OPIUM SEASON

A YEAR ON THE AFGHAN FRONTIER
By JOEL HAFVENSTEIN

The Lyons Press

Copyright © 2007 Joel Hafvenstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59921-131-2


Chapter One

Little America

* * *

Lashkargah, Helmand-November 27, 2004

"You know, they used to call this place Little America."

The night sky was cloudless, but the moon had already set. Ray and I were walking by starlight through the dusty back streets of Lashkargah. Far away, a single lightbulb burned above the closed wooden shutters of a fruits and spices vendor. The earth-walled compounds on either side of the road were silent and dark. We had been in town for two days and had no idea who lived on the other side of those walls. Last night, we had walked back by a slightly different route to throw off anyone tracking us-a gesture at the basic security precautions we had chosen to ignore by traveling on foot, in the dark, through an unfamiliar bit of Afghanistan.

"Americans built this whole city," Ray explained. "Back in the 1950s. It was where the Morrison-Knudsen engineers lived while they were working on the canals. People remember that here. They basically like us."

Ray Baum always varied his route, and he always walked. He didn't like to keep the Afghan drivers around after the end of the work day, so whenever he worked late he would dismiss them and walk home. Even on evenings when we all finished work at six or seven o'clock, the rest of us would pile into our rented Toyota Land Cruisers in front of our Lashkargah office, while Ray handed one of us his laptop bag and struck out on foot. The drivers couldn't believe it; for the first two or three blocks outside the office, they cruised alongside Ray while he waved them away and did his best to ignore them. They didn't speak English, and none of us spoke Pashto, so it was beyond us to explain what possessed this grizzled American to walk home through the lightless alleys of Lashkargah.

"It's not like in Jalalabad. The whole of eastern Afghanistan was under Russian influence back in the '50s and '60s. Up there, the Russians built the roads and bridges and dams, and everyone went to study in Russia. Americans are still unpopular up there even today. But in Helmand, we were the good guys."

I had begun joining Ray on his walks home-not always, but usually on nights when we both stayed late at the office. I didn't like keeping the drivers waiting at night any more than he did, and I thought I understood a few other reasons why he chose to walk. Ray liked to know the places where he worked, to explore the geography and understand the people. Every day, he walked up the street, bought a pomegranate at the fruit stand, and ate it at meticulous length while conversing with the locals in fragments of English, Dari, and Pashto. Yet even though virtually no one was on the streets after dark, Ray made a point of always walking home at night. Another crucial principle was at stake: show no fear. Ray was a hardy man, spending his holidays on hunting expeditions in remote bits of his native Alaska, and he didn't want anyone to mistake him for a mere development bureaucrat. More importantly, Ray knew what he represented in Helmand province-America, development, the new Afghan order-and he didn't believe we could succeed if we were held back by fear of possible disaster.

"I think this is going to be a really good project, Joel. We've just got to get things approved and started quickly. We can adjust them later if we need to. We can't get scared or let things get bogged down."

Ray spoke at a deliberate pace, his eyes intense and searching beneath furrowed brows. He had a thick-tongued voice, a weathered, crumpled face, close-cropped gray hair, and a mustache. He was more a practical than an intellectual man, his conversation circling unadorned around whatever was most on his mind; when he came across an idea or phrase that resonated with him, he would bring it up verbatim and often. Yet Ray was the canniest development swashbuckler I knew. Back in the 1980s he had figured out how to get aid to areas of Nicaragua and Honduras dominated by anti-Communist guerrillas, and when the fighting was over, he helped talk the guerrillas down out of the hills. For that accomplishment, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded Ray its highest honor. He won it again, later, for his deft management of a counter-narcotics project in Bolivia.

I had worked with Ray before in Afghanistan, on my previous short trips to the country. I had seen him lead a team and handle the ever-shifting demands of the USAID mission in Kabul, and I admired his judgment and gruff diplomacy. In mid-2004 he had left Afghanistan, resigning from a long-term position to spend more time with his family. My boss had pleaded with Ray to come back for one month to lead the start-up team on our most challenging project yet.

We were working for Chemonics International, USAID's largest private contractor. A few weeks earlier, USAID had given Chemonics an urgent assignment: to create tens of thousands of jobs in remote southern Afghanistan. Our target area was Helmand province, which was both an oasis of relative calm in the heart of the Taliban resistance and the foremost drug-producing region in the country. The Afghan government had promised to eradicate the opium poppy fields of Helmand this year. USAID had promised to create enough temporary, cash-paying work to cushion the economic damage. Chemonics had promised to make it happen with eighteen million dollars.

