Ghulam Hassan is in the mood to celebrate Eid, the biggest religious festival of the Afghan year, three months early. His 1.5-acre farm in a small village in Helmand province has been blooming with white and crimson flowers. Now the petals are just beginning to drop, giving way to round, sticky, pungent green pods. In a few more days the pods will swell to the size of a bulb. This is when Mr Hassan’s family of 14 will move in. They will carefully slice open the bulbs and collect the oozing white latex or resin – the main ingredient in heroin.
“This is a bumper crop. The yield will be enough to feed my family for more than a year,” Mr Hassan said, gazing gleefully at his poppy field just outside the village of Hajj Alam in the Nehri Saraj district.
He is one of thousands of Afghan farmers who, despite the best efforts first of the US-led coalition and now of the country’s own anti-narcotics department, are growing more poppies than ever before.
Not only is the income from opium up to $1,800 (£1,200) per acre, some 12 times higher than that from conventional crops, but there is another, more insidious factor at work. Last year, like the year before that, Hassan had sown wheat.
“I borrowed from relatives and friends to buy seeds and fertilisers. The harvest was good,” he said. “But that’s where the good news ended. Because of the Taliban threat, truck drivers were not willing to carry the produce to bigger markets. As a result, most of my wheat rotted in the field. The crop was lost and I was left with a $4,000 debt.”
Dozens of Mr Hassan’s neighbours too have discarded wheat, maize and vegetable crops for opium poppies, which not only gives them easy access to credit and protection from the Taliban, but also fetches more money.
There is no sign that the Afghan government, now supposed to be policing the whole country itself since the formal conclusion of the US-led combat operation last year, is bringing the Taliban under control. More than seven months after President Ashraf Ghani took office, Afghanistan still does not have a Defence Minister, and the security situation is deteriorating nationwide. Yesterday officials admitted that 2,000 families in the north had been forced to flee their homes after the Taliban launched an attack near the city of Kunduz. Authorities had apparently failed to detect the insurgents massing in the area beforehand.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a higher income at a time of growing insecurity is driving more and more farmers to take up poppy cultivation. Last year, according to official Afghan and UN figures, the total area under opium poppy cultivation in the country rose by 7 per cent, to more than 550,000 acres. Helmand, with almost 300,000 acres, had the dubious distinction of being Afghanistan’s biggest poppy-growing province.
Officials in the ministry of counter-narcotics say that Helmand is on course to set a record for poppy-growing this year, with the area under the crop rising a further 16per cent.
It is bad news for Colonel Mohamed Abdali, head of the interior ministry’s counter-narcotics police team in Helmand, whose already difficult job is becoming ever more challenging. Colonel Abdali is responsible for eradicating the province’s poppy fields. For the past four months, he and his 80-man team have been gathering information, mapping and photographing the fields. “We have prepared our own database – location of the fields, area under the crop, owners, etc,” Colonel Abdali said. “We send this data to the counter-narcotics ministry and on its clearance, destroy the fields.
“We have only a small, one-and-a-half month window to destroy the crop. It’s best to clear the field when the poppy has blossomed. Eradicating the crop before that allows a farmer to replant and regrow.” As he spoke, he signalled his men to mount four US-made Massey Ferguson tractors. Escorted by 15 armed soldiers in three police vans, they began to roll towards Trikh Nawar, between Lashkar Gah, Marjah and Nad Ali districts, some 20 miles from where Mr Hassan was preparing to harvest his crop.
The convoy makes its first stop at Haji Mamoon Khan’s field, and soldiers jump out to take up defensive positions. On Colonel Abdali’s signal, five men set off carefully to search for mines or any hidden improvised-explosive devices. “We always follow this drill. We are the enemies of both the Taliban and the drug dealers, said Colonel Abdali. “The villagers are also hostile to us. We have to keep our eyes and ears open for lurking Taliban fighters, roadside bombs and IEDs. We can’t take any chances.”
When a whistle from the field gave an “all-clear” signal, two tractors set about ploughing up Mr Khan’s poppies.
“They have ruined me and my family,” said the farmer, contemplating the crop that he had nurtured for months. “The produce would have helped me pay for my wife’s surgery and for my son’s wedding. But it’s all gone now. I can’t bring home happiness.”
His quiet sobs seem to unsettle the young colonel. “I know I am destroying someone’s livelihood. An entire family was depending on this crop,” Colonel Abdali said. “But it would have destroyed so many other families.”
The next day, as the team prepared to enter another poppy farm, Colonel Abdali received a phone call back at his Lashkar Gah HQ. “There’s been a landmine explosion,” the caller said. “One officer is dead, one is wounded.”
“Do not touch anything. Come out of the farm. Tread only on the tractor tyre marks,” Colonel Abdali warned.
The explosion, in Trikh Nawar, came as Sayed Shah, a counter-narcotics officer, was trying to defuse a mine. His body, covered by a tarpaulin, was lying in an ambulance, and two soldiers were bleeding from head wounds. As the ambulance was about to pull away, a phone rang in the dead soldier’s pocket. Colonel Abdali pulled out the phone to answer it. The caller was the soldier’s brother. “Sayed Shah is a martyr now. We are bringing him home,” Colonel Abdali told him.
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