The team advances to another field, and from a crumbling house a woman emerges, shrieking, "For God's sake, don't destroy it! We don't have anything else!" The men say nothing and keep swinging. A few minutes later, they discover another poppy field, surrounded by brick walls. Two small children stand against the wall, crying loudly as the officers approach. An older sister tries to comfort them as their mother hollers, "These children have no father! How will I provide for them now?"
Afghanistan's share of worldwide opium production skyrocketed from 19 percent in 1986 to 90 percent two decades later. The greatest factor, however, was the Taliban. When it first came to power in 1996, the new Islamist government garnered support from tribal leaders by agreeing not to crack down on poppy cultivation. The supreme leader, Mullah Omar, received regular funding from trafficking groups, which he allowed to operate freely. At the same time, the new Afghan government levied a 10 percent tax on all agricultural profits. By 1999 Afghan opium production spiked to more than 5,000 tons, prompting pressure from the UNODC for a crackdown. In July 2000 Mullah Omar issued a fatwa, or religious decree, declaring opium production a violation of Islam. The Taliban enforced the ban with brutal efficiency, as one former poppy farmer told me, "by threatening to set your house on fire." The result was a massive 91 percent reduction in poppy growing in one year. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban in 2001, regional warlords once again cranked up opium production. No longer in power, the Taliban now saw opium as a way to fund their insurgency.