Throughout its decades of civil war, many Afghan warlords made their fortunes through the heroin trade. At one point the country supplied almost three-quarters of the world's heroin. That largely stopped when the farming of opium poppies and the refining of heroin was banned by the former Taleban regime. Now that Taleban has gone, there's growing concern in the international community that the heroin trade may be making a massive come-back.
About 30 kilometers south of Kandahar, a turn off the main highway leads to a long, windy dirt road. It is lined with apple orchards and vineyards, now brown with with winter and mud houses, the homes of the people who work here.
Across the dusty plain, groups of Afghan nomads have pitched their tents, their donkies and camels grazing nearby.
A few kilometers further along, another set of mud houses can be seen in the distance. They are virtually identical to those near the orchards. But behind two meter high walls is something else: a poppy field. It is here that one farmer grows poppies that will later be refined into heroin. Two men squat in the field, checking over the plants and complaining about the poor quality of the soil. Right now, the poppies resemble clover - little more than tiny clumps of green hidden in the dust. But when the weather turns warm, the poppies will grow to be over a meter tall in a matter of days.
Mohammed is one of the men tending to the field. "When a poppy has fully grown, we take a knife and cut its fruit in the evening. Inside the fruit there is a milk-like fluid," he explains. "Then we come back in the morning before sunrise when the fluid has become a seed-like thing." He adds that a salesman comes by motorbike and takes those seeds to Hilmand province, to the factories where the heroin is refined.
Throughout two decades of civil war, Afghan warlords made their fortunes through poppy cultivation and the production of heroin. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan supplied 31 percent of the world's heroin in 1985. By 1999, the figure had climbed to 73 percent. Most of that heroin ended up in Europe.
In what the international community believes was one of the few benefits of Afghanistan's extremist Taleban regime, its leaders banned the cultivation of poppies in July 2000. As a result, the United Nations says, opium production fell by 94 percent within a year.
With the fall of the Taleban regime last year, concern is growing about the extent to which poppy cultivation and heroin production will resurge now under Afghanistan's new interim administration, which already faces the monumental task of rebuilding the entire nation.
Bernard Frahy is with the United Nations Drug Control Program in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. He says donor countries are eager to start programs to encourage poppy farmers to switch to alternate crops, such as wheat before it is too late. "We don't know yet this year's extent of poppy cultivation," he explained. "We know it has been cultivated in large areas in traditional poppy growing districts. We don't know the extent. However, farmers might have planted to wait and see what will be the reaction of the authorities."
Mr. Frahy says most government leaders have a positive attitude about tackling the problem of heroin production.
Mohammed Jusuf Pashtun is an advisor to the governor of Kandahar province. He says local authorities 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" he said. "We should not allow any action, growing, trade, traffic of any kind of narcotics. 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. Mohammed says the field he tends is one of thousands that has already resumed production since the fall of the Taliban. Measuring just 1,500 square meters, it will earn its owner more than $30,000. As a worker, he can earn $33 in two weeks during harvest time; a small fortune for an ordinary Afghan.
Echoing the thoughts of thousands of others involved in the heroin trade, Mohammed said he will not give up poppy farming until the government can provide him another way to earn a living.