront money and credit for crops, pay farmers cash, and after the harvest, pick up the opium themselves. For farmers who may not even own trucks to get crops to market, this service is invaluable.

"Drug eradication is a fantastic opportunity for the Taliban," said Peter Jouvenal, a British journalist who has reported from Afghanistan for more than two decades. "It gives them the opportunity to recruit farmers that are fed up with these foreigners coming in and destroying their land."

U.S. officials claim a lack of opportunity is no excuse for farmers to break the law.

"Look, we know you need development and that is coming, but the lack of development is not an excuse to go against the constitution, to break the law, to support the enemy," said Wankel. "I mean, that's part of the message that goes out to the people."

Wankel's goal is to wipe out enough poppy fields that farmers will think twice before they plant poppies again. Less than 10 percent were destroyed last year. The U.N. estimates that eradication of 25 percent of the poppy crop would start to turn the tide. Photo See photos of eradication efforts »

The Taliban use their share of drug proceeds to build up their forces in the frontier provinces in the southern part of the country, which is also home to the most poppy production. This puts pressure on local governments as well as President Karzai's government in Kabul. It also enables the Taliban to hire forces to attack U.S. and NATO troops.

"This place has shown itself to be something very, very usable for the fundamentalists to operate from to do whatever is necessary to continue their war of terrorism," Wankel said.

American officials are cautious about connecting Taliban drug money to al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism outside of Afghanistan. But Afghan officials say there is little doubt that some money reaches the terrorist organization.

"The drug [money] is directly funding terrorism. The drug is directly funding the Taliban, and I wouldn't differentiate between the al Qaeda and the Taliban," said Mirwais Yasini, the former Afghan counter-narcotics minister.


In the past year, U.S. and Afghan counter-narcotics officials have placed a new emphasis on targeting drug kingpins, even those who are government officials. In June, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers and Afghan agents arrested Abdul Khaliq, a provincial police chief. The bust netted 30 kilos of heroin, worth roughly $1.5 million on the streets of the United States.

Wankel warns that not containing the drug trade that funds the Taliban insurgency could have wider consequences: "We lose this government, we could have another 9/11 here, so we have to succeed not only for Afghanistan, but for the region and for the world." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Jason White contributed to this report from New York.

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