Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Michael Yon - In The Poppy Fields, Not Kansas

The Sleeping Poppy: Papaver Somniferum. Now I know we’re not in Kansas. People come and go so quickly around here. Photo Credit: Michael Yon

Reporting directly from Afghanistan, Michael Yon continues on his latest journey into the warzone to write the truth as to what is going on - on the ground outside of Kabul.

Excerpts from Michael Yon: Online Magazine -

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006
Desert of Death
Dasht-e-Margo“Desert of Death”
Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion

As our bags were loaded into the Land Cruiser for the journey toward Dasht-e-Margo, the Desert of Death, a man wearing a bomb closes in. Before striking off, we again visit the PRT in Lashkar Gah, where Steve huddles with some Afghan employees. An entire British Army unit has defected, he said, with their weapons and equipment. The Afghans grow quiet, until Steve says, “And they joined the Taliban.”

After talking with some friendly British soldiers we start the drive into a mostly desolate stretch through scattered villages. Steve needs to get to Camp Bastion where he has about $12 million in current construction contracts, and where his crews are just finishing the new base camps for the British Army.

Business and politics don’t count for much when a brainwashed man wearing a bomb is trying to make some westerners into Humpty Dumpty’s. The human-bomb-delivery-system was lurking close by, and ready to begin tracking a target. To me, suicide bombers are cheap laser-guided-precision-munitions, without the lasers.

Often when an attack is imminent, shops will close and children will vanish from the streets, and such was the case today. Driving away from the PRT down rough unpaved road toward the Desert of Death, a breakdown, flat tire, or a minor accident could be fatal, exposing us to bandits, Taliban or even Al Qaeda, not to mention that man who was packing lots of explosives. He was parked, according to a British soldier, in a red Toyota just near the PRT. The soldier said the man got out of the Toyota just as some Dyncorp contractors came by, and he walked over to the armored SUV and BOOM!
In many villages there was enough water to grow vast amounts of poppy. I was scanning for ambushes when Steve said, “A lot of times they’ll set up road blocks wearing police or Army uniforms.”

“But that’s not fair.” I chuckled, “That’s cheating.”

Steve laughed, “Sure is Mister. Sure is.”

In fact, hundreds of Taliban would soon mass on the route ahead resulting in a massive firefight that ended with more than 40 killed.

Steve believes it’s safer to travel overland through desert shortcuts where foreigners rarely venture; the various species of bad guys, he says, do not expect crazy foreigners to rocket through, and by the time we get close enough that they might notice, hopefully we are gone.
Some days earlier I’d read a confidential report saying that 80% of some arable parts of Helmand are growing poppy, but the “good” news is that other areas of Helmand are only 30% under poppy. On average, the report indicated that well over 70% of the cropland in Helmand is yielding poppy. Next week, during harvest, the plants will be dripping and oozing opium. From Afghanistan, it seems obvious why our allies in Europe are concerned even while the U.S. draws down forces here.

No doubt some of the heroin also will land in America. A crop this bountiful is bound to flood the market. The reason most often cited for the Americans’ essential-acquiescence over the poppy is that we do not want to alienate farmers in our search for terrorists, although we contend that opium money funds the terrorists. Some of our European friends see this as, well - they have some choice words. Of those I am willing to convey in writing, the kindest and most diplomatic is that, “You Americans are making a pact with the Devil.” As much as I usually enjoy arguing with Europeans about Americans, there is no fun in it when they are right.”
The vineyard (above) will not generate positive cash flow for about 3 years, and will not make a profit for perhaps 5-6 years, whereas the poppy fields around it turn profits in months. In the long term, the farmer with the vineyard likely can earn greater profits for less work - and not risk the wrath of an eradication team. But in the short term, where eradication is practically non-existent, the opium is sweet and grapes are sour.
There is practically no competition for heroin. What Florida is to the citrus tree, Afghanistan is to Papaver somniferum.
Government offices in some Helmand districts are closing under Taliban pressure. The countryside we saw was obviously not administered by western forces, and did not appear to be controlled by anyone other than, perhaps, the Taliban and the bandits.
Peering out the car window, knowing that bandits or Taliban might be upon us in a flash, I had no idea that a major, very deadly firefight was brewing nearby.
The poppy fields of Afghanistan bring us back to Kansas where, once upon a time when everything was black and white, Dorothy imagines a place where there is no trouble, a place very far away, and she starts singing
“S o m e W h e r e O v e r t h e R a i n b o w .”
We say goodbye to the men who will shortly take to the fields, and we strike out again down Highway 1, away from the Desert of Death, passing by where the trucks were attacked, by the nomads again, through the poppy fields, back to Lashkar Gah, where another suicide attack is unfolding.
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