Drugs, Drought, and Jihad: Environmental History of the Afghanistan War - ASIA - Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)



Chapter 9. Drugs, Drought, and Jihad: Environmental History of the Afghanistan War

A good year is determined by its spring.

—Afghan proverb

THE OLD FARMER opened walnuts and pomegranates in the courtyard of his mud-walled fortress home and explained his troubles. Wazir, the farmer, grows opium poppy and marijuana in a border district of southern Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan. The border, the Durand Line, runs along the ridges of a forbidding, snow-capped mountain range, which feeds the rivers that water Nangarhar’s scorching valleys.1

When I visited in early September 2006, the area was in the midst of a very bad drought. As the United Nations had discovered during a survey four years earlier, wells had been running dry for most of the last decade, as Afghanistan suffered “the most severe drought in living memory.”2 Scientists link this desiccation to climate change, particularly rising temperatures in the mountains and a slight decrease in precipitation.

The drought in Nangarhar finally broke in 2010 when the colossal Arabian Ocean Monsoon that flooded some 20 percent of Pakistan brushed along the Durand Line. In Pakistan, the United Nations estimated that almost 2,000 people had died, 14 million needed humanitarian aid, 2.4 million hectares of crops were lost, 1.9 million homes were destroyed or damaged, and over 7 million people were homeless. Perhaps worse, the floods destroyed 50 years of infrastructure. The economic total for losses was estimated to be $43 billion.3 By 2011 serious malnutrition gripped the flood zone.

In Afghanistan, the edge of the same weather system hit several eastern provinces, including Nangarhar, which was at the very periphery of the monsoon’s reach. Typically, August in Nangarhar is bone dry, with precipitation of less than five millimeters for the whole month.4 But that year, the skies opened, and the massive barrage of rain washed away crops, livestock, and twenty-five hundred houses, killing eighty people.

According to the security reports, Nangarhar is not only either parched or flooded but also violent: Twenty-three mostly war-related incidents were listed during the week I made my visit in September 2006. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), that week saw kidnapping threats, ongoing counterinsurgency operations, and “reported infiltration of a new group of AGE/Insurgents” made up of “Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis”; two vehicles used by “armed Taliban” were spotted in Sherzad District, and there were several rocket attacks. The ANSO reports portrayed a region beyond government control.

Only the drug trade has kept this region afloat economically, but eradication is a constant, if often distant, threat. Wazir recounted the panic of the local farmers when a poppy-eradication squad came down from Kabul. “The eradication campaign came, but they just took bribes,” said Wazir as we sat in his dera‚ a shaded outside visiting area, on rope and wooden cots called charpayi. “When we heard that they were coming, we went to the district governor and negotiated a price.” Wazir told me that the local commander, named Hasil, was chosen as the farmers’ envoy. After taking bribes, for the sake of the cameras the police destroyed some old, dry, spent poppy fields.

“If the governor had not accepted the bribe, we were ready to fight. If a farmer loses his poppy he can’t even have tea and sugar. He will borrow money from a rich person and lose his land.” Wazir said that emergency loans carry 100 percent interest rates.

Climatic stress, an initial catalyst for Afghan instability, is now fueling violence. This is what the catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate change looks like in Afghanistan: eroded soil, limited water, greedy police, foreign troops, popular anger, and an insurgency that protects poppy crops from eradication.

The Role of Drought

In 2008 the British government issued a report describing what climate change will do to Afghanistan: “The most likely adverse impacts … are drought related, including associated dynamics of desertification and land degradation. Drought is likely to be regarded as the norm by 2030, rather than as a temporary or cyclical event… . Floods due to untimely rainfall and a general increase in temperature are of secondary importance. However, their impacts may be amplified due to more rapid spring snow melt as a result of higher temperatures, combined with the downstream effects of land degradation, loss of vegetative cover and land mismanagement.”5

Read the history of the war in Afghanistan closely, and a climate angle emerges. Central Asia is suffering water shocks—droughts and floods—that fit the pattern of anthropogenic global warming. Two-thirds of Afghans work in agriculture; yet, much of the country is desert, and its irrigation system is badly dilapidated. The extreme weather of climate change causes misery, which causes violence, which leads to more misery, and so on. At first glance, the most important cause of war in Afghanistan is the US presence there: the United States and its NATO allies are in Afghanistan to hunt down and destroy Al Qaeda and/or to build an Afghan state that will deny sanctuary to international terrorists. The Taliban, on the other hand, are fighting to eject the infidel invaders.

