Editor’s note: All of the pictures in this piece were taken by, and are the property of, Michael Yon.
By any other name, it would still be the reason we are losing the war in Afghanistan.
“Look, take on opium production in Afghanistan, not because you are worried about addiction in Baltimore, but because you are going to lose the war if you don’t confront the issue.” — General Barry McCaffrey (listen here).
Consensus is growing among experts on Afghanistan that without a sudden and sharp change of plans, the Taliban could regain control of the nation. My own observations led me to the same conclusion, even before I spoke to General McCaffrey: We could lose the war in Afghanistan. As research for this article was being completed, news persisted of Iraq’s slow, seemingly inexorable slide into a bloody civil war, despite two noteworthy accomplishments: the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the election of an Iraqi central government; as things are, hopes diminish daily for any sort of success not defined by embarrassingly low expectations. America faces a historic first: losing two wars simultaneously. And it will be for largely the same reasons: not investing enough resources and the civilian leadership’s not attending to the right indicators. In both theatres, the warning signs have been apparent for years, and a growing chorus of caution has been sounding throughout 2006.
Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, contends that the crisis in Afghanistan is a direct result of the decision to invade Iraq before the reconstruction process had really taken hold; because wide-scale corruption has been allowed to stall reconstruction and erode fragile gains, “there is lack of credibility with the international community.” The damage works bi-laterally, according to Rashid. The “distraction” of the war in Iraq not only drains resources and attention away from allies in Afghanistan; it also draws streams of sympathetic new fighters, weapons, and resources to the enemy, creating a stronger and more effective Taliban. As Rashid observes, this is something because of which “the NATO operation in the south is suffering” (listen here).
McCaffrey points not so much to any single decision, but to the mind-set of decision makers, as the reason that the drug trade flourishes in Afghanistan (listen here):
A huge part of the problem, in my judgment, has been Secretary Rumsfeld and the Pentagon civilian leadership that’s said, “Hey, we got 20,000 troops there, we’re there to fight the Taliban on the frontier, let the Europeans worry about opium production, we don’t do that.” If you looked at his language it was almost the language George Soros uses. It’s astonishing.
Whether focusing on the decision or the decision makers, both Rashid and McCaffrey agree that poppies constitute the single greatest threat we face in Afghanistan today.
The connections between a tacit acceptance of fertile poppy farms and the growing menace of a resurgent and ever vigorous Taliban form a Gordian knot that threatens to doom the mission to rebuild Afghanistan. The reliance on poppy farming does more than tie much of the population in the south to a black economy; it diminishes their need for and confidence in legitimate government systems, while simultaneously forcing them to turn to the Taliban for security and access to markets. What it does for the Taliban is obvious and ominous, according to Rashid (listen here):
The first major source (of funding for the Taliban) is, obviously, drugs production in Afghanistan — the production of opium which is turned into heroin. The Taliban in the south are now protecting the farmers and telling them to grow the poppy which will produce opium and we’ll protect you against the government which might want to eradicate your crop. The Taliban are taking taxes from drug smugglers in Afghanistan and are probably involved in smuggling themselves.
Reclaiming a landscape that looks like this in the peak of the growing season is a challenge.
You look at Afghanistan; by the end of 35 years of warfare it had been almost totally destroyed. There couldn’t have been a more impoverished, desperate, cruel, malignant place on the face of the entire planet. The only thing that worked in there was opium production.
The outlook doesn’t need to be this dire in Afghanistan. Even the Taliban was able to eradicate poppy for one year (General McCaffrey’s understanding is that they were suppressing supply in order to maintain margins). And Afghan farmers are hardly committed to some sort of agricultural jihad to destroy kids in the West. But years of warfare coinciding with decades of drought devastated not just the land here; they also wiped out much of the connection people had to it as farmers, and much of their collective knowledge base dissipated like dust. Farmers simply want to plant the most profitable crops, and since Afghanistan is one of poppy’s favorite climates, illiterate farmers can grow it with ease. Crops that require more technical savvy to obtain higher yields — and thereby provide a source an income as well as a means of sustenance — are beyond the current capacity of the climate and of the people.
Typical roadside stall in the violent town of Tarin Kot. The town and surrounds are the scenes of fierce firefights and massive fields of addiction. As more fields grow poppy, more foodstuffs must pour in from neighbors such as Pakistan, who get a clear boon from Afghanistan’s opium-based economy. Locals can afford imported produce, and explosives to protect their poppy. But only when they grow poppy.
The poppy must go.
Unequivocal eradication is the first bold stroke towards cutting the Gordian knot. General McCaffrey says the message must be brutally clear (listen here): “You’ve got to tell the farmer, ‘Grow it and we’ll spray it or chop it down. We’re not going to let you grow opium.’” Sustaining the eradication means replanting poppy fields with something that will grow just as well. This is a challenge, because poppies grow in Afghanistan the way wheat grows in Kansas. I toured project sites of alternative crops with a CADG employee, a South African farmer named Michael Koch. Together we visited farms in Helmand Province, after I had visited farms in Urozgan, both the sites of recent intense and escalating fighting. As Koch told me, “Afghanistan has great agricultural potential. The greatest challenge is in getting farmers to try new ideas.”
Alternative Crop Fields under CDAG cultivation.
