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April 18, 2004 - The Kansas City Star (MO)

As Poppies Flourish, Disorder Takes Root

By Malcolm Garcia, Kansas City Star

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

"I think we have to broaden the definition of terrorist to include warlords ... because they are trying to undermine the political process and they are well armed." - Adam Bouloukos U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime

JALALABAD, Afghanistan - Some of the warlords the United States has recruited to help fight al-Qaida and the Taliban are directing Afghanistan's flourishing opium trade and threatening the fragile U.S.-backed central government.

The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has allowed some local commanders to use profits from drug trafficking to fund their armies and amass power under the umbrella of the Bush administration's war against terrorism.

The U.S.-backed interim president, Hamid Karzai, offers pronouncements against drugs coupled with vows to eradicate poppies. But he doesn't have the strength to enforce them.

"I think we have to broaden the definition of terrorist to include warlords," said Adam Bouloukos, deputy representative with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul. "You have al-Qaida and the Taliban and then this whole range of other characters who are just as destructive because they are trying to undermine the political process and they are well armed."

This year's bumper crop of poppies, from which opium and heroin are made, shows that although the U.S.-led military coalition ousted the hard-line Taliban regime from power almost three years ago, it has had a harder time creating a political climate that might prevent the terrorists from returning.

Farmers desperately need foreign aid to help make the transition to profitable legal employment, where there are real opportunities.

A study by the aid organization German Agro Action, for instance, found that rose oil commands about the same market value as opium. A farmer can earn $600 to $1,000 per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of opium, compared with $1 per kilogram of rice or wheat.

But with the United States and its coalition partners increasingly preoccupied with trying to restore order and arrange a political transition in Iraq, Karzai isn't likely to get more money or support from Washington.

Some observers fear a repeat of what happened in the 1990s, when the United States walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviet Union withdrew its occupying army and the warlords' excesses contributed to the rise of the puritanical and repressive Taliban.

Poppies are now being grown in 28 out of 32 Afghan provinces, said Sayed Ghulfran, director of the Narcotic Control and Rehabilitation of Afghanistan, a Jalalabad-based agency sponsored by the United Nations that works with farmers. This year's crop is expected to yield 3,600 tons of opium, about 75 percent of the world's heroin. Last year, about 3,400 tons of opium was produced.

The United Nations has concluded that the combined income of poppy farmers and smugglers last year was about $2 billion, half of Afghanistan's total economy.

"An economy that is half illegal poses huge problems," Ghulfran said. "It's an economy that is not taxed. It's impossible to imagine and leads to all kinds of corruption. Warlords have armies of thousands of men. How do they pay for this?"

The obvious answer seems to be the opium trade.

Acres of poppies fill farm fields around Jalalabad, unfurling for miles toward the horizon. Men and boys routinely walk down rows of poppy plants in full view of passing traffic and police checkpoints.

"We don't have any economy," said Abdul Malek, a farmer, standing in his poppy field. "I just want to feed my family. If the government takes this away, what will I have? I pay the police a little bit. It is no problem."

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