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Mr. McDonald, who works with a provincial reconstruction team, said 4,800 farmers in Nawa District were approved by the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture to receive the products. Their names were submitted by village and tribal elders to district officials, who vetted the lists and then passed them to the ministry for additional checking.

The original list numbered 40,000, he said. “I would imagine they put all their kids on, wives, all that stuff.”

Mr. McDonald said a major challenge to the program’s long-term viability will come in the spring, when the wheat is harvested.

“The demand [for poppy] is still there,” he said. “The only way to negate that is if you have a program to buy the wheat back at higher prices, or certain prices. The farmer has taken out loans for the seed. The loan is due and payable at time of harvest, so that would drive down the price of wheat since everybody is trying to sell at that point.

“But if the government bought it back, they could stabilize the price. They are working on getting those programs,” he said.

Wheat sold in the spring at about 60 cents per 2.2 pounds, up from 40 cents the year before, according to the September report by the United Nations. Those prices pale in comparison to prices for opium.

In 2008, fresh opium (the wet sap from the poppy) was about $81 for 2.2 pounds, while dry opium was about $113 for 2.2 pounds, the report says. This year, the prices were about $62 and $85 respectively.

Yet Mr. McDonald and U.S. military officers who constantly interact with villagers across the district say most do not want to grow the crop. They know the use of drugs is contrary to Islam.

“From what I’m hearing from the farmers, it will be more wheat [planted] than poppy,” he said. “They don’t want to grow it. They know what’s going on out there with the poppies and who it supports.

“Part of it for them is when the Taliban were here, they were forced to grow it or because it was the only thing that was making money. It was survival.”

Crop substitution is not a silver bullet for opium cultivation, but Mr. McDonald said he thinks it’s a move in the right direction.

Eradication “will take time; it will take education,” he said. “You have to create the willingness to get it out of here.”