ZHARI, Afghanistan -- It's the cash crop of the Taliban and the scourge of Afghanistan - the country's intractable opium cultivation. This year, many Afghan poppy farmers are expecting a windfall as they get ready to harvest opium from a new variety of poppy seeds said to boost yield of the resin that produces heroin.
The plants grow bigger, faster, use less water than seeds they've used before, and give up to double the amount of opium, they say.
No one seems to know where the seeds originate from. The farmers of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where most of Afghanistan's poppies are grown, say they were hand-delivered for planting early this year by the same men who collect the opium after each harvest, and who also provide them with tools, fertilizer, farming advice - and the much needed cash advance.
Afghanistan's poppy harvest, which accounts for most of the world's heroin, is worth an estimated $3 billion a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Production hit a record high in 2014, up 17 percent compared to the year before, as opium and the drugs trade continued to undermine security, rule of law and development, while funding both organized crime and the Taliban -- often one and the same.
The trend is expected to continue in 2015, in part thanks to the new poppy seeds, according to officials tasked with overseeing the eradication of poppy crops.
This upcoming harvest in late spring is expected to surpass last year's country-wide record of 8,600 tons by as much as 7 percent, and 22 percent in Kandahar and Helmand provinces respectively, local officials said.
Experts say the Taliban, who have been waging war on the Kabul government for more than a decade, derive around 40 percent of their funding from opium, which in turn fuels their insurgency.
Fierce fighting in recent months in poppy-growing regions shows the Taliban's determination to protect their trafficking routes and the seasonal workers who come to earn money at harvest time from government forces under orders to eradicate the crop.
Gul Mohammad Shukran, chief of Kandahar's anti-narcotics department, said the new seeds came with the drug traffickers, but he did not know exactly where from. They yield "better drug plants, which require less water and have a faster growth time."
"This is a big threat to everyone," he said, adding that Afghanistan's central authorities had failed to act on his warnings.
Growing poppy for opium is illegal in Afghanistan and forbidden under Islam, the country's predominant religion. But Afghan farmers feel they have no choice. For more than a decade the government and its international partners have pleaded with them to grow something else -- wheat, fruit or even saffron.
When that didn't work, the police were sent to destroy crops. And when that failed, the Americans and the British tried handing out free wheat seeds, an enterprise that found little fertile ground.
This spring, the opium fields have again erupted in a sea of bright pink poppy flowers.
The new poppy seeds allow farmers to almost double the output from each plant, said Helmand's provincial police chief Nabi Jan Malakhail. At harvest, collectors cut the bulb of the plant, allowing the raw opium to ooze out. This resin dries and is collected the following day.
Malakhail said the new seeds grow bulbs that are bigger than usual and can be scored twice within a few days, thus doubling the quantity of raw opium. The plants mature in three to four months, rather than the five months of the previous seed variety, allowing farmers to crop three times a year instead of just twice.
In Kandahar's Zhari district, farmer Abdul Baqi said he knows poppy growing is illegal and that, given a choice, he would "rather eat grass." But, he added, "I cannot feed my kids with nothing but the air."
Baqi said the Taliban and associated crime gangs make it easy for the farmers to produce opium, and difficult -- even deadly -- not to.
Without government support, it's impossible to grow food crops as the cash-strapped farmers would have to pay for the seeds, tools, fertilizer and irrigation themselves. No one would come and collect their crop, even if their landlords allowed them to grow wheat or other food.
If the government took charge and provided irrigation and power, Hismatullah Janan, another Zhari poppy grower, said he would gladly change to growing wheat or similar crops "so we could make an honest and decent living, and leave this so-called dirty work behind."
Afghan anti-narcotics officials say they need international assistance to proceed with poppy eradication.
Yet since 2002, the United States has spent at least $7 billion "on a wide variety of programs to reduce poppy cultivation, prevent narcotics production, treat drug addiction and improve the criminal justice system to combat drug trafficking," John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in January.
Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world's opium and opiates originating from there find their way to every corner of the globe, Sopko said.
The Taliban will also likely be emboldened, since for the first time this year, there are no international combat troops on the battlefields of Afghanistan after the NATO drawdown at the end of 2014.
Many anti-narcotics officials also left, fuelling concerns that Afghanistan's economic addiction to opium, worth around 15 percent of its gross domestic product, would only grow, Sopko added.
Almost 90 percent of Afghanistan's poppy cultivation is in the south and the west -- and provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar, longtime Taliban strongholds, have become synonymous for poppy cultivation.
As opium production rises, so does Afghanistan's own drug addiction problem. Estimates put the number of heroin addicts in the country at between 1.5 million and 2 million in a population estimated at around 30 million. And the unchecked Afghan opium production is also blamed for rising drug addiction in neighboring countries, including the former Soviet republics to the north, Iran to the west, and China and Pakistan to the east.
The UNODC can do little beyond encouraging the government to curb opium production, said the organization's chief in Afghanistan, Andrey Avetisyan.
Kabul, with the support from the international community, he said, needs to find a way to introduce "crops that can be a serious competition to opium."
But for now, finding something more lucrative than the mystery poppy seeds is a daunting task, so the vicious opium cycle continues.