60 Minutes Story Opium 23 May 2004
STORY – RICHARD CARLETON: Most passengers on my flight to Kabul were returning emigres and refugees. But I was coming to see the green fields below, fields full of poppies. Almost every Australian knows or knows of someone who suffered heroin addiction. It’s likely that the raw material for what that addict injected came from right here. What’s astonishing is that it’s so open. It’s illegal, of course, but apparently everybody’s into it. There’s no embarrassment, no shame, but then, if you were dirt, dirt poor, would you be doing the same? To call it brazen is to understate the case. On one side, 20 acres of irrigated wheat. The other side of the irrigation channel, a hundred acres of irrigated opium poppy. Three or four kilometres over there. Kandahar, the city of Afghanistan, see where the trucks are running over there, that’s the main highway to Quetta in Pakistan. In some countries, you’d hang for possessing an ounce of this stuff, but in a country occupied by 20,000 foreign troops, it’s being collected by the bucketful a few kilometres from the front gate of the second largest American base in the country.
What other words besides “bizarre” and “farcical” would describe the circumstances that exist one or two kilometres from where we are now?
HASHMATOLAH MOSLIN, AL JAZEERAH TV: I’m speechless about what I see in Afghanistan.
RICHARD CARLETON: Hashmatolah Moslin is an Afghan-born Australian, now working for Al Jazeerah, the Arab news channel. He’s based here in Kandahar, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban, that regime that persecuted women, harboured Bin Laden and very successfully suppressed opium production.
HASHMATOLAH MOSLIN: The Taliban meant business. They meant business.
RICHARD CARLETON: Then comes the American invasion, the Taliban get thrown out and production skyrockets again?
HASHMATOLAH MOSLIN: 2004, almost 100 percent of all profits in Afghanistan, they have cultivated poppy.
RICHARD CARLETON: So it’s growing all over Afghanistan?
HASHMATOLAH MOSLIN: All over Afghanistan.
RICHARD CARLETON: These poppies are not unlike what you might grow at home. Towards the end of the season, the petals wilt and what is left behind is a seed pod. You take a mature seed pod and inside, the poppy seed. But opium is a different matter. You use a tool like this with half a dozen little needle points on the end. In the evening, put a scratch in the pod. It bleeds that milk immediately. And then they leave it overnight to congeal and come back in the morning with this tool and scrape it off. It could not be more simple: raw opium. What happens next is largely hidden from view, but we persuaded one grower to show us the next stage on the route from poppy farm to the arm of the addict. Behind mud walls, this man is preparing a small shipment he says he will smuggle to Iraq.
GROWER (TRANSLATION): I take it to another dealer and he’ll turn it into powder, into heroin.
RICHARD CARLETON: Four kilos go inside the spare tyre and another four in a wheat bag. Three-quarters of the world’s opium is grown here in Afghanistan and distributed this way.
Have you ever seen a heroin addict?
GROWER (TRANSLATION): Yes, I have seen and I felt very sad for them.
RICHARD CARLETON: This producer-cum-smuggler has a family of 10 to care for. He will make $2000 from this year’s crop, enough, he says to feed them for a year. What the vermin, the traffickers down the line, make is anybody’s guess. Some of the traders here in Kabul’s money market are quite wealthy men. This is a very, very busy place, because much of the economic activity in this country is carried out in cash and that’s because much of it is illegal. That’s because half the national income of this country, 50 percent of it, comes from growing opium and selling heroin.
HASHMATOLAH MOSLIN: Wheat sells for 20 cents per kilo and opium, poppy sells for US$250, US$350 per kilogram. So what would you grow if you were in their position?
RICHARD CARLETON: The opium trade has the 11,000 American forces here in a terrible bind. Tonight, these troops are to set up some VCPs, vehicle checkpoints. They’re to look for weapons, but their orders are if they chance upon opium, they are simply to confiscate it. This man is the deputy American ambassador in Afghanistan.
I couldn’t believe my eyes down in Kandahar, the convoys of American soldiers going down the highway, poppies on both sides. They could stop, pull them out and solve half the problem.
