Published: May 22, 2010
COMBAT OUTPOST HANSON, Afghanistan — The annual Afghan opium harvest finished this month with production sharply down from last year, Afghan farmers and American military officers say. Now, growers and smugglers who had long been unchallenged here face tough choices created by the poor crop and new government and military pressure.
They describe an industry approaching a crossroads.
As farmers around Marja, the heart of Afghanistan’s opium industry, confront harsh environmental conditions and new interdiction efforts, they are also receiving offers of aid in exchange for growing different crops. Both they and the military said that the start of a shift to other sources of income could be possible by the end of this year, when poppy planting would resume.
That result is a major aim of the American effort. It is also far from sure. The possibilities for crop transition are uncertain and are undermined by persistent fighting and the limited Afghan government presence. This year’s decline in production has also nudged up opium prices, providing an incentive for farmers to consider gambling on future cultivation.
Many Afghan farmers say they grow poppy because it earns them significantly more income than any other crop, and because opium, which is nonperishable in the short term, can be brought to market anytime after harvest, making it an ideal product in the uncertainties of a conflict zone.
Still, several farmers said in interviews that they were willing to plant other crops in the fall, perhaps wheat, and avoid the new risks and perennial turbulence of the opium trade.
To do so, they said, they would need seeds, fertilizer, agricultural equipment or money. “If the government of Afghanistan will help us next year, we will not grow poppy,” said Obidullah, 50, who said he cultivated about six acres of opium-producing poppy this year. Like many Afghans, he uses only one name.
His yield, he said, was just a quarter of last year’s, because of poor weather and blight.
With fighting around Marja heating up again with a seasonal uptick in Taliban activity and what Marines say is an influx of fighters, the state of the area’s opium trade is a central element of the conflict between the American and Afghan governments and a complex insurgent and criminal base. It is also a sector of the Afghan economy that the Obama administration hopes to uproot, and thereby demonstrate progress resulting from the so-called Afghan surge, which thus far has shown mixed results.
Afghanistan’s huge opium crop enriches both the Taliban and corrupt officials, serving as an economic engine for two persistent phenomena bedeviling the country: a resilient insurgency and a government too weak and discredited to defeat it.
The industry has also been a sore point with allies and potential allies in the American-led war, who have been alarmed that opium production soared after the Taliban were chased from power in 2001. Heroin derived from Afghan opium has flooded Europe and former Soviet states, causing public health problems, including addiction and the spread of H.I.V.
Marja and its environs, a network of irrigated farming villages that form a large green belt on an otherwise parched steppe, are now the center of the densest opium-producing zone in the world.
Before the Marines started their much-publicized offensive into the opium belt in February, their commanders recognized that efforts to reduce drug production in 2010 would meet limitations and risks.
Opium is derived from the sap of poppy seed pods, and the year’s poppy crop had already been planted months before the first helicopters touched down. Moreover, while Afghan law bans the opium trade, American military units here do not have the authority to enforce the country’s laws.
Even if they did have a mandate to confront the trade head-on, commanders decided that forced eradication would prove counterproductive, because, as one officer said, “in a population-centric campaign, we don’t want to turn the farmers against us.”
But doing nothing was deemed unacceptable, too. As their patrols fanned out and outposts grew and hardened, the Marines did not want to be seen as a foreign constable service guarding an illicit drug zone, especially if the crop underwrote the insurgents who were firing on them and planting hidden bombs.
What followed was a complicated end of the poppy season and an attempt by Western forces to position themselves and the farmers for a sharply reduced crop in 2011.
Marja is ringed by canals, and Marine units have established checkpoints near all of the bridges leading into and out of the region. American troops now supervise Afghan police officers and soldiers as they search every vehicle passing by.
This has made it more difficult to move opium away from the poppy fields, several poppy farmers said. The Marines have also located and destroyed processing labs as part of their operations.
For these reasons, poppy farmers said, few farmers have sold this year’s harvest. Farmers said they had stockpiled opium instead, hoping that they might more readily sell it later, perhaps after the Marines leave. (Opium, which takes the form of a dark paste, can be stored for years.)
In separate interviews, five poppy farmers from Marja or the fields at its edge said their harvest this year was down, depending on the location of the field, 20 to 75 percent. Cold winter weather, hailstorms and blight were all factors, they said.
The short supply caused by thinner harvests and interdiction efforts has driven up prices from recent lows caused by the production glut of previous years. This March, farmers sold dry opium for $94 per kilogram, compared with $79 one year ago, said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, representative in Afghanistan for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
That 19 percent increase was not offset by the sharp declines many farmers suffered in yields. The American military says these market conditions may have been a factor that led many farmers to participate in a Marine-sponsored program to destroy their poppy plants in exchange for cash payments.
The efforts, known as the Marja Accelerated Agricultural Transition Program, offered $300 to farmers for every hectare (2.47 acres) of poppy plowed back into the dirt. In all, nearly 1,900 farmers tilled roughly 17,000 acres of poppy into the soil by early May, in exchange for $2.1 million in payments, according to the military’s data.
The program required farmers receiving payments to pledge not to grow poppy again. That way, farmers will not be eligible for payments if they replant in the fall and try to collect payments again.
Assessing the program’s effect remains difficult. In many cases, according to Marines on patrols who had to verify that poppy fields were destroyed, farmers were paid based on estimates of a field’s size, which Afghans often inflated.
Marines and poppy farmers also agreed that many farmers waited until the end of the season to register for payments. Then they quickly harvested their opium, plowed under the stalks and collected payments nonetheless.
“That was the only bad thing,” said Cpl. David S. Palmer, who led the squad that provided security for the verification team. “A lot of people were double-taking on us, and there was nothing we could do about it.”
The more sure value of the program, many Marines said, was its role as a steppingstone. Until the program began, farmers were hesitant to meet with the Marines, officers said. The Taliban threatened to punish local men who cooperated with Americans. At least six men had been beheaded and others were beaten or shot for suspected collaboration.
But what began as a trickle of cooperative farmers, a few men registering each day, became a busy queue. By late April, as many as 120 farmers registered in a single day with the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, one of two infantry battalions in Marja.
“The program has helped us reseize the momentum,” said Maj. James F. Coffman, the senior civil affairs officer in the battalion. “The Taliban’s murder and intimidation program is still ongoing,” he added, but through the subsidies, groups of farmers have begun to meet and cooperate with the Americans and Afghan troops.
Major Coffman also said the harvest-season engagement provided “much-needed assistance to some of the poorest people in the world” and helped prepare for the next phase: distributing seed, fertilizer and equipment to encourage farmers to diversify next year.
The ultimate hope, several officers said, is that if security can be improved as American and Afghan units continue to spread through southern Afghanistan, poppy production will fall further, as it has in other provinces where the government’s presence has grown and alternative programs have been able to operate.
No one can yet say how long it will take for such security conditions to take hold here. Skirmishes continued in the past week, and the sight of civilians moving away from the fighting — in tractors and trucks piled high with their belongings — showed that the Taliban were still a powerful presence in Marja. To succeed, any campaign to counter poppy cultivation may require substantial time, civilians and military officials said.
“If the surge succeeds, that may be the end of opium cultivation in the south,” said Mr. Lemahieu, the United Nations official. “If it doesn’t, there might be three, four years of fighting.”
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.