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Afghan villagers tend to opium poppies in southern Afghanistan. - 


KAI RYSSDAL: Best guesses are that more than half of Afghanistan's GDP comes from the opium poppy crop. More than $3 billion in all. And evidence is mounting that that money, in turn, is funding both the rise of the Taliban and corruption of the government of President Hamid Karzai.

U.S. forces, their NATO allies, and private contractors have been charged with destroying the crop. The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson went along on a mission in the Taliban-controlled region of Uruzgan. I asked him about signs on the streets of Afghanistan that the opium harvest was in full swing.

JON LEE ANDERSON: There's a whole neighborhood in Kabul with these so-called poppy palaces. Gaudy, nouveau-riche mansions that have sprung up in the last two years, which everyone credits with having come from the drug money. And plenty of officials in Karzai's government appear to be on the take — let's put it that way.

RYSSDAL: Let me back up for a minute and get to the Taliban. When they were in control of Afghanistan, they essentially wiped out the opium crop, didn't they? The poppy harvest.

ANDERSON: That's right. Eventually, they did. It had flourished in the early years of the Taliban regime. But by 2000 they decided to move against it. And, indeed, I think it was in early 2001 were actually credited publicly by the U.N. for having virtually eradicated the crop. However, as an insurgent force once again, they have adopted the modus operandi of guerrillas everywhere, which is to tap into whichever natural resource gives them sustenance. And in this case, opium is the great cash crop of Afghanistan and they have, by all accounts, forged agreements with opium farmers in order to tax part of the crop, and in return protect their crops from American i.e. coalition i.e. enemy encroachment.

RYSSDAL: What are the mechanics of poppy eradication? The group you went out with, how did they do it?

ANDERSON: This year, their second real year of eradication, what they did was go into fields with little a-TVs — these are these all-terrain vehicles, a bit like hunters use in the States — and they have a couple of chains with a iron bar dragging behind it and they literally drive back and forth through the poppy fields knocking down the stalks. And then there's a team of other Afghan policemen who go around with broom handles and literally knock them down. It's quite primitive.

RYSSDAL: But it sets up a situation on the ground where you've got an Afghan farmer and his crop seeing that crop destroyed by possibly the first American or allied soldier he's every seen.

ANDERSON: Indeed. And in the case of the first day of eradication I went on, they simply began at one end and began working back — leaving the patchwork of wheat fields and other crops, watermelons, in tact, but destroying the poppies. And, you know, I saw children gathered, crying, very poor farmers gathered, very angry. One of them in particular threatened the men. He said, "You should watch out. If you keep this up, you're gonna pay for this."

RYSSDAL: Here we are though, in 2007, the United States and its allies have been in Afghanistan for going on six years now. It was, for awhile anyway, a bright spot in the war on terror, and now it's not going so well. How much of that is due to the opium trade and the revenue that the Taliban is getting from it?

ANDERSON: There's clearly a relationship. There's entire districts which — to all intents and purposes — are seeded, or have never been controlled, or have been lost to Taliban by the central government. Now, why the great backsliding in Afghanistan? Well, as plenty of officials in Afghanistan are quite ready to admit, mostly off the record, our eye was off the ball. That is to say, United States in particular invested a great deal of money and resources in Iraq very soon after the Taliban were chased back into the hills, rather than being defeated. Very little was done in terms of reconstruction's visible projects, make work projects in Afghanistan which would have engaged the Afghan people. So in that void and in the lack of muscular and visibly proactive central government, they have made — and are continuing to make — quite a bit of headway.

RYSSDAL: Jon Lee Anderson's "Letter from Afghanistan" is in the current issue of the New York Magazine. Mr. Anderson, thanks for your time.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal