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The Kunar poppy split

Naqib Ahmad Atal
Illegal under the current government as they were under Taliban rule, poppy crops in Kunar are periodically destroyed by both sides in a rare alignment of policy. But opium revenues are still a key source of…
12.07.2012  |  Marawara District
Not Gul Seema, but a member of the many families across Afghanistan who, despite legal, moral and religious considerations, grow poppy to survive. (Photos: Atal)
Not Gul Seema, but a member of the many families across Afghanistan who, despite legal, moral and religious considerations, grow poppy to survive. (Photos: Atal)

For Gul Seema, a widow and mother of four in the Marawara District of Kunar Province, her poppy field was her livelihood, her chance to survive, and most recently, her path to ruin.

Seema's husband died of cancer, leaving his widow with mouths to feed and nothing but half an acre of land. Growing poppy is illegal, but being far from Kabul's writ and even further from international concerns about drug trafficking, it was a risk she felt was justified. Then the Taliban destroyed the crop, leaving her family destitute.

“I begged the Taliban not to destroy my field,” Seema told Afghanistan Today. “I am poor and I do not have anybody at home to help feed my children, I told them. But they didn’t listen to me; they told the commander to destroy my field first."

Hard-core Taliban country

Marawara, located on the Pakistani border, has long been a Taliban stronghold, loyal to Mullah Omar’s Islamic Emirate, close to its rulings and their often harsh enforcement. Local militia leaders had previously warned farmers not to plant poppy and they stand firmly by the message.

“Poppy production is illegal - it should not be grown," Qari Zia-ur-Rahman, a local Taliban leader in Marawara, told Afghanistan Today:  We do not allow people to engage in illegal activities and in future too we will not allow people to cultivate this illicit plant."

Some Afghan National Army forces in Kunar are said to prefer not to interfere in Taliban activities on their doorstep, including poppy farming. (Photo: Nick Allen)

But in the neighbouring Watapur District, poppy fields said to be directly guarded and managed by local insurgents expose the inconsistencies of policy and the situation on the ground.

While figures such as Qari Zia-ur-Rahman maintain a zero-tolerance policy, residents say other local Taliban directly and indirectly support production of the opium-yielding flowers. In Watapur, not only did they cultivate poppies on their own farms, but they did so in full view of the state security forces.

“The Taliban cultivated poppy close to the district centre building and no one was allowed to enter their farms," said a teacher from the area, speaking on condition of anonimity, "They would indiscriminately fire at anyone who approached the area. Across from their farms, on top of a hill, there was an Afghan National Army base.

Despite being aware of the presence of Taliban in the area, the ANA never engaged them in battle, he said. "When the harvest season came, the Taliban hired workers and provided full security to complete their harvest."

Who to believe?

"When the poppy harvest season came, the Taliban hired workers and provided full security to complete their harvest." Local

Local security forces in Kunar also confirmed that the Taliban cultivate poppy in the area. According to Mohammad Naziri, chief of the provincial security department, another prominent insurgent leader with a similar name, Nabi-ur Rahman, was until his recent death running much of the narco-business.

“Nabi-ur Rahman was a huge headache,” Naziri said. “He was an obstacle to reconstruction projects, fired rockets at local homes and was involved in drug smuggling. He was killed two weeks ago in a NATO air strike.”

But Zabiullah Mujahid, a purported spokesman of the Taliban, denied that the movement grows poppy. 

“These all are baseless rumours spread by our enemies as propaganda. Islam prohibits intoxicating substances. We are against the planting and use of poppies,” Mujahid told Afghanistan Today.

“These are baseless rumours spread by our enemies as propaganda. Islam prohibits intoxicating substances." Taliban

By contrast, a US Congress report 'Warlords Inc' published in June 2010 asserts that, "The Taliban’s principal and most lucrative source of income in Afghanistan is its control of the opium trade.

"The Taliban have long profited off of the ten per cent ushr tax levied on opium farmers, an additional tax on the traffickers, and a per-kilogram transit tariff charged to the truckers who transport the product."

Rare alignment of policy

Whatever the evidence of Taliban drug cultivation and trafficking, as well as widely alleged involvement of state officials in the narco-business, both sides claim the moral high ground in the issue. Both cite areas where they take action against drug crops.

Farmers slit open the poppy bulbs at harvest time and collect the dripping resin that congeals as raw opium. (Photo: Atal)

Kunar Governor Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi also acknowledges the Taliban's efforts in eradication in Marawara. “During the poppy season the Taliban told people to not grow it because it is banned by Islam. But people did not heed them, so the Taliban destroyed their poppy fields.”

The government in turn also destroyed about 580 hectares of poppy fields in 10 different districts of Kunar, Wahidi said. Interestingly, this is a shade above the 578 hectares of poppy that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said was farmed in Kunar last year.

The prediction for this year was that the amount of poppy would increase, although Kunar would still remain one of the lesser producing provinces, according to the UNODC.

Of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Kunar last year ranked 11th out of the 17 that are rated as poppy-producing. But it still was a minor player with its 578 hectares, compared to leaders like Helmand with 63,300 hectares, Kandahar (27,200), Farah (17,500) and Uruzgan (10,600).

Calls for religion-based law solution

The Taliban and some state officials also seem to agree on the need for harsh prosecution for the illegal farming. The Taliban emphasize that Sharia law forbids production and consumption of narcotics, while the government is keen to placate foreign donors angry at the flooding of their markets with hard drugs. Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world's heroin, which is derived from opium. 

Some of the tons of raw opium seized each year in operations by security forces. But far more is refined and smuggled abroad for sale. (Photo: ISAF Media)

An MP from Kunar and member of the Wolesi Jirga lower chamber's Counter-narcotics Commission, Shahzada Shahid, recently urged religious scholars to be more involved in promoting anti-drug drives, saying state law enforcement had failed. 

"Poppy cultivation cannot be banned until the Islamic penal code is in place," Shahid later told Afghanistan Today in reference to Sharia law. "Everyone who grows, uses and traffics narcotics should be punished according to this code, otherwise poppy cultivation will increase each year."

Meanwhile, Marawara resident Farooq, whose half-acre poppy field was also destroyed by the Taliban, feels that the double-standards unfairly penalise the little people;

“The Afghan government - and the Taliban - only go after farmers. But there are many illegal activities inside the government and they should stop these first, and only then come after us.”