DAVID SEDNEY, DEPUTY AMERICAN AMBASSADOR, AFGHANISTAN: I can understand your sense of irony about it, but our troops are here for one reason and that is to defeat the terrorists, defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. If they were to jump out and start pulling up the poppy, the farmers would just replant it and they would replant even more.
RICHARD CARLETON: The Afghans are doing what the Americans don’t. These men are from Afghanistan’s counternarcotics director. Their job is to eliminate the poppy crop. But as you’re about to see, “eliminate” in this part of the world has a very special, even a unique meaning. Their orders are to destroy crops by ploughing them in, well, some of them, at least. The tractors here are flattening part of an enormous crop and it looks mightily impressive. But in reality, after ploughing in just a fraction of each farmer’s field, they were on their way.
COUNTERNARCOTIC EMPLOYEE: This and this, 10 hectares.
RICHARD CARLETON: Ten hectares?
COUNTERNARCOTIC EMPLOYEE: Yes.
RICHARD CARLETON: How many hectares will you destroy?
COUNTERNARCOTIC EMPLOYEE: Five.
RICHARD CARLETON: And you will leave him five for his family?
COUNTERNARCOTIC EMPLOYEE: Yes, yes.
RICHARD CARLETON: This bizarre approach to law enforcement may well be because the provincial governors and even national politicians are in on the opium action. It’s top-level corruption that even the foreign minister, Dr Abdullah, can’t ignore.
Sir, 34 provinces in Afghanistan, each one has a governor. How many of those governors are involved in poppy production themselves?
DR ABDULLAH, FOREIGN MINISTER: I would be categoric in denying that fact. It is possible that authorities, government authorities are involved. It is a very profitable business, but it has to be dealt with.
RICHARD CARLETON: If opium production was stamped out, what semblance of an economy is here would simply evaporate. As things stand, Kabul is now functioning in a sort of a way. There are many more children in school, some construction is going on, mobile phones allow the trappings of status. But outside the capital, the writ of the warlord still runs, just as it did in the days of the Taliban.
If I say the probability of this country falling back into anarchy is 50/50, what probability would you agree to?
DR ABDULLAH: The probability is much less than 50, but…
RICHARD CARLETON: Significant probability?
DR ABDULLAH: But, I think it means, my answer, it means that we don’t have a time to rest.
RICHARD CARLETON: Afghans have been fighting a war of one sort or another continuously since 1980. They’ve fought the Russians, they’ve fought amongst themselves and for the moment they’re fighting with the Americans, but the current crop of Afghan soldiers seems well short of battle-ready.
SOLDIER: (Imitates sound of automatic gunfire)
RICHARD CARLETON: The fact is that without American troops on the ground here, Afghanistan would revert to chaos and the Taliban would be back in moments. The soldiers on the vehicle checkpoints are keenly aware of the danger they face.
AMERICAN SOLDIER: Yes, it is very dangerous.
RICHARD CARLETON: Because the next little village on this highway up there still has elements of Taliban in it, hasn’t it?
AMERICAN SOLDIER: Yes. This whole stretch east of Kandahar city.
RICHARD CARLETON: A hidden weapon would lead to arrest, interrogation and maybe information. That could lead to Osama bin Laden. That’s why this is being done. It’s degrading for everyone and some soldiers try to make light of it.
AMERICAN SOLDIER: You know where he’s at, bin Laden? Osama, tall guy. You don’t know? You don’t know nothing. We want to find him so I can go home.
RICHARD CARLETON: Almost 2.5 years since the invasion, how much longer before an American can come here, stand tall and say, “mission accomplished?”
DAVID SEDNEY: The mission in Afghanistan is not one where there’s an end date. Overall, Afghanistan is succeeding. Not just the United States, but the rest of the international community.
RICHARD CARLETON: America’s capacity for optimism apparently knows no bounds. Yet the inevitable consequence of their present policies is more disaster. And if you doubt that conclusion, then look into the eyes of the next addict you see on the streets of Australia. His or her next hit may well be in the back of this [vehicle] now.