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 second of a four part series, VOA's Afghan service examines the drug trade in Afghanistan. VOA's Siri Nyrop narrates.

The art of carpet weaving is passed from generation to generation among the Turkmen women of Afghanistan's northern Balkh province. So is opium addiction.

Najiba lives in a remote village near the Uzbek border.  She is around 50 years old, a mother and grandmother.

She earns little of the money the sellers get for her carpets in the city.  There is no doctor in Najiba's village, and her work makes her body ache all over.  She has relieved the pain with opium for 16 years. "We sleep.  We get up and take some opium," she said.

Her days begin and end with opium.

Reporter: "How much?"

Najiba, carpet weaver: "Just the size of a pea.  Two times a day."

One infant's mother is sick with TB. Najiba gives her grandchild opium to keep her from fussing while she works on the weaving that feeds her family and her habit. "We give the baby opium in the morning because we are weaving carpet," she explained.

But the surge in addiction is not coming from Afghanistan's mountains.

Dr. Mohammad Farid Bazgar is trying to cope with the health problem that has already struck an estimated one million Afghans and is rapidly spreading in the cities.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, most of the addicts are young men who have returned to Afghanistan after years in Iranian refugee camps. Iran has one of the world's highest percentages of adult drug addicts.  Afghanistan's huge opium trade penetrates Iran to get to other markets.

"Thirty or 40 years ago, no one knew very much about heroin.  But 3 decades of war, in addition to bringing other problems, brought the problem of heroin.  Now we see lots of people addicted to it," Dr. Bazgar said. 

Dr. Bazgar offers understanding, treatment and education about the dangers of drug addiction.  He says he fears it will trigger another medical scourge:  HIV/AIDS.

As Afghanistan stabilizes and its economy expands, the hope is that more opportunities for young people in the cities will be an effective deterrent from drug use.

But in the remote reaches of the country, far from medical care, opium is medicine for ailments of the body and the harshness of life.