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Afghanistan - Due to plentiful rains earlier this year and late efforts at poppy eradication, farmers in northern Afghanistan say they are enjoying a bumper crop of the opium producing plant this season.
While President Hamed Karzai has called for a jihad, or holy war, against poppy growing and an international coalition has been carrying out its own campaign against the drug, even some senior government officials acknowledge that most eradication efforts have come too late and achieved too little.
Afghanistan produced an estimated 4,200 metric tons of raw opium last year, amounting to 87 percent of world supply, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
"This year's rainfall has increased our harvests over last year's," said Mohammad Nazar, a farmer in the northern Balkh province, happily showing off a fat green poppy pod.
Opium, the raw material for heroin, is produced in most provinces of Afghanistan. While no official estimates were available, reports suggest that this year's crop will surpass last year's harvest.
Local farmers who heeded warnings that their poppy crop would be eradicated and opted to grow other plants are now sorely disappointed that they will miss out on the profits from a lucrative harvest.
"The poppy fields have not been destroyed as people said they would be, so those farmers who didn't plant poppies were very sad," said Nasrullah, another Balkh farmer.
The harvest was a boon for farm workers. "I was unemployed before the opium collection season but now I'm working in the poppy fields making 300 to 400 afghanis a day," said laborer Mohammad Omar.
Reports of the bumper crop come even as Karzai, during a recent visit to the United States, rejected criticism of his counter-narcotics effort, saying his government had worked hard to eradicate poppy fields. Instead, he blamed western countries for a lack of support.
According to a report published in "The New York Times" on May 23, a U.S. State Department memo blamed the lagging poppy eradication effort on a reluctance on the part of Karzai and others in the Afghan government to take on powerful warlords in the southern Kandahar province and elsewhere.
The newspaper reported that a cable sent on May 13 from the U.S. embassy in Kabul to Washington, said that provincial officials and village elders had impeded the destruction of significant acreages and that top Afghan officials, including Karzai, had done little to overcome that resistance.
"Although President Karzai has been well aware of the difficulty in trying to implement an effective ground eradication program, he has been unwilling to assert strong leadership, even in his own province of Kandahar," said the cable drafted by embassy personnel involved in the anti-drug efforts, two American officials told the newspaper.
The cable also faulted Britain, which has lead responsibility for counter narcotics assistance in Afghanistan, for being "substantially responsible" for the failure to eradicate more acreage. UK personnel choose where the eradication teams work, but the cable said that those areas were often not the main growing areas and that the British had been unwilling to revise targets.
But Karzai rejected such criticism, saying it was part of an effort to shift blame from the U.S., Britain and other countries that have failed to deliver economic aid.
"We are going to have, probably all over the country, at least 30 percent [of] poppies reduced," Karzai said in an interview on CNN. "So we have done our job. The Afghan people have done their job. Now the international community must come and provide [an] alternative livelihood to the Afghan people, which they have not done so far."
"Let us stop this blame game," he added.
The harvest began here in late April. Shortly after May 15, the Interior Ministry dispatched an eradication team of 100 men to Balkh province. Except for some late-planted crops, they found few plants to destroy, said farmers.
Such tardiness irritated Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Nur, who said the authorities should have acted sooner.
General Muhammad Daoud, deputy interior minister, cited a lack of money and bad weather as reasons for the delay.
"The only province where we can eradicate the poppy fields completely is Badakhshan, where the harvest has not begun yet," said Daoud in late May.
Badakhshan is Afghanistan's northernmost province and one of its most remote. High altitudes mean crops grow later in the season.
According to Daoud, the provinces of Balkh, Kandahar and Farah in the far west have been the main centers of cultivation this year. He acknowledged that eradication efforts started late in those provinces as well.
Daoud said, however, that efforts to wipe out crops in eastern provinces had been more successful because local officials acted earlier.
He maintained that authorities had actually eradicated more acreage this year than last, but could give no concrete figures.
By late May, raw opium sales were well under way in Balkh. Some farmers said deals were being made openly, but authorities denied the claim.
"We don't have enough police, and the region is too big, so opium is being bought and sold in the villages," said General Amir Hamza, Balkh's district police chief. "Drug traffickers are said to be coming from the southern provinces to the area, purchasing opium from the villages and shipping it to their provinces via routes where there are no police."
While authorities are upset at the situation, farmers are looking forward to a prosperous year. Nor are they likely to change crops voluntarily, many say. The average gross income from a hectare of opium poppies was about $US4,600 last year, and the same area planted with wheat yielded just US$390, according to UN figures.