Projects Put Strain On Afghan Province
Disarmament and Poppy Eradication Leave Residents Feeling Persecuted
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 24, 2004; Page A01
MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan -- On a windblown field, 300 leathery men listened Saturday to speeches praising their past bravery in battle and their current contribution to peace. Behind them, standing in soldierly rows, were rocket launchers, artillery and machine guns the former fighters were reluctantly surrendering to international peacekeepers.
Ten miles away, two dozen farmers watched sullenly from the edge of a neatly planted plot as a squad of government eradicators, wielding hoes and scythes, chopped down their carefully tended opium poppy shoots. On all sides, Afghan police and security guards hired by the U.S. Embassy stood watch against attack.
"The government has taken away our guns, and now it is destroying our livelihoods," protested Nasir Ahmad, 45, a sunburned farmer in the village of Kote Ashro. "We have agreed to turn in our weapons in the name of peace, but we don't have enough water to grow any other crops but poppy. Why are they bringing this cruelty on us now?"
By most standards, Wardak province should be a model for the rest of Afghanistan. It is the only place in the country where militia disarmament, poppy eradication and voter registration -- three efforts backed by the United Nations and Western governments -- are taking place simultaneously.
But some residents say they feel this ruggedly beautiful, impoverished province is less a showcase than a victim. They complain that it has been singled out for unpopular projects demanded by international powers because it is close to Kabul, economically vulnerable and without a dominant leader to resist the pressure.
Some local officials and U.N. officers said the simultaneous launching of the anti-poppy and disarmament programs could sharpen anti-government sentiment. It also could undermine provincial support for national elections in September, they said, which to succeed will require accelerated voter registration in rural areas by July.
"We are getting increasingly concerned about Wardak, because everything is taking place there at once, and it's putting a lot of pressure on people," said one U.N. officer in the capital. "People see the international process as one thing, whether it's disarmament, poppy eradication or voter registration. If they get upset enough to boycott the elections, it could hurt everything."
Wardak, just southwest of Kabul, might seem an ideal place to make a multi-pronged push for progress. It has enormous agricultural potential and strategically straddles the newly reconstructed north-south highway. It is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan but have felt neglected by the current government.
The province has been largely free of Islamic terrorism, and its small armed factions have been far more willing to disarm than more powerful militia bosses elsewhere. Mohammed Musa Hotak, a local commander and Islamic cleric, volunteered to turn in his weapons and demobilize 100 fighters last month, earning high-level official praise.
Voter registration, a danger-fraught undertaking in many remote areas, has proceeded relative smoothly in Wardak since the government began opening rural registration sites May 1. Turnout among women has been low because of cultural taboos against their leaving home, but mobile voter registration teams are being trained so they can sign up women in their own villages.
Poppy is a relatively new crop in Wardak, and thus the region was deemed a relatively painless spot to initiate the government's new program to forcibly eradicate opium poppies. The sap collected from Afghan poppies is estimated to produce 75 percent of the world's heroin, and cultivation has skyrocketed since the collapse of Islamic Taliban rule in late 2001.
"We are happy the government is putting its programs into action in our province," said Mohammed Basir, the deputy governor. "We were the closest bunker to Kabul during jihad, so we are proud to be the first in disarming and contributing to national reconstruction." Jihad, or holy war, is the term Afghans use for the armed resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, the simultaneous start of the disarmament and anti-poppy programs has aroused resentment in a region where poor farmers and ex-militia fighters are often one and the same, and where ethnic Pashtuns are suspicious of being abused by ethnic Tajik factions in the transitional government set up by the United Nations in 2001.
Many residents said they favored disbanding all militias and collecting their weapons and that they understood that poppy is used to create addictive drugs and is outlawed in Islam. But they questioned why Wardak, whose farmers grow far less poppy than those in many other provinces, was the first to be targeted after two years of official indulgence.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company