With the Afghan opium crop planted amidst the fog of war last fall being harvested as you read these words, the interim government of Hamid Karzai has embarked on a belated and half-hearted forced eradication program. But even his government's tentative first steps toward the valuable cash crop have been marked by armed resistance and protests from opium farmers. According to press reports from the region, at least eight opium growers, one government official, and two employees of international non-governmental organizations involved in the eradication program have been killed in fighting as of mid-week.
Although US officials quietly conceded recently that a serious eradication program this year was both impossible -- because of lack of effective central government control -- and undesirable -- because it could threaten the warlord bases of the Karzai government -- the Afghan regime has received $50 million from US, UN and British coffers for a token effort to keep up international appearances. Early indications are it won't be easy. Many farmers are deeply in debt to local warlords, and the government's offer of $500 per eradicated acre is far below current market price for the highly-valued poppies.
Trouble broke out on the first day of the recently announced program, when tribal poppy farmers in Nangahar province in eastern Pakistan spotted provincial officials surveying their fields. The farmers opened fire, killing the official in charge of security on the main highway and two NGO workers, according to the Associated Press. Four others were wounded. Later that day, hundreds of Shenwari tribesman blocked the highway over the Kyhber Pass between Jalalabad and Peshawar, Pakistan, pelting vehicles with rocks, skirmishing with government forces, and blocking the return of an estimated 20,000 refugees, who remain stranded on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Despite skirmishes with the small-plot poppy farmers, police were unable to open the highway as of Wednesday.
In southern Helmand province, Afghanistan's opium basket, thousands of poppy farmers marching on local government offices to protest the eradication program were fired on by government troops. Troops blocked the protestors, who turned their anger on the soldiers, pelting their vehicles with rocks. The soldiers fired first into the air, then into the crowd, according to Afghan officials interviewed by AP, killing eight and wounding dozens.
Poppy farmer Abdul Hakim was one of the wounded. As he lay in a hospital in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, with a bullet wound in his chest, he told AP the farmers were angry with both the Karzai government and its US backers. "People have spent so much money on their crops. They're tired, they work hard. And now the government is trying to eradicate their crops," the 34-year-old Hakim said. "Death to America," Hakim said the protestors chanted. They blamed the US for foisting the eradication program on the country, he said.
The Afghan government is so far standing tall, at least rhetorically. Ashar Ghani, a senior advisor to Karzai, told the New York Times the government would resist the demands of the poppy farmers, whom he described as victims of ruthless local businessmen. "There are people who have been making fortunes out of the misery of others," Ghani said, "and you would expect them to raise the specter of violence, of instability, of threats. We are determined to move ahead."
But the Karzai government has plenty of other threats to worry about.