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."
Dunford said Helmand has great potential to develop legitimate industries, especially agricultural processing such as dairy plants and fruit packing. But with U.S.-led forces unable to suppress Islamic insurgents in the province, it has been hard to attract and safeguard legitimate businesses.
According to American and U.N. officials, an estimated 100,000 to 125,000 acres of poppy were planted in Helmand last year out of some 260,000 poppy acres nationwide, and experts predict the figure will be higher this year. The business has become organized, well armed and allied with insurgents such as the Taliban.
"Afghanistan is the largest cultivator of opium poppy in the world, and Helmand is the second largest," said a U.S. official here, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We can do well combating poppy in Afghanistan, but if we don't do well in Helmand, we will not succeed."
In an effort to make up for lost time and send a strong signal into the poppy heartland, Afghan authorities backed by the United States and Britain launched an aggressive crop-eradication campaign across Helmand this spring, sending in more than 1,000 police officers, soldiers and other security forces to destroy fields. In the past six weeks, officials said, they have eradicated nearly 9,000 acres, unfazed by bombings and shootings.
Several thousand British troops are scheduled to land in Helmand by midsummer as part of a transition from the U.S.-led coalition to NATO military dominance in Afghanistan. Officials expect the influx to create a tougher environment for both drug traffickers and their Taliban allies.
Although the new alliance between Taliban fighters and drug traffickers would seem to contradict the Taliban's ban on poppies while in power, U.S. officials say the prohibition in 2000 was aimed at driving up the opium price and currying favor with the West, rather than being based on religious or moral concerns.
The regional campaign is one prong of a national anti-drug strategy that includes the appointment of committed new governors in poppy-growing provinces; the enactment of a new anti-drug law last December that strengthens prosecutorial powers against traffickers; the creation of special anti-drug courts; the alternative livelihoods program; and a campaign to educate the public about the health dangers and un-Islamic nature of drugs.
Although less than 10 percent of Afghan opium or heroin ends up in the United States, American officials said they have become deeply involved in the anti-drug effort because they fear that the corruption and criminal behavior associated with the opium trade could destroy a country that the United States has spent vast sums of money and sacrificed hundreds of lives to save.
"Drug trafficking is a threat to the security and the very future of Afghanistan," the U.S. official said. "It is a narco economy but not yet a narco state. If we lose Afghanistan to this thing, which we could, once again we would have a fertile breeding ground for the next Taliban, the next al-Qaeda, the fundamentalists who thrive in unstable conditions."
The issue of corruption is politically sensitive here. Reports have circulated repeatedly of high-level officials being involved in or benefiting from the opium trade. But in several cases, notably Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces, senior provincial officials have proved dedicated to fighting drugs. Last year, opium production fell by 90 percent in Nangarhar.
Now, all eyes are on Helmand, where farmers have grown poppy for generations and where the short-lived Taliban prohibition on the crop six years ago is recalled as a hiatus of hardship and hostility in a profitable tradition.
Afghan and foreign officials hope that, given the certainty of eradication, the threat of prosecution and the offer of legal alternatives, Helmand's drug lords will find something else to do. There has been talk of an amnesty program for those who turn over their profits to the state and swear not to trade in poppy again.
But for small farmers in the parched villages surrounding Lashkar Gah, the incentive to grow legal crops instead of poppy is still marginal at best, while the threat from traffickers against those who resist their demands remains a powerful reality.
"I like growing eggplants because it is not against Islam and it means I don't have to depend on those people," one farmer said. "But to be honest, I do not have much hope that things will change. This little field is the only place you see vegetables. If you go a little farther, you will see that all the other villages are nothing but poppy."