Of course, all that money was in Washington, and we weren't sure how we were going to get it to Helmand. There were no banks in Lashkargah, the provincial capital. We had no staff yet, no reliable phone or Internet connections, no radios or project vehicles. All we had was the start-up Go Team, an all-star ensemble of the most relevant experts from Chemonics headquarters. Plus me.

I had been working with Chemonics for a year and a half, helping to "backstop" its existing Afghan agriculture projects. That is, I provided administrative support from the Washington office: getting visas for our consultants, buying plane tickets, handling the USAID paperwork. I had flown out to Afghanistan a couple of times, but those trips didn't really qualify me to help launch a project deep in Taliban country. What they did give me was the Afghanistan bug. I was captivated by the arid, serrated mountains and green valleys, the ruins left by foreign armies from Genghis Khan to Gorbachev, the generosity and resilience of my Afghan friends. I made sure my bosses knew that I would take any Afghan field assignment-even a one-year assignment to a dusty provincial center that made Kabul look like a cosmopolitan paradise.

As it turned out, my most important qualification was the willingness to stay longer than Christmas. We were launching this project on unusually short notice and the all-star team all wanted to be home for the holidays. The only other member of the start-up group who was in for the long haul was our government liaison, Yaqub Roshan, an affable Afghan-American with a vaguely defined job. If Chemonics couldn't replace Ray and the other Go Team members in the next few weeks, by Christmas Day it would just be Yaqub and me.

I was nervous-but mostly about my own ability to do the job. I had no idea I would end up as the de facto second-in-command, or that our project would succeed beyond our wildest dreams, employing thousands of men in some of the farthest corners of Helmand province. The Afghan friends who would make it happen-Habibullah, Khair, Raz, Ehsan, and dozens of others who would join us to struggle against problems both petty and lethal-were still strangers to me. And I didn't really understand that our success might make us a target. That night, as I followed Ray through the alleys of Lashkargah, I believed him when he said we shouldn't be afraid. Like him, I was more preoccupied with the seemingly impossible goal that had brought us to Helmand.

* * *

How do you convince a farmer to give up the perfect crop?

Picture a rugged, desert country in which a seven-year drought has emptied the canals and a twenty-five-year war has wrecked roads, schools, and markets. Orchards and vineyards have been bombed, fields and pastures mined. The millions of farmers and farm workers in this country have few sources of credit, no banks, and a national currency that until very recently was worthless. Many don't actually own land, and in fertile areas the competition for sharecropping work is intense.

Now imagine a drought-resistant cash crop. It grows during the wheat season but fetches a much higher price than wheat-anywhere from five to twenty-five times higher, depending on the year. This crop doesn't bruise or require refrigeration, so the lack of reliable roads and electricity is no obstacle. Once harvested, its gum can be kept for months or years before processing, so villagers stockpile the gum and use it as cash. The traders in this crop are a sophisticated, internationally connected bunch who offer credit; they'll pay farmers in the winter for a certain amount of gum in the spring. Landowners are more likely to accept sharecroppers who agree to cultivate this crop. It offers the most reward for the fewest risks, with one significant exception: The government might plow up your fields if it catches you. The government is weak, though, and plenty of local authorities are involved in the trade themselves.

The country is, of course, Afghanistan, and the crop is opium poppy, the raw material for heroin. Opium has been grown in the Afghan mountains for millennia, but it took two and a half decades of civil war to turn poppy into the country's economic mainstay-and to turn Afghanistan into the heart of the global heroin trade. During the long war that began in 1979, the country's government slowly disintegrated, local warlords began to support themselves by trafficking opium, and brutalized farmers turned to poppy as their best chance of escaping poverty. By 1992, Afghanistan had passed Burma as the world's largest opium exporter. By 2004, the largest sector of the Afghan economy was narcotics (generating well over one-third of its gross domestic product), and Afghanistan produced a staggering 87 percent of the world's illegal opium.

Opium brought me back to Afghanistan in November 2004. On my previous trips, I had worked with Chemonics' projects to restore the once-thriving Afghan agricultural sector. None of those programs had focused specifically on poppy. We hoped that by helping Afghan farmers cultivate and market legal crops, we would eventually give them a ladder out of poverty that didn't involve opium. We called it a strategy, but it was just a simple, plausible justification for leaving poppy out of our plans for the next few years.

