In Afghan Poppy Heartland, New Crops, Growing Danger

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 6, 2006

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Mahmad Naim's cucumber patch is a speck of defiance in a vast landscape of opium poppy fields whose bright green bulbs, bursting with toxic sap, will bring nearly $1 billion into Helmand province this year.

Naim is one of a few thousand farmers in Helmand, the country's major opium-producing region, who have signed on to a U.S.-sponsored program aimed at proving that legal crops, such as eggplants and tomatoes, can bring a healthy income for those who switch from poppy.

"Before, we only knew how to grow poppies, but we earned a lot more," he said. "Now they say it is not allowed and we should learn about other crops. As long as they keep helping us with seeds and electricity and other things, we will continue with vegetables. But if they stop, we will all have to turn to poppy again."

The Islamic fundamentalists of the Taliban who ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 all but wiped out opium production with a decree, religious exhortation and harsh enforcement. But in one of the biggest failures of the post-Taliban government that is defended by U.S.-led forces, the country has emerged as the world's top producer of the illegal plant, whose sap is the raw material for heroin.

Helmand farmers who agree to grow vegetables as part of a broad effort to cut back the illicit production face far more dangerous adversaries than weevils or aphids. Officials say much of the province is in the grip of armed drug traders who cruise the dusty farm roads in sport-utility vehicles, offering cash to buy poppy sap from compliant farmers and threatening harm to anyone who opposes them.

The level of violence has increased dramatically since March, when the government launched a campaign backed by the United States to forcibly eradicate poppy fields. Afghan and U.S. officials said drug traffickers have formed alliances with Taliban insurgents to sabotage the eradication program and undermine central authority.

U.S., British and Canadian troops, deployed to help secure the province, have come under repeated attack. Roadside bombs have blown up military vehicles, and the local office of the government anti-drug ministry and a U.S. military base that houses reconstruction projects have come under bomb attack as well.

"The enemies in Helmand are al-Qaeda, suicide bombers, former Taliban fighters," said Helmand's newly appointed governor, Mohammed Daud, in a recent interview. "The drug traffickers are supporting these enemies, providing them with financing and weapons." He estimated that 60 percent of Helmand farmers grow poppy but said the key was to arrest and prosecute large opium traffickers.

On a recent day in April, when U.S. aid officials flew to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, with several journalists, they were greeted on the tarmac by a commando-style security team that instructed the visitors on what to do if their vehicles were shot at or bombed, issued everyone flak jackets and closely guarded their convoy at every step.

When the group arrived at a tiny cucumber and eggplant patch, heavily armed Afghan and foreign security guards surrounded it. Later they fanned out across empty poppy fields, and stood guard along a dusty cobblestone road being built by former poppy farmers who are paid $4 per day by USAID.

Aid officials readily acknowledged that providing people with alternative sources of work and income is not enough to significantly reduce the cultivation of poppies, which brings in four times the price of wheat and twice the price of garden vegetables.

"People will never make as much money with other crops as they will with poppy," said Beth Dunford, director of the alternative livelihoods program for USAID. "You also have to add a significant risk to growing poppies, through eradication, troop presence and law enforcement, or they won't change."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company