- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2012

The other war in Afghanistan — the one to reduce the opium poppy crop by eradication, crop trade-offs and threats — has made substantial gains over the past five years as cultivation has dropped 32 percent.

But one key poppy-eradication program, called the Food Zone, is in jeopardy as the State Department decides whether it wants to pick up the bill to persuade farmers to give up heroin-producing poppies in favor of wheat, pomegranates, saffron and other crops.

A review by The Washington Times of U.N. surveys shows opium poppy cultivation peaked at 477,000 acres in 2007 and has dropped since then to 323,700 acres.

The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria, which conducts the count in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics, has not ballyhooed the reduction in its reports on the country’s $1.4 billion cash crop.

Instead, it has focused on the continued problems of the world’s largest opium producer in terms of drug addiction, corruption and drug money for the Taliban. It notes that the overall cultivation decrease stalled in the past year.

Afghanistan's cash crop: A look at opium cultivation in Afghanistan. (The Washington Times)
Afghanistan’s cash crop: A look at opium cultivation in Afghanistan. (The Washington ... more >

But Andre Hollis, who just finished a year-plus stay in Afghanistan as a senior adviser to the counternarcotics minister, said the tide is turning.

Mr. Hollis, who was a Pentagon counternarcotics policymaker for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said the decrease has been especially dramatic in southern Helmand province, the opium capital of Afghanistan and the world.

The Food Zone program

The U.N. numbers show Helmand peaked at 254,000 acres in 2007 and was down to 156,400 acres last year.

Mr. Hollis credits the Food Zone for a swath in Helmand’s farming district. The Food Zone has spurred a 38 percent decrease in opium growing over the past two years in that district and should be expanded, he said.

The key is to provide not just fertilizer and seed but also a strategy for storing the crops and transporting them to market on roads leading from Helmand, he said.

“The farmer doesn’t use opium in large part,” Mr. Hollis said. “He’s trying to put food on his table, [a] roof over his family’s head, clean water. You’ve got to give them a truly practical alternative to doing something in Afghanistan that is illegal cultivation. There are multiple fatwas under Islam against it. So most of these guys don’t want to do it, but they have no other option.”

Mr. Hollis, who runs Tiger International Advisors, said a driving force to reducing opium poppy fields is Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal.

Mr. Mangal, who at one time urged the U.S. to put more forces in his province to combat the Taliban, has ordered the arrests of some family heads of households until they eradicate the crop, Mr. Hollis said.

“He is one of the rare examples where someone through their force of personality is creating change, and in a positive way,” he said. “It would not have happened if it hadn’t been for Mangal.”

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