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.
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.
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.”
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.”