Poppy politics

April 21, 2011

It’s not hard to find a field of poppies in the village of Jelawar, north of Kandahar. Some are hidden discreetly behind mud walls but others have been brazenly planted within sight of the main road. During a recent patrol, I accompanied Afghan National Army Captain Imran (he uses one name) and a group of U.S. civil affairs soldiers on a tour of Jelawar’s back roads as they tried to assess the extent of this year’s opium production.

A large field of poppies grows on the north side of Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.   REUTERS/Bob Strong

The first field we came to was a couple of hundred meters across, filled with pink poppy flowers in full bloom. There were several men working the field and Imran asked them what they were doing. A farmer looked up from pulling weeds and said they were working on their onions. Indeed, in a poppy field the size of a football stadium there were a handful of green onion shoots pushing out of the soil. Not exactly the perfect cover, especially after the farmer admitted to planting the poppies in the first place.

A farmer who said he was tending to his onions works in the middle of a large field of poppies in Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.  REUTERS/Bob Strong

As we walked from one poppy field to the next, Imran was not amused. Finally, he gathered a group of farmers together to give them some bad news. “President Karzai has said it is illegal to grow opium poppies and that they must be destroyed. I give you 48 hours to cut down your plants or I will return with Afghan police and Afghan soldiers and we will force you to destroy these fields.”

The farmers protested. What about the money we have already spent to prepare the fields and irrigate the land? Why not let us harvest this year’s crop and we will not plant next year? Imran was firm. “My hands are tied”, he said. “If I let one farmer harvest his crop then I must let everyone harvest their crops. Everyone must be treated in the same manner.”

Afghan National Army Captain Imran tells farmers they must destroy their poppy field in Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.  REUTERS/Bob Strong

After leaving the farmers to mull over the fate of their fields, we continued on to the house of Haji Amir Mohammad Agha, a former mujahedin fighter and maximo power broker for this part of the Arghandab Valley. Imran and the U.S. soldiers expressed their concern over the presence of the poppy fields and asked for his counsel. “That land and those fields belong to another tribe, and are therefore none of my business”, he said. He went on to lament the damage that drug abuse can bring, even in a small rural village. “My eldest son is in prison for drug related offenses. Although I beat him regularly, he would not listen, and chose a path of self-destruction.”

Power broken Haji Amir Mohammad Agha speaks to U.S. and Afghan soldiers at his home in Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.   REUTERS/Bob Strong

After tea, we left and proceeded south, through the part of Jelawar which was under Haji Amir’s control. The soldiers peered over eight foot mud walls and again found field after field of well-tended poppies.

The temptation to produce opium is very seductive in a country where the per capita income is around $700 per year. The price of a kilogram of dried opium has jumped 306 percent this year, to $281 a kilogram from $69 last year according to a U.N. report released earlier this week.

As we reached the 48 hour deadline given to the farmers by Captain Imran, I got in touch with the U.S. military to see if I could join them as the poppy fields were cut down. There’s been a slight change of plans I was told. Instead of destroying the crops in Jelawar, the government has decided to buy the opium from the farmers. This theoretically would prevent the drugs from falling into the hands of the Taliban while giving the farmers a return on their investment.

Afghan National Army Captain Imran shows how the poppy bulb is lanced to extract the resin in Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.   REUTERS/Bob Strong

With the opium harvest less than a month away in Jelawar, the fate of this year’s crop seems to be hanging in a three-way balance, with the U.S. and Afghan military in favor of destruction, the farmers pleading monetary necessity, and the Afghan government floating somewhere above the fray, trying to please everyone.


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Brilliant post Bob. Excellent piece of journalism. This quote is my favourite “Although I beat him regularly, he would not listen, and chose a path of self-destruction.”

Posted by CorinnePerkins | Report as abusive

This is fascinating.

Posted by CO0LHand | Report as abusive