The scale of the 2004 opium harvest wrecked that strategy. For the first time in history, farmers in all thirty-four Afghan provinces chose to plant the perfect crop. They carpeted an unprecedented 323,000 acres of land with poppy, which was 126,000 acres more than the previous year, and almost 99,000 acres above 1999's prior record. The harvest of opium gum fell just short of record levels, thanks to bad weather, disease, and poppy-munching parasites. Still, by the end of the season in summer 2004, Afghanistan's addiction to opium had unmistakably reached a new peak.

As the extent of the harvest became clear, the political rumbling from Washington and Kabul grew thunderous. George Bush and Hamid Karzai both had elections to win in the fall. Both knew their rivals would use the high poppy crop against them, though in rather different senses: Bush could expect a rhetorical bruising from the Democrats, while Karzai risked losing provincial control entirely to rich and well-armed drug lords. Neither president had the patience to rely on long-term projects of agricultural development. As the yearly report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime euphemistically declared, Afghan farmers would require "more robust forms of persuasion" to give up opium. A comprehensive poppy eradication campaign was on the way.

Just before the fall 2004 poppy-planting season began, USAID frantically called its Afghanistan contractors with a new assignment: to keep the bottom from dropping out of the rural economy when the poppies were destroyed. In the top opium-cultivating provinces, hundreds of thousands of Afghans depended on opium for their livelihoods. If the American and Afghan governments were going to plow up the poppy fields, we needed to create enough jobs to plug the gap with cash.

Nobody mistook this kind of mass job creation program for a long-term solution. It was an emergency response, a bandage on the eradication campaign. The British government had been struggling for three years to come up with a serious substitute for poppy, and in 2004 USAID joined in, offering hundreds of millions of dollars for "alternative livelihoods" projects. The problem was that no one really knew what a long-term solution would look like. A bevy of agricultural specialists tried to come up with "silver bullet" alternative crops that were almost as lucrative as poppy: saffron, rose oil, black cumin. Others argued that instead of introducing a novel crop, it would be better to revive Afghanistan's traditional export business in dried fruits and almonds. Microfinance experts devised schemes to provide credit with no opium strings attached.

All this would take years to get off the ground, however; in the meantime, cash-for-work had to smooth the way. USAID ordered a few of its big private-sector contractors to head immediately into the Afghan provinces with the most poppy cultivation. Chemonics was told to redirect money from one of its existing projects to create jobs in Helmand, Afghanistan's opium heartland. The farmers of Helmand's central plains benefited from a massive irrigation canal network built with American money and engineering between the 1940s and the 1960s. During Afghanistan's decades of war, the farmers of "Little America" had switched wholesale from cotton to poppy, spurred on by local warlords who built shaky, violent baronies on a foundation of drug money. Now the Americans were back, hoping to transform Helmand again.

To compensate for the loss of poppy income in the province, USAID estimated, over the next year we would need to create two and a half million days of paid work. It wasn't entirely clear what assumptions about the poppy trade had inspired that peculiar number, but that was our only solid target: two and a half million days. Everything else-the amount of money we spent, the total number of people we hired, the nature of the jobs we created-was flexible. The "magic number" had some inescapable consequences, though. Given a six-day work week, we would need to have an average of eight thousand men at work every day for the whole year. With every day that we didn't meet that target, it would increase.

So we needed to quickly identify large-scale public works projects that would involve lots of pick and shovel work. To monitor our thousands of laborers, we needed to hire qualified engineers and project managers, in a province where a twelfth-grade diploma represented exceptionally high education. We needed somehow to get a million dollars in cash down from Kabul every month and safely distribute it all over a province still awash with guns from the long, American-funded jihad against the Soviet Union. No one was sure how the local drug traffickers or nearby insurgents would respond to us. The project was simple in conception, crazy in reality.

But as with the overall project of rebuilding Afghanistan, time was essential. Everyone involved in the Afghan reconstruction talked about windows of opportunity that would soon close. Ours was the window between the time we arrived in the country and the time the eradication tractors started rolling. Like Ray said, if we spent too long preparing, we'd lose our chance to make a difference. So we jumped in.

(Continues...)



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