U.S. Kicks Drug-War Habit, Makes ‘Peace’ With Afghan Poppies


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U.S. Kicks Drug-War Habit, Makes Peace With Afghan Poppies (Wired, May 9, 2013):

ZARI, Afghanistan — Because of the poppies, the raw material for most of the world’s heroin, the list of things 1st Lt. Christopher Gackstatter and his 2nd Platoon can’t do in Sartok is far longer than the list of things they can.

Marching into the mud-walled village in t­­his sun-baked district of southern Afghanistan on an April 24 intelligence-gathering mission, the boyish 25-year-old lieutenant and his roughly dozen riflemen and machine gunners are mindful of the many poppy-related prohibitions, developed over 12 painful years of war, that have been passed down to their Bravo Company by the higher unit, 3-41 Infantry, part of the Texas-based 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division.

They’re not allowed to actually step foot in Sartok’s many acres of poppy fields or damage the fields in any way.

They can’t even threaten to destroy the fields or send in Afghan troops to burn, plow under or poison the delicate, pastel-colored flowers.

Nor can they discourage poppy farmers, however gently, from growing their illicit crop, which is hardier and commands a higher price than alternatives such as wheat. Poppy cultivation has been illegal in Afghanistan since 2001 but still represents a full quarter of the country’s gross domestic product and a major source of revenue for the Taliban, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Many of the middlemen who buy up raw poppy paste for onward sale to heroin-producers hail from the insurgent group.

The rules are fairly new and reflect a subtle but profound shift in the way the U.S. Army thinks about Afghanistan, its people and culture and conflict. Having furtively experimented with every possible approach to Afghan poppies since 2001 — from blissfully ignoring them to actively destroying them and everything in between — today the ground-combat branch has made peace with poppies, viewing them as a potential good thing for Afghanistan and the Army.

But Gackstatter’s brigade, in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province since January, is also the last full-up U.S. combat brigade to be deployed to Afghanistan in America’s longest-running war. It’s the last chance for U.S. troops to make a major impact in this part of the country. After that, the American contingent shifts to a strictly advisory role. The poppy trade will be left to the Afghans to handle — or not.

Wealth and Stability

“They’re a source of stability,” Maj. Charles Ford, the bookish operations officer at 3-41 Infantry, says of Afghanistan’s poppies. Sitting in a plywood-walled office at a Forward Operating Base in Kandahar city in early April, Ford cites all the people in Afghanistan who rely on poppies for some or all of their income: the Taliban, granted, but also millions of everyday farmers and their families as well as all levels of corrupt Afghan government from the subdistricts up to Kabul.Fortunately for all these groups, there are some 400,000 acres of poppies in Afghanistan — “enough to go around,” according to Ford, who is responsible for devising his battalion’s combat strategy. Plentiful and lucrative — 15 pounds of poppy paste, the output of a typical acre family plot, sells for around $600 in a country where $.25 buys bread for a day — the illicit crop offers “access to prosperity” for much of Afghanistan. And that access is all that most Afghans really want.

Leave the poppies alone, and most Afghans will happily go about their business farming and selling the colorful crop — or so Ford’s line of thinking goes. Granted, once processed into heroin and distributed in Russian and European cities, heroin can become a pretty serious danger to public health. But that, frankly, is not the U.S. Army’s problem, whereas Afghan security is.

Conversely, attempting to eradicate poppies — as has been the Army’s policy in the recent past — could mean destitution for countless Afghans. Sure, destroying the flowers might deprive the Taliban of one of its major revenue streams, but the violent popular backlash against eradication would probably represent a net victory for the insurgent group.

That’s the theory underpinning the latest twist in the U.S. Army’s complex relationship with poppies — and the rationale for the many caveats on 2nd Platoon’s April patrol in Sartok. Carefully threading their way between poppy fields, calling out to the farmers, asking if they want to talk, repeatedly reassuring them that they and their crops are safe, Gackstatter and his troops can be forgiven for failing to appreciate the years of costly trial and error that gave rise to the Army’s poppy rules.

Eradication Education The Army’s current, laissez-faire attitude towards poppies represents at least the third major policy reversal since the beginning of the U.S.-led war. In the first three years of the Afghanistan war beginning in late 2001, the military wasn’t involved in poppy eradication at all. Under pressure from Russia and other countries neighboring Afghanistan where heroin use is highest, American troops reluctantly added poppy-destruction to their remit in 2004 but considered it a “distraction from fighting terrorists,” according to The New York Times.

