How US is tackling opium trade in Afghanistan poppy heartland

A key plank of the US strategy in Afghanistan is breaking up the opium trade in Helmand Province, as underscored by US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s visit to the region Monday.

Kevin Frayer/AP
An Afghan police officer carries seized opium poppy seeds during an operation with United States Marines near Khan Neshin, Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan on December 12, 2009.

Standing next to his cow and a squad of Marines on patrol, Afghan farmer Fathie Mohammad says the troops have upended the local opium economy. Outsiders once flocked to Khan Neshin to work the fields, process the poppy, and smuggle it to nearby Iran and Pakistan.

Most of those outside middlemen fled when the Marines arrived last July. But still the locals are growing some poppy, says Mr. Mohammad.

“It will be difficult for us to sell it,” says Mohammad, who nevertheless appears pleased with the presence of the Marines and return of local government. “The people of Khan Neshin can grow it and hold on to it. Maybe some smugglers can come [back] and they can sell it.”

The Marines’ goal is to cut off even that last strand of expectation for poppy farmers in a province that provides nearly half the world’s opium – but without alienating the local population. Breaking up the trade, which helps fund the Taliban, is critical for the US, as underscored US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s visit to the province this week.

Coalition forces are benefiting from external factors that have made poppy farming less popular but in the meantime are working to build up other parts of the economy.

Keeping away the smugglers

The first task – to keep farmers from smugglers without antagonizing them – seems to be working here. Two weeks ago, coalition forces around Khan Neshin seized more than 13,200 pounds of processed opium and 175 pounds of refined heroin after chasing a fleeing vehicle. But most farmers don’t mind such interdictions because they see traffickers, who sometimes demand high prices for their services, as fair targets of law enforcement (as long as a few slip through come harvest time to bring their poppy to market).

“There’s a sense of equity in law enforcement when people pursue the traffickers [so] the likelihood of a reaction against the government of Afghanistan and international forces is low,” says David Mansfield, a top expert on Afghan drugs policy and fellow at the Harvard University’s Carr Center.

Other factors hurting poppy

In its effort to discourage poppy farming, the US may have some economic factors on its side. Poppy is growing less attractive to farmers for reasons beyond interdiction, he says. September data from the United Nations showed opium cultivation down 22 percent in 2009 and the number of people involved in growing it had dropped by one third.

Two reasons for those declines, according to Mr. Mansfield, are lower poppy prices due to previous overproduction in Helmand and jitters about the supply of wheat from wartorn Pakistan. He also calculates that poppy, with its high labor costs and falling prices, is becoming less profitable than wheat.

Over time these trends may push more farmers to switch to wheat, he says, though for now many in Khan Neshin disagree with his assessment.

Nizamuddin, a farmer who like some Afghans goes by only one name, says poppy will fetch five times more than wheat. “We don’t get enough profit from growing wheat. We get enough by growing opium,” he says.

Mohammad, meanwhile, says poppy brings in about two to three times more.

Work dries up

Meanwhile, locals say, the departure of the smugglers, farm hands, and processors tied to the trade has depressed activity in the bazaar, and the less labor-intensive wheat has left people idling without work.

“I don’t know if we can be able to live here anymore. The wheat isn’t going to do any good,” says a sharecrop farmer named Asmat Ullah. He has finished planting wheat and tried to unsuccessfully to get other work from the local government. Under the Taliban, he says, “I was able to work and do whatever I wanted to do. The Taliban didn’t interfere with our work.”

The Marines and US and British aid agencies are providing money to the local government for make-work projects like building footbridges and walls and clearing irrigation ditches.

They are also giving away wheat seed, but the security bubble around Khan Neshin only extends about 25 miles, meaning farmers are cut off from bigger markets further north.

Wheat cannot be the only alternative or else prices for it will collapse, sending farmers back to poppy, say Mansfield and others. Instead, they argue, the goal must be to increase the share of land devoted to other crops and that means opening up new markets.

“What I see is the US military stepping up to the plate to do its share, but the rest of the process lagging, and unless that changes, it could have a negative effect down the line for soldiers who have worked hard to build up goodwill,” says Gretchen Peters, author of “Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

In parts of Helmand, the US and British have established “food zones” where intensive efforts have been made to shift farmers on to new crops. Those regions have seen poppy cultivation go down about one third – “a pretty good success rate if it is sustainable,” says Ms. Peters.

Other districts, particularly newly taken regions like Khan Neshin, have seen much less of this effort so far. As security improves, however, outreach to farmers may increase.

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