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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November 2004, 13:40 GMT
Afghanistan's opium problem

By Roland Buerk
BBC correspondent in Kabul

Opium poppies are being grown across record areas of Afghanistan, according to an annual United Nations survey.

Poppy farmer
Opium is a cash crop for most farmers
That is despite a major international effort, led by Britain, to try to tackle the problem.

Ninety percent of the heroin on Britain's streets comes from Afghanistan.

So far the big smugglers have been beyond the reach of the authorities.

In the Afghan capital Kabul, trucks rumble along one of its main streets.

Afghanistan has few roads - much of the country's opium has to pass through the capital before finding its way as heroin onto the streets of Europe and America.

Only option

The latest figures show production is booming.

Some 1,300 square kilometres were used to grow poppies this year, an all time high.

If the government took it seriously they could arrest the big guys rather than teasing small people like me
Doris Buddenberg runs the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan.

She says many farmers have little option.

"Afghanistan is a very poor country and particularly through the war the rural areas were very affected," she says.

"They need cash for very simple goods and needs, school books for children, clothing, tea which is a staple here. Opium is the cash crop."

Growing opium is a low-risk occupation and selling it is rarely punished by the authorities.

Drug barons

Pul-e-Charki jail near Kabul is an imposing grey stone fortress on a dusty plain surrounded by craggy brown mountains.

Many of the prisoners here are inside for drugs offences.

High unemployment and poverty force many to turn to drug cultivation
But without exception they are small-time smugglers and dealers.

In a country where opium production makes up a huge proportion of the economy the big drugs barons are getting away scot free.

Kochi has been inside for four months and says he is innocent.

"From where I'm seeing it these drugs barons have connection with the government and that's why they're never arrested.

"I think if the government took it seriously they could arrest the big guys rather than teasing small people like me," he says.

Fighting force

In another part of Kabul, new recruits to the Central Poppy Eradication Force are put through their paces.

Afghanistan's government says the force is evidence that it is stepping up the fight against opium.

Ironically it was only during the Taleban's five-year rule that production actually declined.

The commander, Lt Gen Zahir Aghbar, has been visiting opium-producing provinces to warn they are on their way.

"My message to the dear farmers of Afghanistan is to keep away from the smugglers, from those who are bringing a bad name to Afghanistan so they could not be accused of committing a crime," Lt Gen Aghbar says.

"You're armed to the teeth, you've got a cosh, a bayonet, an AK47 assault rifle. It's less policing, its more like a war taking on these drugs barons," says one of his men.

"The drugs phenomenon is against both Sharia law and humanity. So we are going to fight that. We are going both as police and fighters and if anyone challenges us we will defeat them," says another.

Neither of them wanted to be named.

The recruits dived on the ground rehearsing an attack.

The gunfire was only in their imagination - soon it could be for real.

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