Then in late 2006, the George W. Bush administration decided, with encouragement from the U.N., that poppies and insurgency were inseparable. Bush directed the Pentagon and the Drug Enforcement Agency to work alongside Afghan agents in a major way in destroying the lucrative narcotic crop.

Thus began a brief, intensive, ill-fated U.S.-Afghan campaign to eliminate Afghan poppies, destroying the fields while also offering farmers help with alternative cops such as almonds and wheat. But the backlash was instantaneous and violent. Bombings and assassinations targeted poppy eradication agents. Poppy-growing regions that had been unstable before grew even more volatile as farmers sought protection from the Taliban … or picked up arms themselves.

And amid the escalating violence, the annual poppy harvest actually expanded.

In 2009, in one of his first major war policy decisions since becoming president, Barack Obama oversaw an end to U.S. poppy eradication. The substitute seed program continued, and even accelerated. The monitoring of drug networks was stepped up — but largely to find their connections to militant cells. Kingpins were still busted. But torching fields was over. Without American support, Afghan government counternarcotic operations withered to a merely symbolic scale. Kabul’s agents would raze one acre of a 10-acre plot and call it “eradicated.” The agents got paid, the government could tell Russia and the U.N. that it was cracking down on drugs and the farmers still had viable fields. While the fighting in Afghanistan continued to escalate after 2009, the poppy farms were no longer the major source of instability.

The Army internalized Obama’s new poppy policy. Mid-level officers such as 3-41?s Ford began studying Afghan society’s complex relationship with poppies and, in turn, the flowers’ equally complicated influence upon governance, insurgency and violence.

Army units progressively tightened their bans on poppy eradication, prohibiting their soldiers from even walking in the fields. But at the same time, the units acknowledged the intelligence value of the crop. The Taliban still protected the fields and bought the opiate paste that the farmers squeeze from the poppy bulbs. If anyone would know where the Taliban was and what it was planning, it would be the poppy farmers.

Hence Gackstatter’s difficult mission in Sartok. His superiors, the same men who’ve been stressing the benefits of poppies to Afghan society, also want the young lieutenant to use the poppies essentially as bait for the Taliban’s opium suppliers and find out what the farmers know — all while protecting them from any recrimination.

‘How Are Your Families?’ Growing up, all Gackstatter ever wanted to do was become an infantryman. But in eerily peaceful Zari district in the final months of the war, Gackstatter has had few opportunities to practice his fighting skills. Instead, he finds himself practicing a strange form of agricultural diplomacy for which he never trained.

Walking into the village of Sartok in the center of his heavily-armed platoon, Gackstatter spots three middle-aged Afghan men tending a poppy field at least an acre in size. Through an interpreter, Gackstatter asks if the men — two brothers and their cousin, all in their 40s — don’t mind talking for a few minutes. Shrugging, the farmers accept a bottle of water from the Americans and sit down in the shade on a path running alongside their field.

“I promise you we’re not here to destroy your field,” Gackstatter tells the men. He asks about their backgrounds and their families. He repeats his promise that he’s not here to eradicate any poppies. “We understand you’re just trying to earn a living.”

It’s several minutes before Gackstatter gets around to asking about the Taliban. Have insurgents been coming around to the fields? No, says Khan Mohammad, one of the brothers. Are the men planning on selling their paste to the Taliban or another buyer? Mohammad says he’s not sure yet who they’ll sell to.

This intelligence-gathering mission seems to be going nowhere. But after half an hour or so Mohammad grows more comfortable and expansive. He explains that today’s poppy prices are down compared to the golden years of the late 1990s, when the Taliban was in charge, there was no eradication — token or otherwise — and U.S. troops weren’t hanging around trying to figure out how they felt about the crop. “People are still dreaming of the boom years,” he says.

True, the Americans might finally have figured out, after 12 years of war, that it’s best to leave poppies alone. But they’ve left behind them a patchwork legacy of eradication. In short, for millions of Afghans who rely on poppies for their livelihoods, the Taliban era was simpler.

And if the Taliban were to return to power, they just might bring back the boom years, right? For Mohammad and his kin and countless other Afghans who aren’t terribly interested in fighting, that’s a compelling reason to help the Taliban — passively, by not reporting insurgents’ movements, or more actively by selling poppy paste to the group or providing other material support.

The Americans changed their approach to poppies in order to win over the countless Afghans who need poppies to survive.

In that sense it might be too late for America’s hands-off poppy policy to work. As Gackstatter and his 2nd Platoon are learning, the war over Afghan poppies was probably lost years ago. And the U.S., now eying the exit after more than a decade of battle, is the loser.

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