New opium production bodes ill for Afghan security

Posted May 18, 2012, at 9:06 p.m.

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Four years ago, Afghan and U.S. officials touted Nangarhar as a model for Afghanistan’s other 33 provinces, bolstered by successes against the Taliban and the near-total eradication of opium poppies.

The tide has since turned. Poppy growing is rising, as is support for the insurgency, fueled in part by a harsh government poppy-eradication drive that’s sparked clashes and led some farmers to sow land mines. Many people fear that one of the most crucial provinces will only slip deeper into bloodshed and corruption as U.S. troops withdraw.

Popular backing for the Taliban “is greater than before, and it’s increasing,” warned Malik Hassan Khan, the district chief of the province’s Nazian district.

It’s unlikely that such dark assessments will be heard at the NATO summit that opens Sunday in Chicago. Amid cheery declarations of improved stability after more than a decade of war, President Barack Obama and his fellow leaders are expected to finalize the exit of U.S.-led combat forces by 2014.

Nangarhar’s backsliding “doesn’t fit the good narrative that people want to see propagated at this moment,” said a Western official, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.

Yet what happens in the province of 1.5 million people as NATO’s U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force leaves could significantly affect Afghanistan’s security, and provide an indication of where the country as a whole might be headed.

Nangarhar is a major financial and political hub. The traffic-clogged, dust-drenched provincial center of Jalalabad is eastern Afghanistan’s most populous city and business magnet. One of the few cities that are still a relatively safe drive from Kabul, Jalalabad hosts the U.S. base that oversees combat operations along the nearby border with Pakistan’s tribal area, the insurgency’s main sanctuary.

River-watered plains sprout lush crops of wheat and other produce that feed the region, providing jobs for the licit economy. The mountainous frontier with Pakistan is a major smuggling conduit that powers the illicit economy. The Pakistani rupee is preferred over the afghani.

The province controls the centuries-old trade — and invasion — corridor that runs from Pakistan’s port of Karachi through the fabled Khyber Pass to Kabul, and north to Central Asia.

Nangarhar’s strategic importance led U.S. and Afghan officials in 2004 to intensify counterinsurgency operations. They also backed an aggressive drive by the governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, to eradicate poppy — the plant that produces opium, from which heroin is made — a major source of income for the Taliban. Afghanistan supplies about 90 percent of the world’s illegal opium.

Sufficient progress was made by 2008 that U.S. diplomats and commanders promoted a $3.2 billion development and job-creation plan that they dubbed “Nangarhar Inc.” The United Nations declared the province “poppy free,” earning Nangarhar a reward of $10 million.

The U.S. plan, however, never materialized, and poppy growing has risen every year since then, reaching an estimated 6,000 acres last year. While that’s nowhere near the 2004 level of some 69,680 acres, Western and Afghan officials expect an annual U.N. survey to find that more than 7,400 acres were planted in Nangarhar this year.

Experts view poppy cultivation, which is illegal in Afghanistan, as a barometer of security: A low level indicates that people are living mostly by licit means and cooperating with the government.

On the other hand, “Where there is poppy cultivation, there is insecurity,” said Syed Ubaidullah Dinarkhel, Nangarhar’s director of counter-narcotics. Interviews earlier this month with a dozen tribal elders and local officials confirmed that the increase in poppy cultivation in Nangarhar has been accompanied by rising support for the Taliban, who in some areas help farmers protect their crops in return for shares in the proceeds.

“People will support those who can help them feed their families,” said Maulvi Gulam Habib, of Achin district, who drove to Jalalabad with other elders because it was too dangerous for a foreign reporter to visit their areas.

(c)2012 the McClatchy Washington Bureau

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