By Golnar Motevalli
SHEWAN, Afghanistan, April 25 (Reuters) - Big red tractors plough through lush fields, ripping up white and pink opium poppy blossoms alongside a stretch of highway in western Afghanistan guarded by U.S. and Afghan troops.
Eradicating poppy crops is one of the main planks of Afghan government and U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, which they say will help rid Taliban insurgents of a major source of income and prevent the war-weary country becoming a failed narco-state.
But Major Cedric Burden, who is mentoring the Afghan police team running the operation in Afghanistan’s western Farah province, wonders if the eradication mission is playing into the enemy’s hands.
"(The farmers) are doing something wrong, but they’re making money and feeding their family. In his mind his doesn’t think he’s doing wrong, he thinks he’s doing right," Burden said. "So will (eradication) turn him against the government? Sure."
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, used to make heroin, and Farah, a vast desert near the Iranian border, is the country’s third-biggest poppy-producing province, having cultivated more than 15,000 hectares (37,070 acres) in 2008, according to the United Nations.
Farmers whose crops are destroyed are given no compensation for losing their harvest, but are supplied wheat seed and fertiliser and urged to replace poppy with the grain, which is the most abundant crop in the area.
"You can knock all the fields down, but you’ve got to give them something else because now you’ll just turn them against you. You just took food out their kid’s mouth ... most of these people are pretty poor," Burden added.
LINKS IN A CHAIN
Supporters of the eradication policy say destroying the smaller fields of opium and replacing them with wheat is necessary in order to break the link between local people and powerful drug lords or insurgents.
"Terrorists, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, drug lords and some farmers are dependent on each other like links in a chain," said Lieutenant Commander Khalil Nehmatullah, commander of the Afghan battalion that helped stand guard as tractors crushed the crop.
Nehmatullah said that most of the people of Farah understand that poppy farming funds the insurgency and fuels drug addiction and that they could be persuaded to turn their backs on the crop.
"My perception is that people are generally against poppy cultivation. People see its side effects, their families become addicted, they become dependent on the drug lords, on the Taliban and the terrorists," Nehmatullah said.
Locals say they agree. A few metres away from where the tractors bumped along through the fields, goatherd Abdul Ghani walked his son to school accompanied by his animals.
"This is haram," he said, using an Arabic word meaning something that is forbidden in Islam to refer to the poppies growing in field behind. "It’s not right, it’s good for nobody. It has to go. It turns people desperate."
But Burden said the small farms along the highway that his team was helping destroy may not be the most effective target of the operation.
Much larger fields far from the highway edge, which were also targeted in the operation, probably belonged to powerful landowners who maintain isolated irrigation systems in remote desert plains away from the road.
"These fields belong probably to officials somewhere, the reason why you can tell is because they are in the middle of the desert, there is no water out there, there’s not even a house," Burden said. "They may not be Taliban but they are crooked or they are trying to get more money out of drugs." (Editing by Alex Richardson)