Projects Put Strain On Afghan Province
Such anger could undermine regional enthusiasm for the September elections. Voter registration, which has reached only 2.3 million of about 9.5 million eligible voters, must accelerate fast in rural provinces to guarantee a successful election, the highest national priority for Afghan, U.S. and U.N. officials.
In the village of Charaka, where no poppy has yet been destroyed, farmers took precious hours from their fields last week to trudge to a schoolhouse registration site. Sher Shah, 26, said his potatoes and apples needed watering, but that the first election in Afghanistan's history needed his vote.
"The time for fighting and chaos is over. We hope this election will bring us a good government, bring us peace and jobs," he said. "We want to choose our leaders. Everyone in my village wants this. Everyone in Afghanistan wants this."
But the mood was different Saturday in Zaibudah, a village where a guarded eradication team swept through the fields, hacking at poppy shoots that quickly turned from emerald to sickly yellow.
"We want the era of cruelty and guns to end, but we are very disappointed in the government, because it is condemning us to hunger," said Hajji Jalil, 64, a village elder. "How can they expect people to vote when they are hungry?"
The government originally announced it would spare 25 percent of local poppy crops, but the eradication teams have been instructed to destroy every plant they find. Because of delays in training, the program did not begin until after poppies had been harvested in other provinces, making Wardak appear to be a scapegoat.
During the past two years, farmers in traditional poppy areas such as Nangahar and Helmand provinces began replanting with a vengeance. Afghan officials could do little to stop them, and Western military officials, preoccupied with their anti-terrorist mission and in some cases reliant on Afghan militia leaders who grew poppy, looked the other way.
Now, with poppy harvests said to account for nearly half the gross domestic product and drug traffic burgeoning as well, Afghan and international authorities have awakened to the overlapping scourges of violence and drugs, and officials warn that Afghanistan could become a narco-terror state. But it is the small farmers of Wardak, newcomers to the poppy boom, who are the first to be punished.
"Our orders are to destroy whatever we see," said Gen. Sher Agha, an Interior Ministry official who is overseeing the Wardak eradication project and living in a guarded tent compound with his force of 300 poppy choppers. "There is no compensation."
The disarming of Wardak's militias has been handled with more diplomacy and compassion. At the ceremony Saturday outside the 42nd army division barracks in Maidan Shahr, the provincial capital, officials praised the militiamen for their bravery in defending the country and promised to provide them with job training and opportunities to join the newly formed national army and police.
In addition, provincial officials said U.S. diplomats had offered to finance the repair of an important hydroelectric dam in southern Wardak, damaged in fighting years ago, and to bring other development projects to the impoverished province.
Still, the weather-beaten fighters seemed skeptical and a bit sad as they caressed their heavy weapons before reluctantly lugging them into a wire cage, where U.N. and Afghan army officials received them for storage.
"This was my father's rocket launcher in the jihad against the Russians, and now it is mine. I know we have peace and freedom, so I will give it up," said Syed Rahman, 24, who plans to become a truck driver. "The government has promised us many things, but if they don't follow through, we can always take our guns back and begin the fight again."
In the coming weeks, the pace of both poppy destruction and voter registration in Wardak is due to pick up, while the effects of militia disarmament will begin to sink in. Perhaps the failure or success of the first two projects will mirror the fate of Mia Jan, 55, a militiaman who leaned Saturday on an enormous black machine gun. Once, he used it to mow down Russian soldiers; now he is surrendering it to history.
"We have our freedom, so I won't miss this gun," he said, patting the steel barrel. "They said the army will protect us now. They said the government will find us jobs, but we'll see. I have some land, but there's no water, and now they're cutting down all the poppy. What will happen to men like me, I really don't know."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company