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Afghans Report Decline of Poppy Crop

In Nangahar, the first phase of that effort has already begun, with plans to hire about 50,000 workers to do jobs such as clearing irrigation canals. In a largely symbolic gesture, the U.S. government has also distributed 500 metric tons of wheat seeds in Nangahar -- enough for less than 5 percent to 10 percent of farmers, Afghan officials said.

But it will take until at least early spring to start up more lasting infrastructure improvements, U.S. officials said. Also, while aid workers stress that such programs are not intended to compensate individual farmers who gave up their poppy crops, local leaders such as Mahmoud see it that way.


Mohammad Samim, a farmer, fertilizes wheat in fields near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. Like many of his countrymen, he used to grow opium poppies. (Emilio Morenatti -- AP)

A tall man in his sixties with pale blue eyes and a long gray beard, Mahmoud has the regal bearing of a leader whose title has been passed down through generations. If enough aid does not arrive by the start of the planting cycle next fall, he warned, he may not have enough clout to stop growers from switching back.

"The farmers will grab my collar and say, 'You said that we could get aid for not growing poppy and we got nothing!' " Mahmoud predicted. "Then even I will not be able to stop them from growing poppy again."

Mahmoud said he learned of Karzai's new anti-drug strategy in December when he tuned a dusty television set to watch the inaugural address. Karzai, who was elected Oct. 9 after serving as interim president for nearly three years, called for a "holy war" against the drug trade, which Afghan religious leaders have also declared un-Islamic.

Shortly afterward, Mahmoud and more than 40 other tribal and village leaders in Nangahar received invitations to meetings about anti-drug efforts with provincial officials, several national ministries and representatives of the British and U.S. governments.

The purpose was to make clear that the government had the means and the determination to crack down on poppy cultivation, said Ghous, head of counter-narcotics for Nangahar police.

"We told them that the central government is serious -- that if you grow poppy, the government will get rid of it by force," recalled Ghous, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

The community leaders also heard presentations by aid workers about plans for development and assistance projects. Then they were asked to discuss among themselves whether they could pledge to stop growing poppy in their areas. Mahmoud said he struggled with the decision.

"As far back as I can remember, the people in this village have always grown poppy," he said. The reason is simple: Opium harvested from poppy fetches 10 to 20 times the price of legal crops such as wheat.

Last season, Mahmoud said, he and his brothers planted poppy on about 1 1/2 of the three acres they farm and received about $2,500 in return. By contrast, the wheat they planted on the rest of the land earned them one-tenth that amount. He also leased another 25 acres to sharecroppers who mainly planted poppy.

A tour through Mahmoud's fortress-like compound made clear how he has benefited from poppy income. Although it is built of mud brick and lacks electricity and heat, it has walls two stories high, an imposing blue metal gate, three separate courtyards, and a sprawl of rooms with living space for more than 50 members of his extended family.

Inside the walls, his daughters and daughters-in-law padded about in colorful, gold-embroidered garments. Outside, a Toyota Corolla -- one of three vehicles the family owns -- was parked near a mosque built especially for the family.

Mahmoud said that although he would miss the income from a new poppy crop, he could make up for it with savings from last year's harvest. But he worried that many families in the village would not be able to do so.

"Most people here are very, very poor," he said. "I don't think they will starve. But they may have to leave to go to the city to find work as laborers."

Nevertheless, he agreed to the voluntary crop reduction, in part because he feared a more aggressive effort to eradicate the crop would lead to violent clashes with farmers, and in part because he was convinced that the aid officials he met would follow through on their promises. But mostly, he said, it was because he did not want to bring shame on Karzai, for whom he voted, and his new government.

"The international community has its eyes on Afghanistan now. If we cultivate poppy this year, they will say every time Afghanistan is growing poppy. We need the international community's help, and so I don't want us to have a bad reputation," he said.

There is, however, a limit to his support. If the president does not deliver the expected improvements soon, he said with a shrug, "We will vote Mr. Karzai out of office and go back to planting poppy."


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