Kaka Razaq was astounded when soldiers surrounded his scarlet poppy fields in the Dand district of the province of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. He rapidly turned pale as he witnessed the armed men hauling out the lucrative crop he had been raising so diligently over recent months. "For God's sake please, this is all I have to feed my family," the 56-year-old farmer pleaded.
Razaq's opium fields were the first to be targeted in Kabul's southern poppy eradication drive that began in the province in early April.
Kandahar is one of the major poppy-growing provinces in a country that continues to produce the majority of the world's illicit heroin. But although people like Razaq were very unhappy that their fields were being destroyed, things could have been worse. With elections looming and the government's authority weak outside the capital, the eradication programme is not designed to remove all the offending crop - such a move would be grossly unpopular in a nation that earns billions from the drug. "This is my order, destroy half and leave the remaining half untouched," Kandahar governor Mohammad Yousuf Pashtun reminded his men.
Following a series of nationwide poppy eradication campaigns this year, Kandahar was the third province after Nangarhar in the east and Helmand in the southwest where poppy fields have been reduced since late March, according to the government's recently-formed Counter Narcotics Directorate (CND). The CND's office in Kandahar said global positioning system (GPS) surveillance had shown that there were about 2,000 hectares of poppy fields in the province.
"We measure every poppy field. Then one half is destroyed and the other half remains untouched," Pashtun told IRIN. The governor set out the dilemma that Afghanistan's government currently faces - bowing to international pressure to get rid of the crop but acknowledging that a heavy-handed approach to the trade could risk severe economic and social problems. "We have to balance the two extremes, to eradicate this illegal crop will lead to extreme poverty and devastation of the rural economy."
In more than two years since the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime - who had almost eradicated poppy production in its final year in power - the narcotics industry has grown to account for about half of the country's annual domestic product, according to the United Nations. Output last year reached 3,600 mt, which is more than three-quarters of global supply.
Lack of official resources is another factor in the growers' favour. With few people and only two tractors to deploy in the eradication effort on the ground, farmers are optimistic provincial authorities will only get round to removing a small percentage of the poppy crop this season. With so much money at stake, poorly paid local police were also highly susceptible to bribes, growers confided in IRIN. Despite the limitations, the CND office in Kandahar is confident they can deal with the 50 percent of the crop scheduled for destruction.
"This will be quite different from previous campaigns. We have US $ 50,000 allocated by central government for this Kandahar eradication drive, which will last around 25 days, and this will help a lot," Ahmadullah Alizai, head of Kandahar's CND told IRIN. "However the proposal was 75 percent, but as the province is still affected by drought, the authorities and people's representative have agreed to 50 percent eradication this year."
But destroying just half the poppy harvest is proving unpopular enough. A similar eradication drive in the eastern province of Nangarhar that removed just eight percent of poppy, was disrupted by hundreds of angry farmers vowing to fight the government's plan to destroy their crop. The demonstrators were asking for immediate alternative livelihoods, more assistance to their region and monetary compensation for fields destroyed.
Pashtun told IRIN he would not tolerate dissent and that local growers had to accept what they were doing was illegal."We are not bribing the farmers, it is their responsibility to obey the government's order," he said. Pashtun said he had proposed a comprehensive plan to create alternative livelihoods and support the opium farmers following eradication. "If I do not succeed in my plan I have promised them [Kandahar people] that I will resign," the governor maintained.
Meanwhile, growers argue they are an easy target and that the powerful drug barons who organise the trafficking and reap the massive profits should also be targeted. "Unfortunately this will only be implemented against us poor and powerless farmers, it is an opportunity for the local police to squeeze us, not the big drug lords," said Razaq, who has ten mouths to feed.
A local judge in Dand district told IRIN the Kandahar eradication scheme would prove very problematic as growers felt they were being unfairly victimised. "It was decided to eradicate eight percent in Nangarhar, while it was 20 to 25 percent in Helmand and 50 percent [to be eradicated] in Kandahar."
Although the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is not actively involved in eradication, it has been called on to play a monitoring role. Provincial authorities said they had asked the UN and other agencies based in Kandahar to go to the fields slated for destruction to act as impartial observers. "The UNODC will follow it independently; meanwhile I have requested other agencies to oversee our programme," Pashtun said. "Also there is a satellite surveillance and I depend on that also.
The UN said it supports Kabul's drive to reduce the influence of the opium economy in Afghanistan. "We support it as part of the government's efforts to eliminate the drug problem in the country," Manoel de Almieda e Silva, a spokesperson of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) told IRIN, noting however, eradication was only part of the solution. "You also have to boost the economy to create jobs and opportunities for those currently make a living out of planting poppy," he said.
The US-backed Afghan government vowed to take drastic action against the opium trade at a key donor's conference held in Berlin at the beginning of April where at least $ 8 billion was pledged for reconstruction. London and Washington are the most important contributors to the drugs war: most of the heroin ends up on their streets.