Shifts focus from eradication to smuggling routes
Under an awning set up at a tiny outpost guarded by US Marines, the district governor of Nawa is pleading with three dozen solemn-looking farmers and village elders not to plant the crop that feeds the world heroin market.
Haji Abdul Manaf, a farmer and onetime leader in the fight against Russian occupiers, has several parts to his passionate antipoppy pitch.
Moral: Planting an illegal crop puts you in collusion with criminals and violates the Koran. Practical: If Nawa continues to be known as the center of the poppy crop, outsiders like the Americans won’t come here to build schools, clinics, and roads.
And then the direct approach.
“If you grow poppy, we will catch you, destroy your crop and put you in jail!’’ shouted Manaf, as his audience stared impassively, some fingering worry beads, others nibbling on garbanzo beans, raisins, and candies.
It is a speech that Manaf, at the behest of the Americans, makes frequently at open-air meetings of farmers and elders: sometimes in a shady spot in different marketplaces, sometimes at the Nawa district government center, once at the unfinished mansion of a now-jailed drug kingpin.
The district governor’s appearances are part of a counternarcotics strategy that has changed dramatically since the Bush administration but remains crucial to the war effort.
The poppy crop provides the money that allows the Taliban to carry on its insurgency against the government in Kabul and its American and NATO allies. The United States and United Nations estimate that drug traffickers pay insurgents as much as $500 million a year to grow and protect the crop and then smuggle it into processing labs in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
At the presentation in Nawa, Manaf was at a Marine compound. Manaf was accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel William McCollough, whose troops descended on Nawa in July with the primary mission of protecting the civilian population from Taliban brutality and a secondary mission of putting a dent in the region’s poppy crop.
The Obama administration believes previous counter-narcotics efforts that focused on destroying crops drove many farmers and influential tribesmen into supporting the Islamist insurgency.
Instead, US and British special forces troops are active in finding and interdicting the routes used to smuggle poppy resin from Afghanistan to processing plants thought to be in Iran and Pakistan.
The Afghan government also is trying to persuade farmers to stop growing poppies and shift to other crops.
The US and British governments are underwriting a program to give farmers high-grade wheat seed and fertilizer at a reduced price, enough for several plantings. The Afghan government has agreed to buy at least a portion of the crop. An estimated 4,800 farmers will receive the seed and fertilizer.
By Tony Perry
January 17, 2010