KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A large group of Afghan poppy farmers has handed Canadian soldiers an unusual offer, pledging not to grow the illicit flowers next year if they’re allowed to harvest their poppy crop this year with no interference from Afghan officials intent on smashing the country’s opium trade.
More than 15 village elders, representing hundreds of local farmers, recently made the plea to soldiers at Canada’s remote firebase near the town of Gombad, in the rugged countryside north of Kandahar.
“They’re afraid of the government plowing up their fields,” said Maj. Kirk Gallinger, who commands a company of Edmonton-based troops trying to fight the Taliban and bring security to the district around Gombad.
“They came and asked us to support them, and to pass on a request to the (Afghan) government not to eradicate their crops this year. In return, they’ll pledge not to grow any poppies next year.”
The farmers’ plea illustrates the awkward and dangerous position Canadian soldiers find themselves in this spring, as Afghanistan’s underground poppy harvest approaches.
Canada officially supports programs to tear out poppy fields and eradicate the illegal opium trade. Ottawa is also funding efforts to find alternative crops for poppy farmers. At the same time, Canadian troops on the ground are trying to bring peace to rural areas and win the loyalties of Afghan farmers, telling them the Canadian army itself has nothing to do with eradicating their crops.
“We are caught in the middle,” Gallinger said. “Soldiers realize the effect poppy growing has on Afghanistan and that opium has in the world. We understand the importance of the eradication program.
“But there’s also an immediate concern that the farmers might take up weapons against us (if soldiers are seen to support poppy eradication) and we’re also sympathetic with the farmers. Mostly they’re trying to earn an income to put food on their table.”
Gallinger did pass the farmers’ request to a local government official last week, but he said no one believes the farmers will uphold their pledge not to grow poppies next year in return for a grace period this year.
“I’m afraid that might be wishful thinking,” he said.
Poppy growing is at the heart of Afghanistan’s problems. An estimated 4,000 tonnes of opium is smuggled out of the country every year. The $3 billion UStrade is controlled exclusively by mafia-style drug barons, many of them connected to the Taliban insurgency.
Although the U.S.-led coalition and the fledgling Afghan government have been working to undermine the poppy business since 2002, vast fields are still cultivated each spring across southern Afghanistan, turning biscuit-brown valleys into green-and-lavender narcotics pasturelands.
“Flying over it, it’s like flying over the tulip lands in Holland,” a senior British officer based at Kandahar Airfield said in a recent interview.
In the poor and broken streets of Kandahar city, the riches of the drug trade are openly flaunted only blocks from the provincial reconstruction team site, the base from which Canadian soldiers run security patrols through the city.
“See those new houses,” said an Afghan driver while escorting a CanWest News reporter through the city one day. “Those belong to the drug guys,” he said, pointing to several new and glittering mansions rising up behind razor-wire fences.
Afghan authorities are trying to fight the opium trade at its roots through programs funded by the U.S. and Britain in which contractors travel to villages with tractors, ripping up the poppy fields.
However, the Senlis Council, an international security think-tank, issued a report earlier this month saying the forced eradication of Afghanistan’s poppy crops is fuelling the power of the Taliban in southern villages.
It said disgruntled farmers join the insurgency out of anger at having their crops plowed under. Others take up arms after losing their poppy-based livelihoods and becoming enslaved to the Taliban, which frequently pays farmers in advance for their poppy harvest.
Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the Canadian commander of coalition forces in the south, said the opium trade must be destroyed and that Canadian forces do support the anti-poppy work of the national government in Kabul.
“Poppies will kill this country if left to go unchecked,” he said in a recent interview.
But Fraser is equally adamant that “we’re not here to do poppy eradication. That’s not our job.”
He said it’s a tough distinction for soldiers to finesse on the ground, in the poppy-dependent villages where Canada is trying to win friends and where most Afghans see the soldiers for what they are allies of the national government.
“From the people’s point of view, it’s hard for them to discern between one group that’s doing poppy eradication and another group that’s here to support Afghans and deal with the terrorist threat. They don’t see the distinction, and it’s the job of every soldier on the ground, every day, to make sure he explains it to them.”
In distancing themselves from poppy eradication, could Canada’s military be accused of duplicity in the matter?
“Hey, duplicity is a reality,” said the British officer in Kandahar. “We’re not arguing about some libertarian, lovely, sort of thing here. This isn’t Ottawa. This is Afghanistan, and this is realpolitik”