Opium-producing poppy fields throughout Afghanistan are waist high and eager farmers are starting the harvest. Within days of picking, the plants are transformed into illegal narcotics and begin their journey from remote corners of Afghanistan to major markets in leading European cities. From Islamabad, VOA's Benjamin Sand reports on the drugs' impact inside Afghanistan and across the region.
Down the dusty streets of a neighborhood market in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, local farmers can buy whatever basic household goods they need, from vegetables to soap to schoolbooks.
But the odds are, most of the cash exchanging hands comes, either directly or indirectly, from just one source: opium.
In 2003, the United Nations estimated more than two million people in Afghanistan, about 10 percent of the population, planted opium poppies. Last year they produced more than 4,300 tons of opium, a staggering 90 percent of the world's supply.
In order to combat the country's drug-trafficking reputation, President Hamid Karzai declared a jihad, a holy war, against opium-producing crops.
"This is the first demand of the Afghan people: there will definitely, definitely not be any drug in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are going to be dedicated, strong in working against that."
He says stopping drug production is critical to stabilizing Afghanistan's emerging democracy, because in many cases regional warlords control the local drug trade.
Government spokesman, Latfullah Mashal, says opium is a key source of power for the warlords, many of whom refuse to recognize the central government's authority and maintain private armies, which pose a threat to recovery in the war-torn nation.
"This money goes to the pockets of the warlords who finance their militias and in some cases to terrorists and also the Taleban," he said.
And the profits are enormous. The United Nations says crops in 2004 yielded farmers $500 million in profits, while traffickers raked in more than $2 billion, accounting for more than half Afghanistan's gross domestic product.
The United States has thrown its considerable weight behind the government's eradication effort. Roughly six months ago, Washington pledged nearly $800 million for this year to the drug fight and is providing additional intelligence and hardware to local teams.
Lieutenant General David Barno, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, which provides security in Afghanistan, says compared to last year's crop, it seems this year's harvest is significantly lower.
"So it would appear that on the initial take that President Karzai's rallying of the people to take ownership of the problem - to make it an Afghan problem, has had some degree of success," he noted.
And drug seizures are definitely going up. More than $2 million worth were confiscated in a single raid just last week.
But violence and unrest in opium producing areas are also on the rise. Last month, local forces came under attack as they tried to burn poppy fields in the south. Poor farmers are frustrated that so much money is channeled into fighting the drug trade, while they are left destitute. They say the government has failed to provide them with alternative sources of income.
This farmer, who declined to provide his name, says without government aid he has no choice, but to replant the opium poppies.
He says he knows growing the poppies is a crime, but it is the only way to survive.
Poppies are hearty, drought resistant plants. An acre of poppies earns at least four times as much as any other crop and the farmers say there is always a ready market.
Increasingly, experts say that market is moving ever closer to home.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says most of Afghanistan's opium is converted into heroin and sold on the streets of Europe or Central Asia. But as it travels west, officials say more and more of the heroin is sold for local consumption.
Dr. Parveen Khan runs a national drug treatment program in Pakistan and says there are now at least a 500,000 heroin addicts here.
"I think in every nook and corner of the country you can get the drugs. Now you can get them just about everywhere," she said.
She says there may be more than one million drug addicts in Iran and hundreds of thousands more in Afghanistan.
But Dr. Khan says her greatest concern is the increasing number of addicts who are starting to inject rather than smoke or inhale the heroin. She says the danger is in the spread of HIV/AIDS through shared needles.
For the time being, AIDS rates in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan are considered quite low, but Dr. Khan says the AIDS virus is working its way through the addict community.
"And obviously that is something that will spread like wildfire unless it is really controlled,” she noted. “So definitely the situation is becoming worse."
Dr. Khan says she plans on opening up a new treatment center in Afghanistan later this year and will start to address the HIV threat as soon as she can. She admits it is an uphill battle: funding is hard to secure and by the time the new office opens farmers across Afghanistan will be planting next year's opium crop.