Once we have demonstrated the credibility of an eradication program, Afghan farmers will need to be taught how to grow alternative crops that will earn them more money than will opium. Experimental farms in the southern region have had success with cotton, fruit, and certain vegetable crops, according to Rashid. CDAG projects have overseen agricultural development that includes apricots, raisins, pistachios and walnuts, rice, corn, and cotton.
Afghan inertia arises when trying to persuade stone-aged farmers, who typically live in mud houses, that with these new ideas and systems, they can make a decent living without growing poppy.
Koch and others who know both the climate and the people of Afghanistan say that difficulty in persuading the farmers to use drip systems for irrigation, or to train grapevines to trellises so that the vines and rows can be planted closer together, is a serious obstacle. But, these methods are essential to make vineyards a viable alternative to the poppy plant, because the higher crop density increases profits. Despite inertia, it is possible to persuade farmers to try new ideas by subsidizing the work. And, of course, they need the guidance of mentors like Koch, who can increase the odds of success in those critical first harvests. Confidence earned by success is the only antidote to inertia. In just a few years, the vineyards depicted in the next two photographs will compete with opium poppy. Although he can’t say for certain at this point, Michael Koch believes that, in the long run, these vineyards can probably earn more than opium poppies.
These vines are in the second year in Lashkar Gah.
Grapevines in third year at Lashkar Gah.
In very hot climates, natives often pile dry vegetation and douse it with water, making an air cooler. At this experimental plot, farmers learn to use better pumps.
Nothing in the stars says Afghanistan must remain a narcotics and terrorism factory. The land has excellent agricultural opportunities, yet Western aid programs often refuse to help Afghan farmers with crops that will compete with domestic producers. Perhaps this makes sense on one level, but the end result is that it makes heroin production an attractive option. And diversifying Afghanistan’s agricultural economy won’t happen without substantial investments that go beyond educating farmers.
To grow cash crops, you need roads to take them to market quickly. You need some kind of storage facility. You need refrigeration, perhaps. You need all of these kinds of things and of course this kind of infrastructure is what has been missing from the investment in agriculture.
Experimental farm: Mr. Koch shows tomatoes from Indian seed that he says can do well in Afghan soil. By experimenting with the land, alternative crops can be developed that can return more money than poppy, such as the variety of apricot tree shown below that yields more fruit in the hot and dry climate.
Determining which varieties make the most sense in different regions takes time, well equipped modern farms and skilled farmers so the only things being tested are the viability of different varietals in trials.
Devices like the one above, which measures evaporation, or the drip-irrigation system depicted below, provide great advantages in water savings and fertilizer delivery, but Afghan inertia leaves farmers reticent to try new ideas. Especially ideas that cost money. We can help there. As General McCaffrey points out (listen here):
The war in Afghanistan and Iraq costs this country seven billion dollars a month. … Look, we’re the ones on the line. My argument has been step forward, do what has to be done so we can stand up a viable political entity in Afghanistan. They’re beautiful people, they are survivors, and they are remarkable people. They want their chance. We need to sustain them and if that means 5 to 10 billion dollars a year in economic aid, then so be it, let’s do it.
Pulsing Irony: This drip irrigation system was developed in Israel.
After seeing them work on experimental farm sites, many farmers have been persuaded to use the Israeli drip system, and to use “tunnels” like the one pictured above. Tunnels provide agricultural advantages. Farmers who use them can plant earlier, thus being able to reach the market before competitors, potentially earning up to 30 percent more on produce — provided, of course, the roads and warehouses are in place to support the effort.
Real world tests reveal correctible design flaws, and farmers learn a problem solving style that accommodates learning from mistakes as well as planning for success .As we approached, Mr. Koch mentioned that this farmer seemed to have removed his tunnels a bit soon, but the Afghan quickly explained that a powerful wind swept through and stole the tunnels “like parachutes.”
Despite two of his tunnels having blown away, this farmer was happy and proud to show the success he was achieving.
As if reminding us what is at stake, next to the alternative crop fields are opium plots.
I photographed these tunnels — with cabbage-phase poppy growing to the left, and to the right — just after a large explosion occurred far behind the tunnels. The first phase of the mushroom cloud is just lifting above the trees. An Australian Special Forces officer told us later that his people were only destroying some rockets. Heavy fighting occurs in this area of Urozgan Province, with its vast fields of poppy.
Will they grow up to harvest opium, or wheat? Unfortunately, for this generation, going to a university seems out of the question, but we must avoid allowing these children to grow up to fight the world. I shot this photo while standing in a poppy field, while an experimental plot was growing from the earth in the background.
As we prepare to visit more farmers, our guard — one of the few times we actually had a guard — snapped his AK-47 one-click to automatic. Luckily the speeding car was only a family and the guard did not fire. Severe security issues preclude most work on alternative crops. Opium is adding to the security breakdown.
The tragedy of all this is that after our military won stunning victory after stunning victory in the early war — crushing and vanquishing the Taliban — instead of setting in to seal the victory, we squandered it and ran off to Iraq, and the Taliban revived and returned. At the current rate, we, along with the Brits, Aussies, Canadians, French, Germans, Italians, and all the rest who are there, will lose the war in Afghanistan. We must change course with great haste.
The alternative crops will help, and there are other ideas for alternative economies not mentioned here. Yet we are not taking the opium threat seriously, and so we are subsidizing the enemy. Western money will flow into Afghanistan no matter what, and we’ve seen what happens when we ignore where it goes.