- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

KAREZEQ, Afghanistan — The bulb of the little pink flower reaches deep into Afghan society, sowing problems with the country’s allies, financing gunmen and making addicts of ordinary Afghans.

In Afghanistan, opium is everywhere.

The United Nations says the Afghan poppy crop produced three-quarters of the world’s illicit opium last year, worth $2.3 billion and accounting for half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. Output was 20 times more than in 2001, the last year of rule by the strict Taliban regime.

Returning from a recent conference with Western donor nations, President Hamid Karzai called on Afghans to wage a “jihad,” or holy war, on the drug trade.

It was a politically risky move. Poppy farming supports thousands of families and is a major source of income for many powerful warlords.

On a recent day, a counternarcotics team in Kandahar province fanned out across farms, flanked by a dozen bodyguards armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

In the town of Karezeq, farmers confronted the team at the edge of fields pink with blooming poppies.

An elderly farmer begged for an officer to “be a good Muslim” and leave his crops alone. The response was quick: “It’s the opium that you grow that’s un-Islamic.”

Eventually, they compromised: One-third of the plants would be uprooted. The farmers glumly watched as tractors tore up the earth.

Mr. Karzai’s government says the goal is not to destroy farmers’ livelihoods, but to encourage planting legal crops. While wheat and corn are nowhere near as profitable, at least the farmers know those crops will get to market, officials say.

Most of the poppy crop is exported to meet the demand for drugs in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, but some stays at home, supplying a growing addiction problem.

In the slums of western Kabul, devastated by three decades of war, opium addicts gather in bullet-pocked ruins, sheltering in basement rooms littered with used needles and burned matches. They heat opium powder into a liquid and inhale the vapor.

Counselors from the Najat Drug Rehabilitation Center scour Kabul for addicts, offering first aid and encouragement. Female doctors meet at the homes of female addicts, and dozens of burqa-clad addicts come for checkups.

Each week, dozens of addicts hope desperately for one of the few beds Najat offers for in-house rehabilitation.

Once accepted, they spend weeks in cramped rooms, relearning responsibility and personal hygiene, receiving medical attention and counseling, and trying to get clean.

Feradoon, 42, can barely dream of kicking his habit. He meets every day with other addicts in the ruins of an old Kabul movie theater.

They have no one else to turn to. In a culture where family is everything, these men are shunned by their relatives.

“No one can stop using this drug when he is alone,” Feradoon said.

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