Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan is named for the wide river that runs through its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a low-slung city of shrubby roundabouts and glass-fronted market blocks. When I visited in April, there was an expectant atmosphere, like that of a whaling town waiting for the big ships to come in. In the bazaars, the shops were filled with dry goods, farming machinery and motorcycles. The teahouses, where a man could spend the night on the carpet for the price of his dinner, were packed with migrant laborers, or nishtgar, drawn from across the southern provinces, some coming from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan. The schools were empty; in war-torn districts, police and Taliban alike had put aside their arms. It was harvest time.
Across the province, hundreds of thousands of people were taking part in the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history. With a record 224,000 hectares under cultivation this year, the country produced an estimated 6,400 tons of opium, or around 90 percent of the world’s supply. The drug is entwined with the highest levels of the Afghan government and the economy in a way that makes the cocaine business in Escobar-era Colombia look like a sideshow. The share of cocaine trafficking and production in Colombia’s GDP peaked at six percent in the late 1980s; in Afghanistan today, according to U.N. estimates, the opium industry accounts for 15 percent of the economy, a figure that is set to rise as the West withdraws. “Whatever the term narco state means, if there is a country to which it applies, it is Afghanistan,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies illicit economies in conflict zones. “It is unprecedented in history.”
Even more shocking is the fact that the Afghan narcotics trade has gotten undeniably worse since the U.S.-led invasion: The country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How did all those poppy fields flower under the nose of one of the biggest international military and development missions of our time? The answer lies partly in the deeply cynical bargains struck by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid to consolidate power, and partly in the way the U.S. military ignored the corruption of its allies in taking on the Taliban. It’s the story of how, in pursuit of the War on Terror, we lost the War on Drugs in Afghanistan by allying with many of the same people who turned the country into the world’s biggest source of heroin.
Nowhere is this more apparent than here in Helmand, where nearly a thousand U.S. and coalition soldiers lost their lives during the war, the highest toll of any province. Helmand alone accounts for almost half of Afghanistan’s opium production, and police and government officials are alleged to be deeply involved in the drug trade. But the Afghan government’s line is that poppy cultivation only takes place in areas controlled by the Taliban. “There’s no opium in the nearby districts,” Maj. Gen. Abdul Qayum Baqizoi, who was the provincial police chief at the time, tells me. “The opium is in the faraway areas, and they’re not safe for you to visit.”
However, on my second day in town, I meet a 28-year-old soft-spoken teacher named Hekmat. He says that he can take me to relatively secure areas in Marjah, just outside Lashkar Gah, where poppy is being grown. His family is involved in the business, he says. And anyhow, he’s free – the students have gone to work on the harvest.
The next day, Hekmat and I cross the broad torrent of the Helmand River and head west, along a smooth stretch of paved road that was once a dirt track studded with roadside bombs. It’s hard to imagine now, but Marjah was once the site of one of the fiercest battles of the war, when, in 2010, the Marines air-assaulted into the Taliban-controlled area, braving gun battles and tangles of IED traps amid the mud-walled compounds and orchards. Today, the area is peaceful, the kind of green, flat farmland where you can watch a tree scroll slowly across the horizon as you drive, or a faraway thunderhead mount. The weather is hot, and the air has the nectary scent of early summer. Marjah is crisscrossed by irrigation canals; their banks, bushy with vegetation, sprout pump hoses that shoot down like drinking straws. Half-naked kids plunge from the mud embankment into the cool brown water.
“This area was all controlled by the Taliban until the Marines came,” says Hekmat. He smiles fondly. “It was great when the Marines were here.” The Americans spent freely, showering the locals with cash-for-work projects and construction contracts, and outfitting a local, anti-Taliban militia that employs child soldiers and imposes a levy on opium fields. We pass a wide scar of cleared ground that had once held a Marine outpost. “But now they’re all gone.”
Originally an empty stretch of desert west of the Helmand River, Marjah was developed into farmland by a massive irrigation project that began in 1946 and drew support from USAID, as part of the Cold War competition for influence against the Soviets. Nomadic tribes from around the country were resettled here, and its fields became fertile with wheat, melons, pomegranates – and, with the arrival of the wars four decades ago, opium poppies.
Pulling off onto a dirt road, we thread our way between the high mud walls that enclose each family compound here and come to a stop. Hekmat’s paternal uncle, Mirza Khan, wearing a robe and a neatly trimmed beard, greets us warmly. Behind him is a field of dull-green poppies, the end result of the tiny black seeds he and his family sowed back in November. “I’ve been planting this since the time of the Communist revolution,” he says.
Mirza Khan’s son is standing amid the chest-high stalks, in his hand a lancing tool, a curved piece of wood with four shallow blades on its tip. Lancing is laborious and delicate work; he moves one by one to each bulb, cradling it with his left hand and drawing the blades across it in a diagonal stroke with his right. “You can’t press too deeply, or otherwise the bulb dries up after just one lancing,” he explains, his hands flicking deftly among the poppy heads. “We’re able to come back and lance each of them four or five times.”
The bulbs are lanced in the afternoon, and the milky sap seeps out through the night, thickening and oxidizing into a dark-brown hue. In the mornings, the nishtgar go from bulb to bulb scraping off the sticky resin with a flat blade, which they wipe into a tin can hanging around their necks. Fifteen workers can harvest a productive hectare within a week. When you consider that Helmand alone has at least 100,000 hectares under cultivation, you get a sense of the vast amount of manpower that must be mobilized.