A poppy bulb oozes opium paste in a field in Badakhshan Province. To harvest opium, farmers score the bulbs and then wait for the sticky paste to dry before scraping it into containers. Most of the opium is pressed into bricks and sent to refineries to be made into heroin, which is then smuggled out of Afghanistan. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Afghan opium kills more people worldwide—up to 100,000 per year—than any other drug.
A poppy bulb oozes opium paste in a field in Badakhshan Province. To harvest opium, farmers score the bulbs and then wait for the sticky paste to dry before scraping it into containers. Most of the opium is pressed into bricks and sent to refineries to be made into heroin, which is then smuggled out of Afghanistan. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Afghan opium kills more people worldwide—up to 100,000 per year—than any other drug.

Opium Wars

A key step to securing peace will be to wean Afghan farmers off growing poppies.

The chief of police has a memorable way of demonstrating that he's not afraid of the drug smugglers. He holds up his right hand, revealing the absence of his middle finger. Four years ago, Brig. Gen. Aqa Noor Kintuz was hired as provincial chief of police in the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan and charged with destroying its plentiful poppy fields. "After I finished one of the first eradications," he says, "my vehicle was blown up by a remote-control bomb." He rolls up his right shirtsleeve. His forearm is badly mangled. In the years since, he has received innumerable death threats. Women and children of poppy farmers have hurled stones at his policemen. One of his eradication tractors was torched.

The grim axiom defining today's Afghanistan, 85 percent of whose citizens are farmers, is that its economy relies on two dueling revenue streams. One flows from Western aid, in the hopes that the country will renounce the Taliban. The other flows from opium trafficking supported by the Taliban, which use the proceeds to fund attacks on Western troops. Only recently has the Afghan government seemed to take stock of the obvious: For the outside world's largesse to continue, the national economy's addiction to opium must end. The poppy fields must be destroyed. But just as this devoutly Muslim nation did not become the world's leading opium supplier overnight, uprooting Afghanistan's poppy mind-set promises to be a complicated endeavor.

In Badakhshan, chief of police Kintuz appears to be making some headway against poppies. Five years ago the province was Afghanistan's second-biggest opium producer, after the Taliban-controlled province of Helmand. For a brief period after a Taliban ban on poppies in 2000, Badakhshan even took the lead in poppy cultivation, because the province was controlled by the Northern Alliance militias, rather than the Taliban. When Kintuz started his job in 2007, 9,000 acres were planted with poppies. Two years later fewer than 1,500 were.

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