But there was war in Afghanistan before the United States intervened overtly and even before America’s first covert intervention under President Jimmy Carter in 1979. There was war before the Soviet intervention of December 1979. In many ways the earliest origins of the current conflict are the 1973 coup d’état of Lieutenant General Mohammed Daud Khan against King Mohammed Zahir Shah. And within the story of Daud’s coup lurks an element of hidden climate causality.

Yes, religious fanaticism, ethnic hatreds, and imperial ambitions are the larger moving pieces, but climate change also fuels the conflict in Afghanistan. First, the violence began as the result of a drought forty years ago. Second, climate stress creates poverty and desperation, which now feeds the insurgency against NATO occupation. Third, climate change causes interstate rivalries, which play out as covert operations inside Afghanistan. Finally, and very importantly, opium poppy is drought resistant to an extent alternative crops are not, and NATO attacks poppy while the Taliban defends it. Let us begin the story with the drought and the coup that deposed King Zahir Shah.

Vacation King

In 1969 the rains in many parts of Afghanistan failed completely. During the next two years, they failed again. Then came a very severe winter; to survive, many farmers were forced to eat their seeds and slaughter their bullocks, leaving them little to plant and few animals to pull plows. As a result, the 1972 wheat crop was inadequate, and by April famine swept northern and central Afghanistan. According to Raja Anwar, it was “the most terrible famine in Afghan history.”6

Ghor Province, in the remote interior of the country, was hardest hit. A thousand years ago the place was heavily forested, but its hills also held mineral deposits, so Ghor’s trees were felled and burned to smelt the local ore. Then, the denuded region became the heart of medieval Afghanistan’s cattle industry, but the cows, goats, and sheep destroyed the land. Now, Ghor almost looks like the moon—totally barren. Only along the rivers and streambeds is farming possible. For most people, small sage bushes gathered during the summer on faraway hills are the single source of fuel.7

The first journalist to break the story of the 1972 famine was Abdul Haq Waleh, editor of a local newspaper called Caravan. He traveled to Chakhcharan, the small dusty capital of Ghor, and found a terrifying scene: corpses littered the street; survivors could not dig graves fast enough to keep hungry dogs at bay; scores of children had been abandoned by parents who could no longer feed them or orphaned by parents who had starved.

The next journalist to visit was James Sterba of the New York Times. At first Sterba’s editors on the foreign desk refused to run his story because it didn’t contain enough statistics. How many people had died? He tried to explain that Afghanistan was not a land of statistics; no one even knew the population of Afghanistan; guesses varied by 5 million in either direction. Finally, Sterba sent back three rolls of film that he had shot in Ghor. The horror was undeniable, and the Times ran Sterba’s story about the abandoned children of the famine. Here is an excerpt: “The boy’s spindly body sank slowly to the dusty gravel road. He lowered his head to the pebbles, resting his sunken cheek on his hand. His dry, cracked lips did not close. He tried to cover his feet, but the torn, dirt encrusted rags he wore were not long enough. He placed an empty tin can, his only possession, near his stomach. And then he started to cry.”8

While thousands starved to death in the mountains, little was said or done about the problem in Kabul. As one report put it, “What killed the people stricken by the drought, in the view of Afghan and foreign observers, was not only lack of food in their regions but also governmental indifference, and greed and official corruption.”9

