Afghan poppy harvest is next challenge for U.S. Marines

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 16, 2010 

MARJAH, Afghanistan — U.S. Marine Sgt. Brad Vandehei stood on the edge of the small opium poppy field that serves as a central helicopter landing zone for the new military compound that's rising nearby.

"Those are poppies, sir?" Vandehei, 25, of Green Bay, Wis., asked Maj. David Fennell as they gazed at the spiked young plants that should be ready for harvest next month. "Let's burn it down, sir."

Fennell was scoping things out for another reason, however: That morning, the poppy farmer turned up with a dozen neighbors to complain about the Marines transforming his lucrative field into a rural helipad.

The swift American-led military offensive that drove the Taliban from power in this southern Afghan farm belt came at an inopportune time for the area's poppy farmers. That's created a quandary for Marjah's new, U.S.-backed leaders and for the American military as they try to transform this sweltering river valley, whose biggest cash crop is opium poppy, into a tranquil breadbasket.

"The helicopters are landing in my field," the weathered farmer told Fennell as they sat in the dirt outside the Marines' newest forward operating base in Marjah. "You have to stop landing there. Next time, the Taliban will put an IED in the field," an improvised explosive device, the military's term for a homemade bomb.

Using his skills as one-time trial lawyer, a few essential Pashto words and an evolving understanding of local tribal culture, Fennell sought to reassure the farmer.

"I apologize for your inconvenience," the 36-year-old Denver reservist told the farmer. "We're here to provide security, and one person must be inconvenienced to provide security for 1,000. But we're not like the Taliban. We're not just going to take; we're going to compensate you."

Unswayed, the Marjah men again pressed Fennell to stop using the field as a landing zone. When it became clear that the Marine wasn't going to budge, they asked for money to pay for the damaged poppy field.

"We're not here to eradicate your poppies, but we won't pay for damage to your poppies," Fennell said. "What we will do is pay for the inconvenience and for any damage to your wheat."

Marjah leaders and the U.S. Marines so far have no clear answers for farmers such as these. The Marines and the new Marjah government are still trying to figure out how to persuade poppy growers not to harvest their crops this spring.

"We are entering the poppy harvest season, which will also put us at great risk for having instability," Marine Col. Randy Newman warned Marjah leaders this past weekend. "So we must talk to the people with one voice about how we will deal with the poppy."

For years, Marjah has been the center of the drug trade in Afghanistan, which provides about 90 percent of the world's opium. About 50 percent of Afghanistan's poppy crop is grown in surrounding Helmand province, and much of the multi-billion-dollar industry is centered in and around Marjah.

The opium trade supports tens of thousands of local farmers and fuels the Taliban, who taxed the crops to pay for weapons and supplies.

"If I was a farmer here I'd be growing poppies," said Mike Courtney, who works the Afghan Stabilization Initiative which oversees U.S. efforts to persuade farmers to switch to other crops. "It's a Catch-22. How do you win over the population and, at the same time, stop the drug trade?"

U.S. officials largely have given up on destroying Afghanistan's poppy fields as the best way to combat the drug trade. Razing the fields was seen as counterproductive.

Instead, the American-led coalition in Afghanistan launched programs meant to encourage farmers to plant wheat, cotton and other alternative crops. They've had modest success.

The wheat-for-poppy projects have been undermined by corrupt Afghan officials who've given mediocre fertilizer and inferior seeds to farmers and have siphoned off money for themselves.

At the end of the day, poppy brings in more money most years than wheat or cotton does.

"The opium issue takes time," said Haji Abdul Zahir, the newly appointed district governor of Marjah. "It's like if you swat a bee, 1,000 bees will come and sting you. It takes time to stop the drug trade. But we won't do it through eradication."

The Marines have developed a new plan to hand out modest grants to farmers who show that they're planting legal crops. The grants — some $500 per hectare, about two and a half acres — don't compare with the money made from poppy harvests in good years, however.

Plowing under the poppies also could be a dangerous gamble for farmers who took money from drug dealers and Taliban financiers, who might come back to collect the harvest.

At the moment, Afghan and U.S. leaders are betting that the insurgents won't feel bold enough to come looking for their poppies if they have to deal with thousands of American and Afghan fighters.

Some officials have suggested that they simply buy this year's harvest and take it off the streets. Buying millions of dollars in opium could be politically unpalatable, however.

"There's a problem with buying it. There's a problem with burning it," said Marine Capt. Matthew Andrew, of Boise, Idaho, the 30-year-old judge advocate for the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "The larger problem is security. If they don't have poppies, there's no point in sticking around. The real test is going to be next year."

As the farmers pressed Fennell last weekend to pay for the damaged poppies, he pulled out another weapon in his verbal arsenal: guilt.

"We're not here to eradicate any poppies," Fennell told the men. "But we're worried, because we've seen the addiction to opium among Afghans and we know that good Muslims don't want that."

The men shifted uncomfortably and assured Fennell that they agreed. Then they asked him again to stop helicopter landings in the poppy field.

Fennell patiently told the men that that wasn't going to happen. He asked them to figure out what they thought was a fair price for the adjacent wheat field.

He's still waiting for them to return.

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