Terry Gross speaking to journalist Matthieu Aikins about the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history:

TG: Your current article in Rolling Stone is about how Afghanistan became a narco state. Just give a sense of how much poppy is produced there and how much heroin comes out of that?

MA: This spring I traveled to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, which is the largest opium-producing province and I witnessed what in fact turned out to be the biggest opium harvest in Afghan history. Afghan opium production has doubled since the year 2000. It now produces 90 percent of the world’s opium supply, much of which is converted into heroin and sold abroad. So, it’s not just a problem that has been unable to be solved over the last 13 years of the military occupation, but it’s one that has gotten dramatically worse.

You say that in trying to solve the problem of terrorism coming out of Afghanistan we helped increase the amount of poppy being sold there. What’s the connection?

This is another one of those Faustian bargains that we’ve made in the name of the War on Terror. In Afghanistan, after we toppled the Taliban, we allowed some of the figures who have been responsible for introducing large-scale opium cultivation in Afghanistan—the war lords, the Mujahideen, who had participated in the civil war—back into power. We allied with them in our quest for vengeance against al-qaida and the Taliban and allowed an incredible level of criminality to flourish [in] the highest levels of the Afghan government–so that naturally led to flourishing opium and heroin trade.

What did you witness when you were in Helmand, when you were witnessing this huge poppy harvest?

The manpower that’s required for the opium harvest is staggering; it’s a very labor-intensive process. They go from poppy bulb to poppy bulb scoring the surface and scraping out the resin. So at harvest time, the whole province is basically mobilized to participate in the harvest and people come from all around Afghanistan; they come from Iran; they come from Pakistan; the markets are full. It’s a big business opportunity for all the merchants and traders. It’s like being in a whaling town when the ship comes in. The schools are empty, fighting stops as both the police and Taliban go and work in the fields.

Wait. The police and the Taliban go and work in the poppy fields?

They do, yeah, because it’s an opportunity to make some great cash or often they get paid in opium. The farmer gives a portion of the harvest to the workers. So if you look at the number of attacks and fighting all dips dramatically in the south during the opium harvest and then of course, surges back up afterwards as there’s a fresh infusion of cash to both sides for fighting.

You quote somebody who is a poppy grower now, who is very poor, you describe him as not even having furniture, and you ask him how much he’s getting paid for what he’s growing, for his crop and you compare that to what it’s going to be worth on the market when it becomes heroin. Give us a sense of the gap between those two figures.

It’s staggering. So he pulled out this basketball-sized lump of opium abut an acres-worth of harvest and he was hoping to sell it for about $600.  I quickly did some rough calculations in my head and told him this could be worth up to $100,000 sold … in London or New York.

I think it’s interesting because it helps us understand that Afghan farmers themselves only get 1 percent of the global value of the opium trade, so this is the world’s problem. It’s not something Afghanistan alone is responsible for. It’s a massive global demand for illegal drugs, in this case heroin and opium, and there’s one end of it that’s in Afghanistan.

I was also struck by the fact that [there’s this] vast, tangled chain of traffickers and drug warriors and corrupt officials that exists between this impoverished illiterate farmer in a mud hut in Afghanistan and the junkie on the street sticking a needle into his or her arm in London or New York. And it’s staggering that both people are so poor at both ends of this chain, but there’s so much money and power involved in it. 

Listen to the interview:

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Photo: Afghan farmers in a poppy field: Helmand province, center of British military operations, accounts for over half of the opium crop. Credit: Ahmad Masood/Reuters via Guardian