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Votes in Afghan Province Could Turn on Loss of Poppies

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

FAIZABAD, Afghanistan -- The economic fortunes of Badakhshan province, a remote and wildly beautiful corner of far northeastern Afghanistan, have risen and fallen over the past seven years with the production of opium poppies.

Not long ago, emerald fields with nodding pink poppy flowers were everywhere, and Badakhshan was one of the country's fastest-growing poppy producers. Today, its golden hills are dotted with freshly harvested wheat stacks, and its 95 percent drop in opium production last year has been hailed as a model by international anti-drug officials.

For many communities, however, the loss of poppy income has meant a return to desperate rural poverty. As national elections approach on Aug. 20, with President Hamid Karzai seeking reelection against a field of 40 challengers, the decision among Badakhshan's voters rests partly on whether they give his government and its international backers credit or blame for the end of the poppy boom.

"The authorities promised our people jobs and projects if they stopped growing poppy, but that never happened," said a teacher here in the provincial capital, who gave her name as Aria. "We know that opium is un-Islamic and makes people addicted, but what about the farmers and their families? When we grew poppy, the people were doing well. Now they are suffering."

Aria was one of several thousand people at a recent campaign rally for Karzai's most prominent challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. He spent a weekend this month barnstorming Badakhshan in a battered, Soviet-built military helicopter that crossed the snowcapped Hindu Kush mountains, swooped into narrow valleys and landed in wheat fields across the vertiginous province.

In speeches in village mosques, soccer stadiums and shady groves beside rushing mountain streams, Abdullah made vague promises to bring jobs, economic development and better government. But his major selling point was his role in Afghanistan's "holy war" against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, when he was an aide to the now-deceased mujaheddin leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

"The people here know me, because I used to come on horseback and bring medical supplies in the early days of jihad," said Abdullah, 50, an ophthalmologist who graduated from medical school in Kabul in 1983 and became an adviser to Massoud two years later. Karzai named him foreign minister in 2002, but he was abruptly removed from the cabinet in 2006. Though fond of finely tailored Western suits during his run as foreign minister, Abdullah dresses in the locally popular salwar-kameez -- a tunic with baggy trousers -- when he is out on the campaign trail.

In each community where the green helicopter touched down -- it was provided by the central government in accord with official election policy -- crowds hoisted posters of Abdullah with Massoud, who was killed in 2001. His remarks included tributes to local martyred comrades and sentimental stories from the long-ago war, and he was constantly interrupted by impassioned shouts of "Long live jihad!" from men and boys in the crowd.

"We believe in jihad, and we do not want our Islamic values to be destroyed by the foreigners," said an elder named Rahim in the town of Jurm, who introduced the candidate and referred to his wool cap, traditionally worn by northern Islamic fighters. "As long as the pakul is on his head, he will follow the way of jihad and stand up for all the mujaheddin."

Yet despite their emotional identification with Abdullah, many people interviewed after or outside the rallies said they planned to vote for Karzai, who has ruled the country with strong international backing since early 2002. They said that the president has not visited their province in a long time but that he is a proven national leader with access to large amounts of foreign assistance.

"I would say 80 percent of the people in this district support Karzai," said Mohammed Issah, 36, a mullah in Baharak, a town surrounded by wheat fields and fruit orchards. "His government has brought us roads and security. Our people are living in harmony, and there is no more poppy, which we know is the enemy of our religion. It is our tradition to be hospitable to all guests, but that does not say how we will vote."

In Faizabad, a sleepy town that is largely inaccessible in winter, opinions were mixed. Some inhabitants bitterly blamed Karzai's government for the lack of economic development, noting that the local airstrip is still a Soviet-made metal platform, the main road is only now being paved and donkeys remain the principal form of transportation.

Several women here said that the state of provincial health care is a disgrace and that many pregnant patients die in childbirth because it is so difficult to reach hospitals. For years, according to U.N. reports, the levels of infant and maternal mortality in Badakhshan have been the highest in Afghanistan and on a par with those in many sub-Saharan African countries.

Other residents disputed the criticisms, saying that conditions have improved noticeably during the Karzai era and that international charities have been able to operate safely because the region is more secure than many other parts of the country.

"In the past, we had no roads or cars, and now we have a lot of them. In the past, we had a lot of poppy, and now it's gone," said Abdul Haq, 43, a shopkeeper who had pasted a campaign poster of Karzai to his wooden shutters. "We hear there is fighting in other places, but here we have 100 percent security. That is enough for me."

In some ways, Badakhshan's unusual geography has created a political anomaly. Its remoteness has made it both virtually impervious to the predations of Taliban insurgents based in the distant south and exceptionally devoted to its local leaders.

The governor, a Badakhshan tribal elder named Abdul Majid, has been credited with spearheading the anti-poppy drive by personally appealing to farmers across the province. The campaign in Badakhshan has proved more successful than in many other parts of Afghanistan, a country that produces more than 90 percent of the world's illicit opium.

Although Majid was appointed by Karzai, he has said he received little help from the central government in fighting drugs. Roadside signs in several towns touted the U.S. government's "alternative livelihoods" program for poppy farmers, but community elders complained that they had received scant assistance to develop legal crops.

"We have no work here, and all our young men go to Iran to find jobs," said Abdul Samad, an elder in Kesham district who hosted a picnic for Abdullah in a thriving grove of poplar, pear and pine trees. But Samad said that the grove had been funded by a Norwegian charity and that local farmers had neither the seeds nor the irrigation to replicate it. "We need a strong Muslim leader, a real mujahed, to bring us jobs and justice," he said.

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