The frontline defence of Lashkar Gah is a two-room mud hut beside a bridge over the river that snakes around the town. Here the Afghan police commander squats on a barrier and describes the latest Taliban onslaught. "They attacked at night," he says. "We fought back and then helicopters came and fired at them." He moves his hand in a sweeping semi-circle and explains that the land all around is held by the Taliban.
But for the commander and his men standing around him in shalwar kameez and glittering caps, their main concern was not the threat from the Taliban, but the low price of opium. Like most of the people in this the capital of Helmand province, they were all poppy farmers.
"The people are not planting teryaq (opium) because they don't have water; they use the little water they can get to plant something they can eat," says one policeman. "I have eight jeribs (approximately four acres) but this year I didn't plant any opium."
The commander chimes in: "The government is not helping us. Only the rich people get the money. If you want the help of government, you need money, good car and influential friends." He says he had planted opium on half his land. "Inshallah (God willing) the rain will be better this year."
The road to Lashkar Gah
In the middle of the road from Kandahar to Helmand stood a lone gunman in a white turban and a long coat, his gun flickering with the early morning sun.
The driver of our decrepit Toyota taxi slowed almost to a halt, stretched his hand out and put 10 afghani (about £1.50) into the hand of the gunman. "Police," explains the cabbie, matter of factly. On the side of the road another policeman sits on a blanket drinking tea. The Taliban, bandits and police all make their own contribution to the lawlessness of the Kandahar highway.
As we left Kandahar, we started counting the holes caused by "improvised explosive devices", 15 miles and 18 holes later, we stopped counting. Sometimes the craters were barely 100 metres from each other. Trucks and taxis drove fanatically, trying to cover the perilous road as fast as possible. They zigzagged wildly between the road and the dirt to avoid the holes.
We passed two more police checkpoints, each exacting their own tax. Lashkar Gah - literally "the camp of the soldiers" - declared itself with a herd of camels and two British army Land Rovers marking a checkpoint.
About 15 miles south-east of Camp Bastion, the British army's desert compound, Lashkar Gah has the feel of a besieged frontier town. Twice in recent months the Taliban has tried to take the city. On each occasion it was repelled. Last week, military sources admitted that deaths and serious injuries among British troops in Helmand were running at a higher rate than at any time since the start of the conflict in 2001. Eleven British soldiers have been killed in southern Afganistan since the beginning of last month.
Heroin, schools and the heart of the insurgency
Hameedullah's family live in one big house on a dusty unpaved lane - Hameedullah, his five sons and their wives, children, grandchildren and two cousins. Hameedullah, a tall, thickset man, is a government employee. And like many people in Helmand, he is also a poppy farmer.
Like any other farmer, he was concerned by water, and crop prices. "People plant poppy because it's good money, it needs little water and it makes a good harvest," he said. "Prices were very low last year because everyone planted poppy. Wheat is very good this year because prices are high, so most of the people are planting wheat this year. I divided my land half wheat and half poppy, but next year we will plant poppy again."
He went on to explain how the economy of the poppy trade took in the Taliban and the government. "The Taliban benefit from the poppy because the farmers pay them taxes. And when the government destroys the fields, the people support the Taliban," he said. "The government also benefits from the poppy - we pay officials so they won't destroy our land. Two years ago we paid them so they only destroyed two jeribs (1 acre) of my land."
We sat sipping tea made with salty water that left a powerful aftertaste. When an old man entered the room everyone stood and the children grabbed his long-fingered hand and kissed it. "He is our uncle," one of Hameedullah's sons said in a hushed voice. "He is a big smuggler." The older man wore a white turban that matched his white beard.
Hameedullah's son Hekmat said the old man crossed Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan smuggling opium and heroin. He had been in the business since he stopped fighting the jihad against the Soviets and turned to a more lucrative occupation 20 years ago. "I remember him since I was a small kid," Hekmat whispered. "He used to come on his motorbike and buy opium from us."
Crossing his long fingers, and speaking quietly, the uncle explained his trade. "If we smuggle 40kg, we give the Taliban 4kg. We pay the 10% as a zikat [Islamic tax] to the Taliban. And we pay another 10% to the government officials and the police.
"Each Taliban commander collects his own tax - from the smugglers - and also from the farmers. We pay a commander and he makes calls to other commanders to make sure that we have safe passage. The problem is when we have to pay several times to several commanders."
He said he travelled to Musa Qala, Sangin and other districts in Helmand all of which, he said, were effectively under Taliban control - the British and the Afghan government controlled the towns but the countryside is a free for all. A motorbike is his preferred mode of transport. He could load it with as much as 80kg of poppies, though sometimes he used Land Cruisers or taxis.
"The Taliban say we are doing the jihad and you are making money so you should support us. Smugglers give a lot: three Land Cruisers in Sangin a few weeks ago."
The relationship between the Taliban, police and poppy trade is quite simple, he added: "If we don't plant opium then smugglers don't make money. If we [the smugglers] don't make money the Taliban and police don't make money. The Taliban and the officials have a very strong relationship - if they don't then how can we do so much trade and travel to so many districts?"