King Mohammed Zahir Shah had taken power in 1933 at the age of nineteen when his father was assassinated. Young, weak, and unconcerned with the plight of his people, Zahir Shah was dominated by his cousins and uncles; they ruled and used the young king as a ceremonial ornament and a key to the palace. From these arrangements emerged an inept and passive style of government, but as he matured Zahir Shah asserted more power. In 1964 he created an elected parliament, but it was a largely ineffective body dominated by landlords, religious scholars, and tribal leaders whose conservatism made them actively oppose any modernization.10 Political parties were illegal. Almost comical gridlock and stagnation were the norm. During 1970 not a single piece of legislation was passed. Other years saw only one or two bills become into law.11 Afghanistan remained isolated, economically stagnant, underdeveloped, impoverished, and politically unorganized. Five governments were elected and collapsed in less than a decade. One development proposal from West Germany worth $10 million in aid lingered in parliament for three years without action.

As drought became famine, the king and his squabbling little parliament lived in a fantasy world. When aid efforts were finally launched, corruption rendered them useless—just another scheme by which to steal from the people. In Chakhcharan, at the heart of the famine, frustrated and hungry farmers attacked a government building.12 Meanwhile, in Kabul, the ferment of the late 1960s arrived; university students took to the streets and battled each other on campus—communists versus Islamists, Maoists versus Stalinists, all of them versus Spiro Agnew, who stopped by for a visit in 1970.13 Among these activists were the men who in the 1980s would lead both the communist government and the mujahideen.

These student protests were not caused by the weather, or the climate, or the farmers’ suffering, but they were related to all that. Especially as farmers began to die, famine in the countryside became a stark symbol of the king’s incompetence and distance from the nation.

By the summer of 1973, the country was in its third year of drought and famine. The wheat harvest was again very bad. An ethnographic film made that year showed an Afghan farmer explaining the troubles: “The past two years have been hard. No one can explain God’s will. No rain has fallen and many are hungry. We get up early in this hot climate. We have tea and bread and work until 4 in the afternoon.”14

The New York Times reported, “There has been much discontent in Afghanistan over government efforts to deal with a famine brought on by a three-year drought. More than 80,000 people are said to have died in the famine.”15 Another New York Times report put it this way: “No one knows how many people live in Afghanistan—estimates range from 9 million to 17 million—and no estimate even exists of those who have starved to death.”16 The king, meanwhile, was vacationing off the coast of Naples, at the mineral springs on the island of Ischia. As it turned out, his vacation would last almost forty years.

The Famine Coup

On July 17, 1973, something finally snapped. Lieutenant General Mohammed Daud Khan, the king’s cousin and brother-in-law, seized power in a coup d’état. Eight people were reported killed in small firefights between police loyal to the king and soldiers following Daud. 17 The bald-headed Daud had been Zahir Shah’s closest adviser for much of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As prime minister during those years, Daud essentially ruled the country on the king’s behalf. Daud was a modernizer, and he courted both the United States and the Soviet Union to build roads, dams, schools, and factories. But in 1963, Zahir Shah pushed aside Daud.

Once back in power, Daud declared martial law, abolished the monarchy, and set up a presidential republic with himself as head of state. Within days of the coup, food prices had dropped. His enemies were jailed, sometimes killed, often exiled.18 An intense Pashtun nationalist and irredentist, Daud considered the Afghanistan-Pakistan border an illegitimate colonial imposition. Drawn up in 1893 by the British diplomat Mortimer Durand, the eponymous Durand Line ceded huge Pashtun-dominated swaths of royal Afghanistan (including the winter capital, Peshawar) to British India. After 1947 these lands became part of Pakistan.

As president, Daud started antagonizing Pakistan and talking of a greater Pashtunistan.19 He set up a training camp outside Kandahar for Baluch rebels to foment trouble across the border in Pakistan, and he encouraged Pashtun nationalism inside Pakistan.20 Later, under the communist government, Afghanistan would behave similarly. For example, it harbored and supported Murtaza Bhutto’s red terror squad, Al Zulficar, which tried to overthrow General Muhammed Zia ul-Huq, the right-wing dictator who ran Pakistan from 1977 to 1988.21

Needless to say, Pakistanis do not see Afghanistan’s claim upon their territory as legitimate, and Pakistan welcomed and trained radical Islamists from Afghanistan as soon as Daud came to power. Beginning in 1973, Pakistan supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his party Hezb-i-Islami. This later became an anti-Soviet, Pakistani-based mujahideen force and has been allied with the Taliban since about 2005.

