Opium celebrations in Afghanistan highlight failure of West’s war on drugs

Revelry surrounding this year's harvest highlights how the crop – refined into heroin – remains an economic linchpin amid rampant unemployment in the country.

NAQIL, Afghanistan // Lashes swished and whirled through the air as farmers in a southern Afghan village rejoiced over a bumper harvest of opium with a traditional rope game.

Hundreds of farm labourers from across the Pashtun heartland, many of them Taliban, congregated last month in Naqil in Uruzgan province for the most lucrative time of the year – the poppy harvest.

“This is the only time of the year to make money,” said Afzal Mohammad, who came all the way from Kandahar, standing amid chest-high poppy stalks nearby.

“People work here for about 15 days and then are jobless for the rest of the year.”

After labouring all day in the torpid heat, extracting milky opium resin from swollen green pods, the labourers broke into celebration.

Hands tethered to long ropes, men lunged forward and back within a chalk circle, kicking up dust and knocking down opponents with heavy lashes.

Hissing and hooting, a crowd of spectators gathered around to watch the bare-knuckle game known colloquially as “dora”.

A tricycle cart pulled up nearby, selling ice-cream drizzled with raspberry sauce, lending a carnival atmosphere to the harvest that is expected to bring record opium production this year.

The revelry highlights how opium – refined into heroin – remains an economic linchpin amid rampant unemployment in Afghanistan, and how the West lost a multi-billion dollar war on drugs as it pursued a war on terror there.

Afghanistan, the world’s top opium producer, recorded more poppy cultivation in 2014 – at the end of which Nato troops officially ended their combat mission – than in any year since 2002.

Last year saw a sharp decline in production, but the crop failure was more due to drought than any eradication campaign, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The drop, observers say, has only intensified efforts to increase production this year.

Fighting usually ebbs during the harvest season, illustrating how the Taliban are deeply entwined in the US$3 billion (Dh11bn) opium trade, believed to be the mainstay of their insurgency against the government.

“As the harvest concludes ... we expect to see an uptick in Taliban efforts to attack [Afghan forces],” Charles Cleveland, senior spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said.

“There is a concern that the very good poppy crop this year ... is going to result in the Taliban being able to turn that into money for their efforts.”

The ubiquity of opium farms in Uruzgan, a remote mountainous province straddling drug-smuggling routes, is staggering.

Poppy can be seen growing from the provincial governor’s office in the capital Tarin Kot, from government buildings and police bases, spurring allegations that officials are also profiting from the opium boom.

“We are in a state of war,” said Uruzgan’s governor Mohammad Nazir Kharoti, voicing helplessness.

“Forced eradication will increase economic hardship, fuelling sympathy for the Taliban and people will start sheltering them in their homes.”

Naqil, hemmed in between verdant hills on the outskirts of Tarin Kot, is a netherworld of opium farmers, drug lords, addicts and, increasingly, the Taliban.

It is officially under government control, but authorities are openly wary about visiting the area.

With rolling fields of white-and-pink flowers splashed between dull green opium pods visible as far as the eye can see, Naqil is a magnet for labourers during harvest time.

The bulbs are typically lanced during the afternoon and left for the night as a sticky resin oozes out and coagulates into a dark brown mass.

The labourers collect the sap in the mornings with a flat blade and wipe it into a plastic can hanging around their necks.

Many wax philosophical about the process, almost as though it were an act of veneration.

“Cradle the poppy bulb gently,” said Sher Mohammed, going from bulb to bulb in his farm, making shallow incisions with sharp blades on the tip of a curved wooden spatula. “Lance the bulb with love.”

For many, the labour-intensive harvest season, which lasts less than a month, is the only productive period; the rest of the year is a hopeless blur.

“Afghanistan has too much war, very little employment,” said tribal elder Abdul Bari Tokhi, whose extended family owns hundreds of acres of farmland in Naqil.

“The world might say if there was no poppy there would be no war in Afghanistan, but for us if there was no poppy there would be no work and no food on the table.”

Many of the labourers in Naqil were Taliban fighters, residents said.

“How did you get here from Dehrawud district, my brother? The Taliban have shut down the highway,” one of them asked a thickset man with scraggly hair and a gap-toothed smile.

“The highway is closed for the government, not the Taliban,” the man smirked.

“That’s right, you were the ones who shut down the highway,” the labourer cackled with laughter.

“You are welcome here, my brother. Even the Taliban need to earn money.”

* Agence France-Presse