Fox News Correspondent Greg Palkot traveled to Afghanistan in May for a first-hand look at a country shrouded in mystery after decades of war. This four-part series chronicles his trip:
• Part I: In a Timeless Land, Modern World and Ancient Beliefs Collide
• Part II: While United Nations and Taliban Argue, Afghans Endure Drought, Famine
• Part III: Bin Laden Continues to Elude U.S. Grasp
• Part IV: Taliban Chalk Up Rare Victory in War on Drugs
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — With annual production of an estimated 4,500 tons of opium, some 70 percent of the world's total supply, Afghanistan was the undisputed leader when it came to the raw material used for heroin.
Until, that is, the Taliban government stepped in.
Declaring opium poppy cultivation contrary to Islam, the Taliban managed to achieve what no other country in the world has been able to do — wipe out an illegal crop in just a year.
"It was detrimental to us," Taliban Drug Commissioner Al Abdul Hakim told Fox News. "It was detrimental to Islam and to our economy."
American drug experts visited Afghanistan and couldn't believe what they saw.
"I've never seen anything like it," admitted James Callahan, director of the State Department's Asian Narcotics Program. "It's quite incredible. One year to the next, all cultivation in the area ended."
While the end of poppy cultivation might be good news for the international community, it is not so positive for the farmers in Afghanistan. Profits from opium were five to 10 times higher than those from crops like wheat.
One Afghan farmer, named Marwais, gave up his lucrative poppy crop this year. But he warned that unless he gets some assistance, he will have to return to opium farming. And many others would do the same, he said.
That assistance could come from the United States. A program to help farmers find profitable crops to substitute for opium existed at one time, but the Clinton administration cut funding. The Bush administration is putting the program back on the table.
"My own recommendation to the U.S. government," said Callahan, "is that we begin to look at ways to provide alternative development aid for Afghans."
It might not make any difference, though. While some stockpiles of opium and heroin have been destroyed, much of the high-priced supply remains. Heroin processing plants are also in operation, ready to make use of any resumption in supply.
Taliban officials are also coping with severe economic problems, and are annoyed the poppy ban did not score more points with the international community. Experts fear they might allow opium production to resume next year.
"If they relax the ban or if there is political change it is clear the farmers will come back," said Bernard Frahi, of the United Nations Drug Control Program.
Even if the poppy ban in Afghanistan sticks, other regional heroin suppliers in Asia and South America can easily pick up the slack.
For the moment, however, many narcotics experts are marveling at an apparent and unexpected victory in a long and difficult global war on drugs.
Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.