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Taliban, poppies returning to once-secure Afghan province

Casey Barlow, 23, of Salem, Ore., squeezes an opium poppy bulb during a 2009 patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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.

Popular support for the insurgents, they said, has been fueled by Sherzai’s U.S.-backed eradication campaign, which has mobilized some 800 Afghan police officers and soldiers and has destroyed more than 3,000 acres of poppy just since March.

More than 200 farmers have been arrested, and at least five Afghan security personnel and several civilians have died in bomb blasts and clashes, Afghan officials said.

“We are very serious. We are very harsh with these farmers,” Dinarkhel said. “In order to bring security and peace, we have to fight the drugs.”

A massive spike in the price of opium, the result of a shortage due to a disease that attacked poppy crops in 2010, hasn’t helped.

Opium, which had sold for up to $165 per kilogram, now fetches as much as $400 per kilogram, explained Dinarkhel, who waved a sheaf of papers that he said were broken pledges not to grow poppy signed by farmers across the province.

The massive profits have generated massive corruption, according to the elders. They charged that local and provincial officials conspire with farmers to eradicate only small portions of their crops in return for bribes and shares in the proceeds.

Provincial and local officials “make a deal with the owners of the land,” asserted Aziz ur-Rehman Sidiqi, an elder from Batikot district.

The problem almost certainly will worsen, several experts warned.

With a presidential election set for 2014 and parliamentary polls due the next year, powerful officials and warlords will have to find other sources of lucre to feed their patronage networks as spending by U.S.-led combat forces dries up, they said.

The elders and local officials cited a host of other reasons for the worsening situation.
Feeble governance, a lack of development and searing poverty — especially in remote areas — topped every list.

“We don’t have potable water in the district. None of the roads in the district are paved and they are used by the enemy to plant” homemade bombs, said Khan, the Nazian district chief. Building new infrastructure “can create jobs and prevent poppy cultivation, and that can keep down the Taliban’s influence.”

Deputy Gov. Mohammad Hanif Gardiwal insisted that the high price of opium and intimidation by the Taliban are the main reasons for the spread of poppy cultivation.
He vehemently denied that the provincial government promises to approve aid projects in return for farmers’ agreeing not to plant.

“We don’t make any deals,” he said.

Khan, however, said farmers increasingly were unwilling to heed demands not to plant poppy because Sherzai and other officials — himself included — have repeatedly broken promises to build dams, roads and other infrastructure.

“The anger of the people is extreme,” he said. “They are poor people, and we have seized the bread from their mouths. We are lying to people. We tell them, ‘We will help you. We will bring you some projects and we will bring you wheat and other stuff to grow.’ But people know we’re lying because they have tested us before.”

Asked how he avoided retribution, he replied: “I bring a tribal elder from every village as part of a delegation to the provincial governor. If the provincial governor lies to them, then he is lying directly to them, and I won’t be blamed.”

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