Northern Afghan provinces submit to lure of opium poppies


Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan) (AFP)

New motorbikes roared through villages in Afghanistan's Balkh province this summer -- markers of growing wealth, observers say, as poppy cultivation leapt by nearly five times in a region that once was an opium-free zone.

Since the end of the Taliban regime, which outlawed the drug before making it their primary source of funding for their insurgency, Afghanistan has become the world's largest opium producer.

With 9,000 tons harvested in 2017, production has almost doubled in a year and is a vital source of revenue in the countryside, according to the annual report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The surge is down to several factors, it explains, such as the improvement of yields and the spread of crops across Afghanistan including, significantly, in the north.

"North is the new battleground for counter-narcotics -- Balkh is a major defeat as two years ago it was a poppy free province," admits a Western counter-narcotics consultant in Kabul.

The presence of opium poppies in Balkh illustrates the failure of anti-drugs policies that the US has spent more than $8 billion on since 2002.

Only 10 out of 34 Afghan provinces are now poppy-free, according to the UNODC report.

Cultivation is booming in areas where previously the crop barely grew, such as the northern provinces of Jowzjan and Balkh, which had the most spectacular growth rates of 2017: up 691 percent and 481 percent respectively.

This spring Balkh and its capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, saw pink poppy flowers bloom in even the smallest plots of land.

"From the governor's office you could see poppy fields," a local observer told AFP on condition of anonymity, showing the photos on his smartphone.

The new motorcycles, he says, are signs of the good fortune the poppies have brought. "After this, it's not easy to get back to growing wheat."

- 'Vital lifeline' -

The northern harvest was such that workers had to be brought in by their hundreds from the southern provinces of Kandahar and poppy powerhouse Helmand, Afghan and Western sources told AFP.

At the provincial agriculture department, manager Zabiullah Zubeen confirms the crop was so abundant it drove prices down from from 7,000 afghanis ($106) per kilogram to 3,000 ($45) in the spring.

Despite this, a 27-year-old farmer told AFP with a smile that he was able to afford a second wife with his prodigious crop.

"Now everybody grows poppies there... They can't benefit that much with watermelon, or wheat."

Brookings Institution researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown also points to the lack of economic alternatives in the countryside, with opium providing a "vital lifeline".

"There is simply nothing in Afghanistan that produces more jobs than the opium poppy economy, or could do so in the foreseeable future," she said.

The farmer sells his product to what he describes as "a local businessman" who has contacts on the other side of the Uzbek border, roughly 60 kilometres from Mazar.

Dressed in a long cream shirt, a shawl around his sunburnt neck, he comes from Chimtal district in western Balkh, which he says is completely under Taliban control.

"As for the government, they are unable to come, I never see any of them," he laughs.

- Corruption and distrust -

Poppy cultivation thrives in areas controlled by insurgents, such as in Helmand, where roughly three quarters of the province is out of the government's hands.

Helmand alone accounts for half of the 63 percent increase in poppy cultivation in 2017, according to a European counter-narcotics expert in Kabul.

The surge there was in part fuelled by insecurity, the expert said, citing recent airstrikes by US forces targeting drugs laboratories.

"In Helmand, the police cannot act, hence the new American strategy."

In the north, Jowzjan province is under pressure from the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State group.

But, apart from a few insurgent pockets such as Chimtal, Balkh is peaceful.

There, poppy cultivation thrives due to a recent placidness on the part of authorities, as governor Mohammad Atta Noor -- seen as powerful enough to crack down, if he wanted -- sends a message to a Kabul government that he distrusts, says the European expert.

According to the UN, the record levels of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2017 will not only bring more challenges to provinces such as Balkh -- it will have a global impact.

"More high quality, low cost heroin will reach consumer markets across the world, with increased consumption and related harms as a likely consequence", the UNODC report says.

"These 9,000 tons will have to be sold. That will inevitably have an impact on (the price) of heroin," warns the European expert.