The real money, the uncle said, lay in international smuggling. The opium was taken to laboratories in the east on the border with Pakistan, refined, and made into heroin. That's where the real business began, he says. Convoys of mainly Baluch smugglers took the heroin back through Afghanistan, then into Iran. From there it travelled through Iraq and Turkey to reach Europe.
He reels off the figures like an accountant: "A kilo of opium is around $5,000 in Pakistan. It is $20,000 when it reaches Europe, through Greece and Turkey. Four kilos of opium make a kilo of heroin which sells for $10,000 in Iran - $30,000 in Greece."
Just as in rural Afghanistan, there is a symbiotic relationship between smugglers and officials in Pakistan and Iran. "We travel in convoys, each three cars has five gunmen between them. We leave a big trail, so they can see us. Afghan officials make contact across the borders and we pay the Iranian sepah [army]. If [the Iranians] open fire then we don't pay them."
Like merchants who plied the ancient trade routes, opium smugglers have diversified. "We smuggle gold and silver, but now we also smuggle a lot of antiquities from Afghanistan to Europe," he said.
A youngster in the family entered the room with a silver pot and a washbasin. He poured hot water and the men washed their hands, throwing two cloths around the room to dry them. A dinner of chicken stew, bread and more salty tea was served. The men ate silently and watched the news on Afghan television.
On every street corner in Lashkar Gah, as in many other Afghan cities, there are adverts for schools and private courses ranging from computing and business management to farming. After years of civil war and Taliban rule, there is a real hunger for learning.
Noor Jan, one of Hameedullah's sons, is a teacher in a primary school. About 5,000 boys attend his school, he said. The teachers have to work in shifts to cover them all. "Families leave their homes in the countryside and come to live in Lashkar Gah so their children can go to school."
On the outskirts of the city we visited a small madrasa, housed in three mud rooms. In one , five children sat cross-legged behind small tables. They memorise the Qur'an in Arabic, a language neither they nor the teacher in the centre of the room spoke or understood. The mullah running the school, who said he opposed the Taliban, criticised the influence of Pakistani madrasas. "They don't graduate [students] but they graduate fools, who come here and fight," he said. "Instead of the road to learning, they show them the road to death." He said three of his students were "influenced" by the Taliban and left to fight in Musa Qala before they had finished their studies. "They went to become suicide bombers before they finished memorising the Qur'an. [The Taliban] are stealing my students."
Later, as we sit outside under warm sun drinking tea, the mullah said he was under pressure from both the Taliban and the British. "The Taliban tell us we have to support the jihad. They want money - they told me that a suicide vest costs [£1,200] and we have to pay. They want to take my students. The British, on the other side, see a madrasa and they think we are Taliban.
"They closed one of my madrasas. It's all because of the Pakistanis. They made a new Islam inside Islam - it will take us another 50 years to bring back studies and the mullahs to what they used to be." As we leave, three British Land Rovers crawl up the dirt track to the madrasa.
Worn out with battle fatigue, Afghan police officers huddled around a tin teapot. Their commander drew long breaths from a hashish joint. "Its very good hashish," he said. "And very cheap." His outpost lies in a district a few miles outside Lashkar Gah, but at noon he and his men make for the safety of the city: "The Taliban attack us at night. There is no security in the districts."
He said he joined the police seven years ago when his boss, a former warlord, became the district police chief. "When we are at the post during the day it's safe, but going and coming is very dangerous." He pointed at a well behind us: "We take water from here with us, we don't even have water there."
He passed the joint to a young policeman, took a flat disc of hashish the size of his palm from a pocket, and started rolling another joint. His eyes blood red, he began outlining a theory I had heard several times in Afghanistan, once even from an Afghan diplomat. "The problem is the British. They support the Taliban." Why? "Because they want to control Afghanistan. They want us to stay fighting forever. The British only kill the innocent, they don't kill the Taliban."
He took another deep drag on the joint, poured some tea, and said: "Most of the Taliban we fight are Pakistanis here. They are Punjabis. When I arrested one of them two months ago I told him I am a better Muslim than you are, I fight for my country. And I shot him."
"Afghanistan is destroyed by the foreigner," said the young policeman, now more articulate after his joint. "Al-Qaida, the Pakistanis, the British and the Americans are all destroying Afghanistan."
A young Afghan soldier sitting next to the police commander said: "When the Taliban attack they are so close that we talk to each other on the radios. They shout 'allahu akbar, allahu akbar'. We ask them why are they fighting us - we are Afghans like them. They tell us that we are infidels because we are helping the foreigners occupy our country."
"What do you tell them?" I ask.
"Nothing. They are right." guardian uk
More than 90% of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan, and two-thirds of that from a single province, Helmand, garrisoned by British forces fighting a gruelling counter-insurgency against the Taliban.
Those figures come from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In its report last month there was some good news for change. This year there has been a 19% reduction in poppy production. The bad news is it may be a temporary dip, resulting from a sharp rise in wheat prices in late 2007 and 2008 which meant farmers grew wheat at the expense of poppy. Wheat prices have since dropped again.
