Afghanistan supplies virtually all of the world's illegal opium. Last year, the country's drug trade was a $4 billion business, half of which alone was produced in the south where the fighting against the Taliban insurgency is the fiercest.
Getting Afghanistan to rid itself of poppy is a pillar of U.S. policy there, because the Taliban use profits from opium as a source of revenue. For Afghans themselves, however, feelings about poppy are conflicted: It's harmful to their country and to their people, but it is also a livelihood for many where instability offers few alternatives.
In the first of a four part series, VOA's Afghan service examines the drug trade in Afghanistan. VOA's Siri Nyrop narrates.
Under cover of darkness, a farmer delivers his crop to market. The building is in Nangahar province, somewhere in the mountains near the border with Pakistan. The man inside is expecting him.
DEALER: "Have you brought the opium?
DEALER: "Is it the right amount?"
FARMER: "I didn't weigh it."
DEALER: "Then let's do that."
Large caliber ammo serves as weights as the dealer measures how many grams of opium the farmer has delivered. It's just a drop in the bucket that is Afghanistan's most lucrative export, worth around $4 billion last year.
Nangahar was the poster province for poppy eradication. But it surged back from de facto eradication in 2005 to a 273 percent increase in cultivation last year.
Nangahar farmer and elder, Dour Jan, supported the government ban on poppy, convincing fellow farmers not to grow it. They were promised government assistance with alternative livelihoods. But the farmers found the rewards no match for the sacrifice of the crop that was their livelihood. There is also the drought.
Jan explains, "Afghanistan is ill right now. We don't have just one disease - we have all diseases. We have hunger, there are not enough jobs, not enough clinics, and schools are empty."
Doug Wankel, former director, office of drug control, U.S. Embassy Kabul says, "Unfortunately, the farmer, unless he sees that assistance come directly to his farm, he doesn't notice it. But you see better roads now in Nangahar province. You have improved free seeds coming to Nangahar province. They have received free seeds. There's work being done on canals and some dams, things like this. They are slowly, slowly coming. The farmer has to understand that it takes some time."
Even displays of poppy eradication zeal by Nangahar's governor, Gul Sherzai, is not turning the tide away from the poppies again.
TRAFFICKER: "Look, you're under the amount we agreed on."
FARMER: "By how much?"
TRAFFICKER: "How are you going to make up the difference?"
FARMER: "I've spent the advance money you gave me. I'll make it up next year."
The dealers advance the poppy seeds to the growers. The harvest has to pay enough for the farmer to live on and to reimburse the dealer for the seeds. This man is now in debt even before he plants the next crop, which will also be advanced to him. For the dealer, it's not personal or even political. Just business.
The drug trafficker explains, "We are small drug dealers and we are not against the government. Frankly we think that the drug problem will linger for a long time and as long as there's a demand for drugs then we'll be in business."
Government leaders continue to debate how to get a handle on the vast illegal trade that makes relatively few Afghans rich and helps fund the insurgency. The farmer helps the dealer pack the opium for transit to Pakistan. He says that if he cannot plant poppy again, he will not have the money to pay off his poppy debt and keep his family fed.