Monday marks the start of the Afghan interim government's ambitious campaign to wipe out opium poppy farming throughout the country. The campaign comes at a difficult time for both farmers and the government.
Special government delegations are overseeing the destruction of the crop, which for decades has been a vital source of income for tens of thousands of farmers and migrant laborers, as well as dealers believed to be associated with some of the country's powerful warlords.
Starting Monday, the government pay farmers the poppy crop they destroy. Farmers who refuse to tear up their poppy crops will have their lands confiscated. They could also face imprisonment.
Interim Chairman Hamid Karzai says he is serious about implementing the ban this time. His administration needs to curtail drug production, which has long fueled political rivalries and corruption in the country and has the potential to undermine the central government's authority. In January, he announced a ban on poppy farming that was largely ignored. The announcement came long after the seeds were in the ground and there was no money at the time to compensate farmers.
Now, the Karzai administration is prepared to use some of the $4.5 billion pledged by international donors to not only compensate farmers, but to institute a program of labor-intensive projects, such as road building, to help employ people affected by the ban.
Afghanistan's opium production fell as much as 96 percent last year after the country's former rulers, the Islamic extremist Taleban, outlawed poppy cultivation in 2000. But following the Taleban's fall in the U.S.-led war in November, farmers began planting poppy again. A preliminary assessment by U.N. drug specialists found that this year's crop output could rival the level reached during the mid-1990s, when Afghanistan was the world's top opium producer.
The United Nation's Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, which is not involved in the current campaign, says it is encouraged by the government's action. But spokesman Glenn Mittermann in Kabul notes that there are still serious challenges ahead.
"It comes at a very difficult moment because the poppy was in the ground and the farmers took out loans on the basis of that planting, so there is a dependence of the farmers on this crop," he said.
Afghan farmers can earn 10 times more from an acre of opium than from an acre of wheat. Moreover, the lack of an effective banking system in Afghanistan forces many farmers to turn to drug traffickers for loans. The loan is then repaid in opium, not cash.
Despite the obstacles, observers say the interim government has a major political incentive to try to end poppy production in Afghanistan. Most of the heroin made from Afghan opium is sold in Europe. They say the government fears Western donors may blame the administration and withdraw support if nothing is done now to stop the flow.