Halfhearted poppy eradication program in Afghanistan yields inadvertent success

An Afghan soldier examines a poppy seed pod in Zhari District on May 1. Despite planting record numbers of poppy this year, farmers say the plants are not producing well.
Ben Brody

ZHARI, Afghanistan — Zhari is having a banner year for opium poppy cultivation. Increased security has led to more fields being sown with poppy, and workers harvest opium with less fear of stepping on Taliban mines than in past summers.

But the colorful fields stretching as far as the eye can see don't tell the whole story. In terms of the actual opium harvest, the raw material used in heroin production, it has been a terrible year for farmers here.

"The leaves turn brown and the milk doesn't flow," complained an elderly farmer as he pushed his way through a huge poppy field in Zhari's Siab Jan village, his tunic stained black with opium sap from long days in the fields.

The poppy in Zhari's muddy fields are afflicted with a condition that causes yellow and brown spots on the leaves, which has dramatically affected the amount of opium sap produced, according to local farmers. The plants aren't dying individually — they are uniformly unproductive, which could suggest overwatering as the cause, according to Kandahar Agribusiness Development Team commander Col. Bob Hayter.

And overwatering could be an unintended consequence of the Zhari district government’s poppy eradication effort.

The Zhari district governor, Niaz Sarhadi, runs an eradication program that stretches the meaning of the word “eradication” considerably and doesn’t actually aim to get rid of all poppy plants, according to 2nd Lt. Bryce Hudson, a platoon leader with A Co., 4-17 Infantry at Ahmadkhan.

"To us, eradication means destroying 90 percent of the poppy," said Hudson. "To [the governor], it means about 10 percent."

US troops do not have a mandate to get directly involved in poppy eradication in Zhari — growing poppy is against Afghan law, so Afghans are responsible for enforcing it.

A fleet of well-worn Massey-Ferguson 875 tractors sit outside the governor's compound at Forward Operating Base Pasab in varying states of disassembly, covered in dried mud and poppy stalks.

Some villagers in Zhari complain that their governor decides to destroy poppy fields based on whether or not the farmers have paid their bribes, and he drives his Lexus out to the poppy fields and watches his tractors crush the flowers. Other villagers claim the farmers whose fields are crushed are just unlucky.

The villagers have tried different strategies to protect their poppies from the marauding tractors. Some plant their poppies in the trenches between grape rows, too narrow for the tractors to get in. Some dig canals around their fields like moats.

The most widespread strategy in Zhari has been to heavily irrigate the poppy fields, making them too muddy for tractors to get in. The Zhari mud is unbelievably sticky and it is easy to plunge knee-deep through its thin crust and spend the next 20 minutes digging your shoe out.

Although the flower itself is very delicate, opium poppy is a tough plant. As long as it has plenty of sunlight, it can grow in poor soil or drought conditions and can tolerate large temperature swings. But the plant seems to be sensitive to overwatering.

"Overwatering causes root rot and mold, which would show up as yellowing leaves," Hayter said. "We see the same thing in their wheat fields when they irrigate too much."

Hayter and his team advise Afghan farmers on irrigation and fertilization techniques for every common local crop except poppy, but he said the principles of agriculture are the same.

And even under ideal conditions, harvesting opium by hand is a very labor-intensive task. Once the poppy's delicate pink and white petals have fluttered to the ground, men and boys use curved knives to carefully scratch the swollen seed pod that releases a watery white sap, or "milk." The sap evaporates overnight and leaves behind a tiny bit of sticky black opium paste, which is then scraped off with plastic spoons.

Making an appreciable amount of opium takes a tremendous number of poppies. The raw opium sap can be smoked, but it is more lucrative to chemically refine it into heroin for export to Asia, Europe and the United States. Last year, about 75 percent of the world's heroin supply came from Afghanistan, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

According to Jaan, an interpreter who works with the US military, farmers tell him that they suspect that high-flying NATO planes are secretly spraying Zhari with a chemical that weakens their poppies. Of course, no such program exists. Jaan did not want his family name used for fear of reprisals.

"I tell them that the Army has no time for that kind of thing, the spraying, but they don't want to listen," said Jaan. "It's just a simple thing — too much water."

Governor Sarhadi loudly denied taking bribes at a district shura — a gathering of local and regional government, tribal and military representatives — and also announced that the eradication program would be immediately halted, two weeks before the end of harvest.

"We have to go after the drug dealers, the people motivated to get rich," Sarhadi said to a group of tribal elders during the shura. "They don't listen to the elders, they don't listen to the governor, they don't listen to the Koran — they're all criminals."