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SHAHRAN, Afghanistan — For as long as anyone can remember, there was no need for paper money in this remote corner of the Hindu Kush. The common currency was what grew in everyone's backyard — opium.
When children felt like buying candy, they ran into their father's fields and returned with a few grams of opium folded inside a leaf. Their mothers collected it in plastic bags, trading 18 grams for a meter of fabric or two liters of cooking oil. Even a visit to the barbershop could be settled in opium.
But the economy of this village sputtered to a halt last year when the government began aggressively enforcing a ban on opium production. Villagers were not allowed to plant their only cash crop. Now shops are empty and farmers are in debt, as entire communities spiral into poverty.
Opium is one of the biggest problems facing this troubled country, because it is deeply woven into the fabric of daily life as well as into the economics of insurgency. Afghanistan supplies 93 percent of the world's opium, and it is one of the main sources of funding for the growing Taliban movement.
Yet the government ban on opium is working at best unevenly. In areas of the country under Taliban control, opium production is going strong. In government-held areas like Shahran, it has gone down drastically, but at the cost of the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people. Their anger is imperiling government support in one of the few areas of the country that has resisted the Taliban's advance.
Two years ago, opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, grew on nearly half a million acres in Afghanistan. The harvest was worth about $4 billion, or equal to nearly half the country's GDP in 2007. As much as a tenth — almost half a billion dollars — went to local strongmen, including the Taliban, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Under intense international pressure, the government redoubled its effort to crack down on opium farmers. By last year, the number of acres planted with poppy had dropped by a fifth, yet the Taliban's finances remained largely untouched. Ninety-eight percent of Afghanistan's opium is now grown in just seven of the country's 34 provinces — all areas under partial or total Taliban control.
Opium was so entrenched in Badakshan province, where Shahran is located, that it is said Marco Polo sampled it when he passed through in the 13th century. Until recently, the sloping mountain faces were awash with pink, purple and magenta poppies, nodding in the wind. But in the past year, poppy production has gone down 95 percent.