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The Perfect Evil, Part III of III

By any other name, it would still be the reason we are losing the war in Afghanistan.

November 9, 2006

[Note: Edited versions of this 3-part series written by Michael Yon appeared three weeks ago in the National Review online with excerpts also featured on the CBS News website. They are published here in fuller scope.]


“Look, take on opium production in Afghanistan, not because you are worried about addiction in Baltimore, but because you are going to lose the war if you don’t confront the issue.” General Barry McCaffrey Listen to audio here.

Consensus is growing among experts on Afghanistan that without a sudden and sharp change in plan, the Taliban could regain control of the nation. My own observations led me to the same conclusion as General McCaffrey: we could lose the war in Afghanistan. While I was completing the research for this article, news persisted of Iraq’s slow inexorable slide into a bloody civil war, despite that two major milestones had passed in the elimination of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the election of an Iraqi central government, diminishing daily hopes of a success not defined by embarrassingly low expectations. America faces an historic first of losing two wars simultaneously; and for largely the same reasons of not investing enough resources and not insisting that civilian leadership attend to the right indicators. In both theatres, the warning signs have been apparent for years, and a growing chorus of caution has been sounding throughout 2006.

To Rashid, the crisis in Afghanistan is the direct result of the decision to invade Iraq before the critical reconstruction process had really taken hold. By allowing wide scale corruption to stall reconstruction and erode fragile gains, “there is lack of credibility with the international community.” According to Rashid, the damage works bi-laterally. The “distraction” of the war in Iraq not only drains resources and attention AWAY from allies in Afghanistan, it also draws streams of sympathetic new fighters, weapons, tactics and resources to the enemy creating a stronger and more effective Taliban which, “clearly, the NATO operation in the south is suffering because of.” Listen to audio here.

McCaffrey points not so much to a decision but to the mind-set of decision makers that facilitates the drug trade in Afghanistan. “A huge part of the problem, in my judgment, has been Secretary Rumsfeld and the Pentagon civilian leadership that’s said, ‘Hey, we got 20,000 troops there, we’re there to fight the Taliban on the frontier, let the Europeans worry about opium production, we don’t do that.’ If you looked at his language it was almost the language George Soros uses. It’s astonishing.” Listen to audio here.

Whether focusing on the decision or the decision makers, both Rashid and McCaffrey agree that poppies form the single greatest threat we face in Afghanistan today.

Like a Gordian knot, the seamless connection between a tacit acceptance of fertile poppy farms and the growing menace of a resurgent and ever vigorous Taliban threatens to choke the mission to build Afghanistan. The reliance on poppy farming does more than tie much of the population in the south to a black economy, because it diminishes their need for and confidence in legitimate government systems, while simultaneously forcing them to turn to the Taliban for security and access to markets. What it does for the Taliban is obvious and ominous, according to Rashid:

“The first major source (of funding for the Taliban) is, obviously, drugs production in Afghanistan—the production of opium which is turned into heroin. The Taliban in the south are now protecting the farmers and telling them to grow the poppy which will produce opium and we’ll protect you against the government which might want to eradicate your crop. The Taliban are taking taxes from drug smugglers in Afghanistan and are probably involved in smuggling themselves.” Listen to audio here.


Reclaiming a landscape that looks like this in the peak of the growing season is a challenge.

“You look at Afghanistan; by the end of 35 years of warfare it had been almost totally destroyed. There couldn’t have been a more impoverished, desperate, cruel, malignant place on the face of the entire planet. The only thing that worked in there was opium production.” Listen to audio here.

The outlook doesn’t need to be this dire in Afghanistan. Even the Taliban was able to eradicate poppy for one year, something General McCaffrey sees as suppressing supply to maintain margins. Afghan farmers are not committed to some agricultural jihad to destroy kids in the west. But years of warfare coinciding with decades of drought devastated not just the land here; they also wiped out much of the connection people had to it as farmers, and much of the collective knowledge base dissipated like dust. Farmers simply want to plant the most profitable crops, and since Afghanistan is one of poppy’s favorite climates, illiterate farmers can grow it with ease. Crops that require more technical savvy to obtain higher yields—and thereby produce an income on top of enough food to feed the family– are beyond the current capacity of the climate or the people.


Typical roadside stall in the violent town of Tarin Kot.

The town and surrounds are the scenes of fierce firefights and massive fields of addiction. As more fields grow poppy, more foodstuffs must pour in from neighbors such as Pakistan, who get a clear boon from Afghanistan’s opium-based economy. Locals can afford imported produce, and explosives to protect their poppy. But only when they grow poppy.


The poppy must go.


Unequivocal eradication is the first bold blade stroke to cut the Gordian knot. General McCaffrey says the message must be brutally clear: “You’ve got to tell the farmer, ‘Grow it and we’ll spray it or chop it down. We’re not going to let you grow opium.’” Listen to audio here.

Sustaining the eradication means replanting poppy fields with something that will grow just as well. This is a challenge because poppies grow in Afghanistan the way wheat grows in Kansas—almost without any help from humans. I toured alternative crops project sites with a CADG employee, a South African farmer named Mr. Michael Koch. Together we visited farms in Helmand Province after I visited farms in Urozgan, both the sites of recent intense and escalating fighting. Mr. Koch said, “Afghanistan has great agricultural potential. The greatest challenge is in getting farmers to try new ideas.”


Alternative Crop Fields under CDAG cultivation.

Competing with opium requires teaching Afghan farmers how to earn more money with alternative crops once we have demonstrated the credibility of an eradication program. Experimental farms in the southern region have had success with “cotton, fruit and certain vegetable crops,” according to Rashid. CDAG projects have overseen agricultural development that includes apricots, raisins, pistachios and walnuts, rice, corn and cotton.