Of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, 18 are now poppy-free. Production is highest where the Taliban insurgency is strongest. Instability means it is much harder and riskier to get legitimate crops to market, but the opium from poppies is picked up from the farm gate.
The Taliban has a symbiotic relationship with the traffickers, taking hundreds of millions of dollars in "taxes" for its war chest, while it supplies the insecurity on which the trade thrives.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government, the UN and Nato contingents have not been able to agree on how to act. There have been mixed signals over whether Nato's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should be fighting a counter-narcotics war as well as a counter-insurgency, while the US, which advocates targeting the drug trade, has had run-ins with British forces, which have taken the view that targeting poppy production diverts resources from the war, and creates a pool of angry, under-employed Afghan farmers and labourers for the insurgents to recruit from.
As US forces send more troops into Helmand they are winning greater sway in the argument. A Nato defence ministers' meeting in October gave Nato forces the green light to directly target drug "kingpins" in Afghanistan, if approved by their national governments. But British, European and Afghan officials have so far refused to bow to American pressure for aerial spraying of the poppy fields.
There have been more radical proposals, such as the licensing of poppy production for legal opiates used in painkillers. However, the world price in the legal market is far below what the crop fetches in the illegal trade.
Most experts believe that only a political solution to the conflict, combined with years of development work, will have a lasting impact on the world's worst drug problem.
In northeastern Afghanistan I once saw a huge proclamation, painted on a wall in Dari and English, on the evils of growing opium.
The message was yet another feeble attempt by the United Nations' drugs control agency to stamp out the crop. Meanwhile abutting the wall - it almost goes without saying was a field of luxuriant purple-white opium poppies.
The 'War on Drugs' has lasted longer than the 'War on Terror' and has been even more of a failure in every part of the world it is being waged.
In Afghanistan, it costs $1bn a year, much of which is pocketed by corrupt officials and cowboy contractors. It ties up and kills British troops. It distracts from much-needed reconstruction and the urgent need to quash corruption. And it drives poor farmers, forced to watch their livelihoods ploughed up, into the arms of the Taliban who now control much of the countryside.
Some 14m Afghans are dependent on the income from opium. Thus it is hardly surprising that Afghanistan continues to produce 93 per cent of the world's opium - the tiny dip in production this year was thanks purely to bad weather not only because farmers receive far more for opium than other crops, but also because the illicit trade which incidentally pays and arms Taliban troops - is sponsored by high-ranking figures in the very government the United States expects to deal with the problem.
This Alice in Wonderland state of affairs begs the question: why are we doing it?
(Two years ago, nine tonnes of opium was seized from the then Governor of Helmand, Sher Muhammad Akhunzada, who was promptly made an MP at the urging of American and British intelligence. The director of the government's anti-corruption wing, Izzatullah Wasifi, was arrested in Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, with 600g of heroin, in the late 80s. And President Karzai's brother in law, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is notoriously involved with drug traffickers. As one counter-narcotics expert put it: "Narco kleptocracy, narco terrorism and narco politics rule Afghanistan.")
Such a catastrophically Alice in Wonderland state of affairs begs the question: why are we doing it? Why, as America announces a surge of 20,000 to 30,000 more troops in the new year, and Britain looks like sending hundreds more to join them, do we continue to fight a lost war against drugs with its attendant costs in money, lives and goodwill?
Why not simply pull the carpet out from under the entire problem by buying up the crop for medicinal and prescription use? In other words, why not legalise it?
When similar American attempts to control Turkey's opium crop failed, the Turkish government licensed farmers with the blessing of the US, which now buys 80 per cent of Turkey and India's opium crop for morphine.
However, some 6.2m people with fatal illnesses such as cancer and AIDS still suffer from lack of morphine in poorer countries, to the extent that British farmers in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Scotland have been asked to grow opium for diamorphine. So why not license existing Afghan growers?
A well-conceived plan by the Senlis Council, a drug-policy research group, which would grant opium licenses to Afghan villages thus ensuring self-policing (if one farmer opted out by selling to drug barons, the entire village would lose its license), has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the European parliament as well as
the Canadian government. But the US remains 'almost religiously' opposed.
Some experts also argue that the world heroin trade is too vast and too lucrative to stamp out. But what if heroin was made available on prescription, as it was in Britain before the early 1970s?
This solution has long been propounded by some British doctors, who point out that before the criminalisation of heroin there were fewer addicts and very little drug-related crime because there was no market for pushers.
Inevitably, there would be a transition period with heroin still available on the black market and an initial surge in drug use. But with the glamour removed from illicit drug-taking and the incentives gone for drug traffickers and dealers, the numbers of addicts would soon dwindle, while the billions released in drug taxes could be used for rehabilitation.Meanwhile, Afghan farmers could prosper; the Taliban would lose their funding and support; and Britain, America and its Nato allies could turn their attention to the real business of rooting out corruption, helping Afghans form a responsive, accountable government and rebuilding a sadly ravaged country. Source