- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

NAWA DISTRICT, Afghanistan

Opium is king in Afghanistan, and nowhere more so than in volatile Helmand province, where the government is attempting to wean farmers away from winter poppy cultivation by making wheat an attractive alternative crop.

The statistics are staggering. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, from which heroin is derived. Helmand province produced more than half that overall estimated total of 3,500 tons in 2008.

“Narcotics are a big problem in our area of operation,” said Maj. Gen. M. Ghorbi, an Afghan National Army commander who works with U.S. Marines in Helmand. “The enemy wants the narcotics, and this is the place they can get it.”

Helmand, about the size of West Virginia, is the country’slargest province.

In 2008, a total of more than 400 square miles in the province were devoted to opium, the region’s traditional crop, which funds Taliban operations. Officials say the Taliban levy taxes on its cultivation, refining, transport and sale.

Farmers have been warned that opium fields will be destroyed by special counternarcotics teams, that growers face the possibility of jail and that increased interdiction of smugglers will mean the growers may have no one to buy their poppies.

In addition to these traditional drug-fighting techniques, the government also is subsidizing wheat by supplying discounted seeds and fertilizer to farmers.

Here in the Nawa District of Helmand, that translates into 220 pounds of seeds plus six bags of fertilizer per farmer for about $14.

The farmers “don’t have very high expectations” of wheat growing,” said Mack McDonald, a State Department senior governance adviser, at the Nawa District Center. “It’s just a matter of getting them to at least try to grow it and see what comes of it. And if they grow it, try to grow it, you still have accomplished the goal of there being less poppy.”

Nawa District is a 400-square-mile area of desert and farmland near the Helmand River. U.S. Marines pushed into the area in the summer amid fierce clashes with Taliban cells. Extremist gunmen, although mostly pushed out of the area, still reinfiltrate. However, increased security has made aid projects and anti-narcotics efforts possible in cooperative villages.

“Before the Marines came, the Taliban were here, and they didn’t do anything for us,” said Haji Mohammad Khan, the government administrator for the district. “The security is better now, and government projects have started.

“Look: People are getting seed,” he said with a sweep of his arm. “Maybe there will be less poppy.”

Mr. Khan made his comments as he stood in the middle of the dusty government compound next to Combat Outpost Jaker, a U.S. Marine facility.

On one side of him, men jostled and clamored for attention from government officials who were checking seed-recipient names off a master list. On the other side of the compound, workers atop a mountain of seed and fertilizer bags loaded trucks and any other kind of vehicles farmers brought with them.

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.”