Afghan inertia arises when trying to persuade stone-aged farmers, who typically live in mud houses, that with these new ideas and systems, they can make a decent living without growing poppy.

Mr. Koch and others who know both the climate and the people in Afghanistan say that persuading the farmers to use drip systems for irrigation, or to train grapevines to trellises so that the vines and rows can be planted closer together, is a serious obstacle. But, these methods are essential to make vineyards a viable alternative to the poppy plant because the higher crop density increases profits. Despite inertia, it is possible to persuade farmers to try new ideas by subsidizing the work and giving them access to mentors like Koch, who can increase the odds of success with those first critical harvests. The confidence that is the chief by-product of success is also the only antidote to inertia. In just a few years, the vineyards depicted in the next two photographs will compete with opium poppy. Although he can’t say for certain at this point, Michael Koch believes that in the long run, these vineyards can probably earn more than opium poppies.


 These vines are in the second year in Lashkar Gah.


 Grapevines in third year at Lashkar Gah.

More than seeds are needed



In very hot climates, natives often pile dry vegetation and douse it with water, making an air cooler. At this experimental plot, farmers learn to use better pumps.

Nothing in the stars says Afghanistan must remain a narcotics and terrorism factory. The land has excellent agricultural opportunities, yet western aid programs often refuse to help Afghan farmers with crops that will compete with domestic producers. This makes sense on one level, while making heroin production attractive on another. And diversifying Afghanistan’s agricultural economy won’t happen without substantial investments that go beyond educating farmers. As Rashid notes:

“To grow cash crops, you need roads to take them to market quickly. You need some kind of storage facility. You need refrigeration, perhaps. You need all of these kinds of things and of course this kind of infrastructure is what has been missing from the investment in agriculture.” Listen to audio here.


Searching for Promising Alternative Crops




 Experimental farm: Mr. Koch shows tomatoes from Indian seed that he says can do well in Afghan soil. By experimenting with the land, alternative crops can be developed that can return more money than poppy, such as the variety of apricot tree shown below that yields more fruit in the hot and dry climate


 Determining which varieties make the most sense in different regions takes time, well equipped modern farms and skilled farmers so the only things being tested are the viability of different varietals in trials.


Safe-guarding precious water resources



 Modern farming practices and equipment can make alternative crops a viable alternative to the poppy for farmers, but not without an investment of time, hands-on training, infrastructure enhancement and on-site expertise.

Devices like the one above, which measures evaporation or the drip irrigation system depicted below provide great advantages in water savings and fertilizer delivery, but Afghan inertia leaves farmers reticent to try new ideas. Especially ideas that cost money. We can help there. As General McCaffrey points out:

“The war in Afghanistan and Iraq costs this country seven billion dollars a month. … Look, we’re the ones on the line. My argument has been step forward, do what has to be done so we can stand up a viable political entity in Afghanistan. They’re beautiful people, they are survivors, and they are remarkable people. They want their chance. We need to sustain them and if that means 5 to 10 billion dollars a year in economic aid, then so be it, let’s do it.’” Listen to audio here.


Pulsing Irony: This drip irrigation system was developed in Israel.


Real world tests reveal correctible design flaws, and farmers learn a problem solving style that accommodates learning from mistakes as well as planning for success.



 After seeing them work on experimental farm sites, many farmers have been persuaded to use the Israeli drip system, and to use “tunnels” like the one pictured above.

Tunnels provide agricultural advantages. Farmers who use them can plant earlier, therefore reaching the market before competitors, potentially earning up to 30% more on produce. Providing, of course, the roads and warehouses are in place to support the effort.


As we approached, Mr. Koch mentioned that this farmer seemed to have removed his tunnels a bit soon, but the Afghan quickly explained that a powerful wind swept through and stole the tunnels “like parachutes.”

Despite that two of his tunnels blew away, this farmer was happy and proud to show the success he was gaining.


Meanwhile, while we ignore the problem, another record crop is harvested



A reminder of what is at stake if we fail, next to the alternative crop fields are opium plots


I photographed these tunnels – with cabbage-phase poppy growing to the left, and to the right – just after a large explosion occurred far behind the tunnels. The first phase of the mushroom cloud is just lifting above the trees. An Australian Special Forces officer told us later that his people were only destroying some rockets. Heavy fighting occurs in this area of Urozgan Province, with its vast fields of poppy.


Will they grow up to harvest opium, or wheat? Unfortunately, for this generation, university seems out of the question, but we must avoid allowing these children to grow up to fight the world. I shot this photo while standing in a poppy field, while an experimental plot was growing from the earth in the background.



As we prepare to visit more farmers, our guard–one of the few times we actually had a guard–snapped his AK-47 one-click to automatic. Luckily the speeding car was only a family and the guard did not fire. Severe security issues preclude most work on alternative crops. Opium is adding to the security breakdown.

The tragic irony with all of this is that after winning stunning military victory after stunning military victory in the early war – crushing and vanquishing the Taliban – instead of setting in to seal the victory, we squandered it and ran off to Iraq, and the Taliban re-inflated and returned. At the current rate we, the Brits, Aussies, Canadians, French, Germans, Italians, and all the rest who are there, will lose the war in Afghanistan. We must change course with great haste.

The alternative crops approach can work, and there are other ideas for alternative economies not mentioned here. People are thinking about it. But we are not moving fast enough on long overdue and badly mismanaged reconstruction efforts. We are not taking the opium threat seriously, and so we literally are subsidizing a deadly enemy with poisoned blood and dirty money. Western money will flow into Afghanistan whether we invest it wisely or not. We’ve seen what happens when we ignore the place.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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