Cover Story

Where poppies grow

"Where poppies grow" Continued...

Issue: "Opium wars," May 12, 2007

Life is often hard for farmers, but it can also turn miserable. At harvest time, from April to late July, farmers cut lines into poppy bulbs until a milky liquid-the opium gum-oozes out. Dealers buy that liquid by the ounce, but if the yield is insufficient farmers fall into debt and may hand over their daughters as payment-or grow twice as much the next year without pay, Volpi said.

Even in flush years farmers garner payments that are only a fraction of the profit. According to the State Department, farmers received not more than a quarter of the opium harvest's value last year-$755 million-with the rest going to narcotics traffickers. Volpi has met the farmers and says, "You can tell by the way they live and the way they dress that money is not flowing to them."

Still, opium brings a more reliable income than wheat or other crops. Markets for grain and other alternatives are scarce. Finding trucks to transport crops or storing more perishable crops in Badakhshan's sub-zero winters and 100-degree summers are challenges.

In Badakhshan dealers who learn of poppy eradication sweeps simply try to stop them through their connections, or they warn farmers to harvest early. Officials eradicate crops, the farmers say, mostly to show "the foreigners."

In southern Afghanistan progress is also slow, as evidenced by the recent return to the United States of Homira Nassery, a Kabul-born Afghan-American who worked for a federal contractor in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand.

For a year she lived and worked in a compound with a pink stucco house hemmed by barbed wire and sandbags. When she ventured out for agricultural projects, she wore sweltering body armor and rode in armored cars that were potential targets for ambushes. In the field she often donned a burqa, so as not to attract hostile attention to veiled local women with whom she met.

Nassery also worried about her young female co-workers: To avoid attacks, they walked varied routes to work, carried different bags, or wore different shoes. Such a fortress mentality seems eons away from the "Little America" Lashkar Gah once was: In the '60s, a U.S. aid project built avenues and now-faded American homes, along with irrigation canals and a dam.

The south's poor security now, Nassery says, is "95 percent" of the reason why reconstruction is slow and frustrating. And she is now gone, while the Taliban makes a comeback. In Helmand, when poppy eradication drives began, local farmers turned to the Taliban to protect their poppies. Taliban forces have bombed and attacked school and road projects, pushing foreign contractors to abandon nearly every development project.

Drug traffickers and the Taliban often find sanctuary with their opium profits across the border in Pakistan. During its rule, the Taliban played a clever double-game. Knowing Islam forbids intoxicants such as opium, its leaders banned opium cultivation for a period. But they were already sheltering stockpiles of opium, and the ban drove up its price. At any rate, they reasoned that it would be wrong to sell opium to Muslims, but not to infidel drug addicts in the West.

"They were some of the big beneficiaries of the campaign of cultivation," said James Phillips, a Heritage Foundation terrorism expert. "Under the new system, they provide protection to convoys, to material coming out of poppy growing regions."

U.S. reconstruction in Afghanistan, faced with the tough sell of eradicating the poppy crops, has largely focused on broad programs such as vaccinating children, building schools, and helping once-oppressed women. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has even warned against destroying opium fields before desperate farmers have other livelihoods.

Some believe that farmers who maximize their income by growing poppy will never switch, but Volpi has a different sense, based on her interviews with farmers: "If they had the opportunity to make half the money without fear and without shame, they would do it."

Slow revival

In Kabul setbacks are many but improvements are sure

When Randall Olson visited Kabul in 2001 before the U.S. invasion, it was a ghost city with deserted streets. Many Afghans had fled the country via the capital. "I had Taliban officials asking me, as an American, for jobs," he told WORLD.

Now the president and CEO of Shelter for Life International, a Christian aid group that has worked in Afghanistan since earthquakes rocked the north in 1998, sees a revived city. Kabul's population has quadrupled as Afghans have returned to their homes-some to find squatters occupying their houses-and children are going to school. The schoolgirls in particular are noticeable: Under its rule the Taliban banned them from education. One of his Kabul workers, who had not seen the city in decades, marveled that an area that once had only one school now had eight.

The United States has poured more than $14 billion in aid into Afghanistan since 2001, and President Bush has requested a further $11.8 billion over the next two years for reconstruction and training security forces. Still, as with eradicating the opium trade, it is tough going: Continuing Taliban and warlord threats and official corruption block measurable progress.

With U.S. funding, Shelter for Life built 32 schools in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimroz, only to have six fire-bombed. Olson said the group managed to repair three. Locals, he notes, can adapt to life without schools, teaching their children in courtyards in mixed classes.

Olson, who has written about Pashtun culture and language, says locals are independent-minded and often dislike the Taliban, even as some villages side with them out of fear or economics. If an Afghan soldier is earning $100 a month, for example, the Taliban might co-opt him simply by offering $200 instead.

By any measure, Olson said, the fruits of most reconstruction efforts will take a decade or more to see. Only one in five girls and women is literate now, but with millions enrolled in school, that number will inch up. In Afghanistan, no one expects quick fixes.


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