JALALABAD, Afghanistan – I was one of the first Western reporters to enter Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Because I was based in Moscow, which is geographically closer, I beat most other reporters into the country by weeks.
Back then the best route into the country was through Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan where the Northern Alliance was still fighting the Taliban. The road was more than rough. It was a moonscape after seven years of severe drought. The dust blew up mini twisters, like some kind of sneezing powder, and got into everything. It damaged our equipment and infected our eyes and throats. What a dry, practically colorless place it was.
So when I drove the road last week from Kabul to the eastern city of Jalalabad, my eyes couldn't open wide enough to take in the color green! The road has been improved since the days of the Taliban but it's still a treacherous 3-hour trek down a winding mountain road to the fields of Jalalabad. The river is overflowing this year because of heavy winter snowfalls and spring rains. It's a great site. Farmers are expected to have record crops of everything — including opium, the main ingredient of heroine!
Why the journey to Jalalabad? Not only is it a major entry point from Pakistan for Taliban and Al Qaeda, it's also their hothouse to fund the insurgency. The fields are full of poppies, grown to harvest opium. And as the local Taliban spokesman captured two months ago by American forces told us in an exclusive interview in the Kabul intelligence prison, "Our Taliban leaders officially deny we use drugs for money, weapons and training, but in some provinces we have ordered farmers to grow opium, so obviously we use the drug trade."
We saw a gathering of elders being talked into supporting opium eradication.
The elders agreed to give up their illicit crop because it's against Islam, but they asked the local governor's representative a question that I thought he should have a better answer.
"What will we do now? What will replace this source of income for us? We are poor people," they said.
The fact is while the U.N., among others, has put together a fund of more than a $100 million to reward local governments and people who give up opium farming, almost none of the money has been paid out. It's stuck in Kabul. And those farmers who are forced to give up farming opium get nothing in return. Yes, it's illegal. Yes, it's necessary. It's how they feed their families and the government needs to help them adjust.
And as we watched tractors guarded by police dig up opium crops, farmers were furious. One told me he will make $1,000 from his two small fields every few months. In a country where many people make less than a $100 a month, $1,000 is a lot of cash.
Last year opium production in Afghanistan, which already accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's heroine, rose by 60 percent. That's an unbelievable figure to many. Why?
I discovered in my conversations with government, U.N. and even NATO officials that, yes, part of the increase is due to the Taliban nudging farmers to keep growing their illicit crops because it funds insurgency operations. But there's more.
More than one government insider said corruption in the Afghan government and links to the criminal drug trade have grown so strong, Afghanistan is practically run by criminal gangs.
President Hamid Karzai seems unwilling or unable to stop the flow of drugs and billions of dollars in and out of Afghanistan.
And increasingly Westerners I know who do business in Afghanistan say the money is flowing out — not in — because those Afghans who are stealing have short-term selfish plans to take what they can and run.
There is an upside. I was with the 82nd Airborne Division as they helicopter assaulted into Helmand province, which accounts for more than 40 percent of opium production. Slowly NATO is pushing out into the areas under control of Taliban and drug warlords and eventually that may bring security. The U.N. touts that in areas where there is security, 20 percent of Afghan farmers have opium crops. In areas of less security, like Helmand, 80 percent farm opium.
The vast amount of drugs and corruption today makes make think back to those dusty days of 2001 when little was growing in Afghanistan. Back then, people dreamed of rain and green fields to grow food, instead of opium now being harvested by the Taliban and their drug warlord partners together with some corrupt Afghan officials packing their pockets with a different kind of green.
Dana Lewis is a FOX News Channel correspondent based in Moscow. Click here to read his complete bio.