In the government's bid to create a modern, democratic country free from corruption, "terrorism" and drugs, the opposite has happened.

"There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn in to a failed state in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists," says Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

He warns that if the Afghan government supported by the international community does not take the necessary measures the "drug cancer will spread beyond the country’s borders".

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is rising once again, rivalling its all-time peak of 1999 when a staggering 91,000 hectares were recorded.

Tough measures

The Taliban government, under intense international pressure and in desperate need of recognition, banned the practice and legislated against heroin.

As a direct result, there was a sharp decline in production compared to the previous two years. In 2001, the UN recorded just 8000 hectares of poppy cultivation.

By 2002, the figures recorded by the UN survey show a return to the mid-1990s level of 70,000 to 80,000 hectares [of poppy growth].

The Taliban's success could be accredited only to the nature of its uncompromising government. The fear of the repercussions was enough for farmers to abandon their crops.

However, after the fall of the Taliban, production rose sharply again.

By 2002, the figures recorded by the UN survey show a return to the mid-1990s level of 70,000 to 80,000 hectares. In 2003, the UN recorded an increase in poppy cultivation of eight per cent from 2001.

The 80,000 hectares in 2003 is the third highest record in the past five years.

Rapid rise

What is alarming is the rapid spread of poppy cultivation to previously unaffected areas.

Today, 28 out of 32 provinces grow poppies. New information arriving from Ghazni and Paktica provinces suggests that they too have joined the trend. 

Records for 2004 may very well show poppy cultivation across Afghanistan.

But the face of the industry has changed. It is no longer the highly organised practice of the past, but is increasingly being taken up by small families.

The UN shows that 264,000 families are growing poppies (1.7 million rural people), which is seven per cent of the total population.

An Afghan worker takes part
in destroying an opium crop 

As more people turn to poppies, prices decline. In 2002, a farmer could fetch $350 for one kilo of fresh poppy; in 2003, it was $283. Despite the decline, it is still a lucrative market compared to wheat, which garners only $0.19 per kilo.

"Wheat needs a lot of water compared to the poppy," says Muhammad John, a first-time poppy grower in the Herat province. "There has not been good rain this year. At first, I had grown wheat, then when I saw others growing poppy, I re-cultivated my land with poppy; I have many mouths to feed.

"Wheat has no price because the UN World Food Programme is bringing wheat in to the country and that crashes the already fragile market. The UN should purchase its wheat from us."

Crop gamble

John looks worried. He planted late in the season. He looks at the tiny shoots: "I do not know if it is normal, but they look small. I think I am late," he says.
 
The neighbouring fields look promising. Here the weather is cold and poppies are about only a hand-span high. In the warmer areas of the south and east harvest will begin in about two weeks' time.

There, in order to compensate for the fall in prices, people have cultivated in vast proportions. In some cases, labs have been established inside Afghanistan to process the raw poppy in to heroin.

"They have one wife and they want to get another three; that is why"

Muhammad Wali,
deputy governor,
Helmand province

In the Helmand province, just a short drive away from the main road to the north of the province, poppy fields stretch as far as the eye can see, yet this province has one of the largest dams in Afghanistan and is renowned for its abundant water supply.

"They want to get rich quick," says the deputy governor of the province, Haji Muhammad Wali.

"They have one wife and they want to get another three; that is why."
 
What is striking is there is no fear of the government. In Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan on the main road to Kabul, one can easily see farmers harvesting their fields.

Government bans

This is despite the government's announcement that the cultivation is banned and that it plans to destroy the fields.

In Musa Qalah, 120km north of Helmand, I ask how serious the government is about eradicating the poppy fields.

"The government has allocated a percentage of poppy fields to each province to be destroyed and we have our share," says Musa Qalah district governor Mullah Haji Amir Akhund.

He takes a piece of paper smaller than a dollar note out of his pocket and reads the number of hectares that have been destroyed in his district. It adds up to no more than half a hectare.

Paltry destruction

Later I am invited to witness soldiers destroying a crop.

Armed with sticks, they attack a field the size of a cricket ground, destroying no more than a tennis court-sized area.

Farmers had initially taken the action seriously but soon saw it was little more than a joke.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
can do little to help farmers

But destroying a crop that yields $2.3 billion, or half of the legitimate GDP of the government, is no joke.

The government has reached an agreement with farmers that, in principle, poppy cultivation should stop in return for development and economic incentives. But with an economy kept barely alive by the millions of dollars pumped in to it by donor countries and no real economic infrastructure, the future looks bleak.

Cash flow

The current value of the Afghani currency against other local ones is maintained by the political and military presence of the American government and other European governments.

The economy is politically driven not market driven. Afghanistan is now a route for illegal goods transported to and from Europe to southeast Asia, while all the transactions occur in foreign banks.

Under current circumstances, Hamid Karzai's government can exchange only promises with the farmers. Meanwhile, the country loses respect for central government and corruption defiantly smiles in the face of initiatives on good governance.

Some provincial administrators now wonder whether good governance means no governance at all.

The 2003 UN reports writes: "Out of this drugs chest, some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share: the more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul and support the legal economy."

And according to the report, the longer this goes on, the less chance Afghanistan has for making it as a stable and flourishing country.