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Oh to be in Afghanistan again, when the poppies are in bloom!
For a symbol of how America’s decade-long war is going in this faraway land, look at the beautiful fields of red poppies flowering so bountifully there. Unfortunately, that bounty symbolizes a failure of an ambitious Western initiative against the Taliban forces. Poppies are the raw material for producing opium, and just one Afghan province produces some 40 percent of the world’s opium poppies. That illicit flower power fuels the Taliban with the money to buy weapons, train fighters, bribe Afghan officials, and otherwise make war.
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So, the West’s strategy has included an all out effort to eradicate poppy production, both by banning the crop and by helping Afghanistan’s impoverished sharecroppers switch to such alternatives as wheat and cotton. Good theory! If it works.
It hasn’t. Many poppy growers didn’t like having their sure cash crop taken away from them, so they moved to a desert region that’s under Taliban control and turns out to be remarkably productive poppy land. Meanwhile, those raising wheat and cotton are producing good crops, but the Western development specialists forgot to focus on the key factor in convincing people to switch: profit. Afghan cotton is not competitive with cheaper cotton from Pakistan, plus, the lone cotton mill in the region often isn’t working and is notoriously slow in paying farmers.
Bottom line is that more farmers are going into the desert, because, as one put it, “there aren’t any other crops where we can make enough money to fill our children’s stomachs.” Overall poppy production in Afghanistan was up by seven percent last year and is expected to increase more this year.
Trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is one thing, but first take care of the children’s stomachs. All those blooming poppies are yet another sign that we don’t know we’re doing in Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan, Poppy Growing Proves Resilient,” The New York Times, January 2, 2012.