Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghan Opium Is a Hard Target

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- In autumn the fields of poppies are in bloom across southern Afghanistan, a sea of red, yellow, white and purple.

In the spring, the flowers have gone. In their place, long stems end in seed pods. Farmers make four cuts in each pod, and collect the sticky, white juice the next day.

The opium cycle in Afghanistan is seasonal, and prices move accordingly.

Right now the planting has ended, and in Kandahar's Hazrat-ji Baba street, shabby little kiosks offer plastic packets of brown chips of opium at cheap prices.

"The price has fallen in anticipation of better supplies," said opium trader Noor ul Haq. "We have had some rain, and it promises to be a better harvest."

Before they started planting -- coinciding with the fall of the Taliban in December to U.S. bombs and Northern Alliance fighters -- 150,000 Pakistani rupees ($2,500) would buy 4.5 kilograms of raw opium.

The price has now dropped to 110,000 rupees, according to Haq.

Foreigners are not welcome in muddy Hazrat-ji Baba street. The stares are hostile. Traders turn their faces away, children toss stones at strangers' cars. The Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran borders form the golden crescent that diplomats say provides the opium that is processed into two-thirds of the total illicit heroin smuggled into Europe.

"They used to offer the farmers cotton seed to replace poppies, and no doubt now there is peace the United Nations will do so again," said Haq.

"But if cotton prices don't match opium at the market, then farmers will go back to poppies."

The fact is that a farmer with little land can make better money with opium. It is a cash crop that needs little labor.

Haq was a dealer, buying opium in Jalalabad in the eastern border province of Nangahar and selling at a higher price in Kandahar.

The drug was plentiful in hilly Nangahar because there were springs to irrigate farms, while in Kandahar the land was parched from four years of drought.

Production was higher in neighboring Helmand, a province bordering Iran, because the local kerez (underground well) system provided the necessary water.

UN officials say Afghanistan's new interim government is committed to eradicating opium production, but there are problems.

Crop replacement requires funds, and until pledges of foreign aid translate into hard cash, it will be difficult to persuade impoverished farmers to give up planting poppies.

There are vast profits to be made from smuggling the processed opium -- down to its penultimate stage, morphine sulfate -- to the Persian Gulf, Turkey and on to Europe.

Several big traders are household names here -- men who have private armies, a fleet of vehicles, several houses and connections that reach all the way into the higher echelons of politics and business at home and in neighboring states.

Some were close to the Taliban, toppled in Washington's declared war on terrorism.

Others have made new friends in Afghanistan's interim government.

One subsect of the Achakzai tribe, for example, living on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, has achieved wealth and notoriety for its alleged drug smuggling, and it has influence in Kandahar's intelligence and security apparatus.

The austere Taliban banned opium production, but they still profited by it.

"It is widely believed that the Taliban bought cheap and sold dear and made a killing," said a local opium dealer. "They stockpiled opium when it was cheap."