The opium poppy is a gentle-looking plant with delicate flowers of many colors. But there's nothing gentle about the milky sap that oozes from the woody bulbs left behind when the flower petals drop. At the end of the long trail that starts in the poppy fields are people around the world addicted to heroin that is made from that sap. In between are entrepreneurs and narcotics syndicates made wealthy by the opium trade. And much of it centers on Afghanistan.
In a visit to Washington last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai set forth why he intends to eradicate opium poppy production by the end of the decade. "We have narcotics in Afghanistan," he said. "Yes we have cut it by thirty percent, but there still is 70 percent of the poppies [growing] in Afghanistan. And that 70 percent will go to the rest of the world. It will affect Afghanistan. It will affect the rest of the world."
Afghanistan's opium poppy problem exploded after the country's Taleban rulers were toppled in 2001 by a U-S - led coalition. The lack of a strong national post-Taleban government enabled outlying regions to operate without close central oversight. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that in 2001 only 8,000 hectares of land were in poppy production. In 2004, the U-N says Afghan poppy production covered 131,000 hectares, and for the first time involved all of the country's 32 provinces.
Ethan Nadelmann, with the New York-based independent group Drug Policy Alliance, says Afghan farmers are bound to opium poppies for survival. "Opium has grown in Afghanistan for thousands of years. It produces more revenue than almost anything else, in part, because it's illegal. And there's nothing - no legal product - that is going to compare," he says.
The price of raw opium paid to growers fluctuates according to the quantity harvested and other factors. Analysts say it ranges from less than $100 dollars per kilogram to as much as $600. Observers such as Jim Phillips at The Heritage Foundation in Washington say the best way out of dependency on growing poppies is economic development.
"Once the infrastructure is repaired - the roads are built up so they [growers] can get their crops to market, the irrigation systems are rebuilt - then other crops will become more feasible and more economically profitable."
Central Asia analyst Svante Cornell at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington says economic development is also essential to break the chains binding Afghan farmers to the opium trade.
"Opium," he says "has been the only way for farmers in Afghanistan to get credit and to survive the winter months. The opium traders provide them with credits [in return] for a pledge to cultivate and provide opium in the spring and summer. Farmers have debts to the opium traders, so that makes it even harder for the farmers to grow other types of crops."
As for what else Afghan farmers could grow as a viable cash crop, because of the country's large dry regions and lack of good irrigation, wheat and cotton have often been suggested. Scottish program development analyst Marc Deeley has another idea - hemp, which he says would provide numerous benefits.
"Hemp wouldn't require irrigation to the extent that cotton does. It doesn't require a lot of chemical inputs [fertilizer and herbicides], if any. What we'd be doing is fixing the topsoil. We'd be providing organic binding material to stop the soil from eroding even further," he says.
But others say that because some strains of hemp are also used as drugs, promoting it as an alternative crop would only increase marijuana and hashish abuse.
Ethan Nadelmann at the Drug Policy Alliance offers an idea he says would legitimize and channel poppy growing. "There is an argument to be made that Afghanistan should be given the opportunity to supply a certain proportion of the legal [pharmaceutical], global opium market," he says, adding "It's one way to try to work your way out of this problem."
Other analysts counter by saying pharmaceutical companies don't need as much opium as is produced in Afghanistan, and that legitimate poppy production would be outbid by the illegal drug market.
Some observers have suggested that Afghanistan's poppy production can be eradicated in the way coca production has been addressed in South America - by aerial spraying of plants, and burning crops.
The Heritage Foundation's Jim Phillips says that while eradication is President Karzai's goal, it can also create dangerous instabilities, at least in the short term. "At a minimum, if he eradicates the crops swiftly," he says "it's going to lead to real major economic dislocations that will at minimum cost him a lot of votes in the September elections. [Eradication] also could lead to armed uprisings against the government - not only the farmers, but the traffickers. There are also many warlords believed to profit from the trade."
Because of the problems associated with poppy eradication, Mr. Phillips and other analysts say U.S. assistance and overt involvement is both inevitable and essential, at least in the foreseeable future.
The broad consensus among observers is that stopping poppy growing is only part of the solution. Svante Cornell at The Johns Hopkins University says worldwide demand for opium must also be addressed. "Even if you were to get the production out of Afghanistan, then somewhere else there will emerge opium production, which means that you would have created another problem without necessarily solving the problem in Afghanistan," he says.
Many Afghanistan-watchers say that achieving success in addressing the country's opium problem depends both on creating viable alternative economic opportunities for poppy growers as well as strengthening the country's national government to the point where it can maintain control over how land is used. At the same time, most analysts agree the national government must be monitored carefully to ensure that the corruption promoted by the drug trade does not compromise officials charged with Afghanistan's well being.
This report was originally broadcast on VOA News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here