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Afghan Government Faces Uphill Battle in Opium Fight

Afghanistan is one of the world's leading sources of opium, the raw material for heroin. An estimated one million farmers had relied on opium production until the Taleban banned this. With the Taleban gone, heavy production resumed.

This past Monday, the new interim Afghan government launched a campaign to persuade farmers to stop production. Violence erupted during a farmer protest. At least eight farmers were reportedly killed.

Coaxing life from the dust of Afghanistan's southern plains can be a challenge to even the most capable farmer. But there's one crop that's proven itself to be extremely resilient, poppies that will later be refined into heroin.

A hidden poppy field is one of dozens believed to have been planted in the few months since Afghanistan's former Taleban government was defeated. Now, the poppies are little more than clumps of green nearly concealed by the dust. But they can grow to be over a meter tall in a matter of days.

Mohammed is one of the planters. "When the plant has grown," he said, "we take a knife and cut its fruit in the evening. We cannot cut it in sunlight, because sunlight destroys the fluid inside. We come back before sunrise to collect that fluid. By then it's become like toothpaste."

Later, Mohammed said, buyers come from a neighboring province to collect that pasty substance, which will be refined into heroin. A field this size he says, can earn its owner up to $30,000.

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan used to supply 73 percent of the world's heroin. But the Taleban banned poppy cultivation in July 2000, bringing heroin production to a virtual standstill. But with the defeat of the Taleban, officials now say they simply don't know how much the heroin trade has rebounded.

"We don't know yet this year's extent of poppy cultivation. We know it has been cultivated in large areas in traditional districts, poppy growing districts," said Bernard Frahi, an official with the United Nations Drug Control Program in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. "We don't know definitely the extent. However, farmers might have planted to wait and see what will be the reaction of the authorities."

The United Nations and Afghan authorities want poppy-farmers to plant alternative crops, instead of poppies. But at the same time, leaders of Afghanistan's new interim administration say they intend to let farmers know that poverty is no excuse to grow poppies.

"Our commitment to the world community is that we should totally eradicate, we should now allow any production, growing, trade traffic of any kind of narcotics," said Mohammed Jusuf Pashtun, an advisor to the governor of Kandahar province. "And we are very strong on that. We took already some measures. So since this Saturday, there is a warning on radio going out to everybody that they should refrain from it. If not the government will take action by destroying their fields."

That will be an uphill battle. The planter, Mohammed, said his field is one of dozens he estimates has resumed production since the Taleban's fall. And its profits trickle down to workers like him. He said he can earn $33 in two weeks during harvest-time, a small fortune for an ordinary Afghan. "We'd like to stop growing this kind of thing," he said, "but we should be assured we can get a source of income."

When it comes to stopping the heroin trade, it appears Afghanistan's new leaders have their work cut out for them.