Since its inception, the Pakistani officer class has sought to keep Afghanistan weak so as to provide “strategic depth,” or fallback room, in case of a major land war with India. On both sides of the border live Pashtuns. In Afghanistan, Pashtuns have always been the ruling ethnicity, but in Pakistan they are a large, poor, restive minority, making up about 16 percent of the population. The last thing Pakistan wants is for the Pashtun minority within its borders to link up with, or become tools of, a strong neighboring Afghanistan ruled by Pashtuns and allied with India.

Daud’s new republican government included opposing elements of both the communists of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and politically active Islamists. Both of these Red and Green revolutionary tendencies had gestated on the campus of Kabul University. In a fateful pattern reminiscent of Kasim in Iraq and other developmentalist strongmen, Daud tried to play the opposition forces off against each other, using a mix of political co-optation and repression. The PDPA had positions in government, but Daud also repressed them. The balancing act did not last for long.

Saur Revolution

In April 1978 a faction of the PDPA overthrew Daud in a coup, beginning the so-called Saur Revolution, named for the month of April in which it happened.

Afghanistan’s Communist Party was dysfunctional, divided, and intoxicated by ideology. Almost immediately, the PDPA started attacking its own cadre. It also implemented well-intentioned but poorly planned land reform, which abolished bazaar moneylenders but did not provide farmers with an alternative credit structure. Other new laws enforced gender equality, universal education, and workers rights, but the headlong rush toward modernity proved too much for Afghanistan’s deeply conservative rural culture. In April 1979, the military garrison in Herat rose in rebellion. By that autumn, the Afghan army had essentially fallen apart.

Since the 1950s Afghanistan had been the fourth-largest recipient of Soviet aid. The Soviets had fought Muslim rebels who had used a weak Afghanistan as their base until the mid-1930s.22 After World War II, the USSR saw stability in Central Asia as hinging on stability in, and cordial relations with, Afghanistan. So, they pumped large flows of aid into their neighbor south of the Amu Darya. Watching the Afghan meltdown of 1979, the Soviets faced the loss of a client state and the possibility of renewed Islamic insurgency infecting their own Central Asian republics. Whether the Soviet Union invaded or was invited in, it then killed Hafizullah Amin, the extremist PDPA president who had summoned them, putting in his place the more moderate Babrak Karmal. Still, the war had begun.

The United States saw the intervention as a major Soviet blunder, and thus, as an American opportunity. The United States and Saudi Arabia were soon giving $8 billion in aid to the Pakistan-based and -supported mujahideen, who were fighting to overthrow the PDPA government.23

When the mujahideen finally won power in 1992, they immediately set to fighting among themselves, destroying half of Kabul in the process. Out of that civil war emerged the Taliban as a vigilante law-and-order force. When the Taliban secured the roads, it won the support of the Pakistani trucking mafia and then of the Pakistani intelligence services. When Osama bin Laden was ejected from the Sudan, he found sanctuary with the Taliban regime. By September 11, 2001, the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. And thus, the stage was set for the current war.


British government researchers see a link between global warming and conflict in Afghanistan. They note how records since 1960 show that the mean annual temperature in Afghanistan has increased by 0.6°C while mean rainfall has decreased by about 2 percent per decade.24 More important than rain is snowpack. For most of the year, snowmelt maintains a steady volume of water in the rivers, streams, and canals that feed the farms on Afghanistan’s desiccated and brutally hot plains.

Meltwater accounts for as much as 70 percent of the Kabul River’s dry-season volume. The Kabul flows west through Nangarhar, enters Pakistan and joins the Indus, which flows south to the sea.

In Kabul city, the river’s plight is apparent to the naked eye. Through clouds of wind-whipped dust, one can see that the Kabul—a crucial source of water for the city’s 3 million residents—has dwindled to little more that a trash-choked trickle. At numerous times over the last ten years, it has been completely dry.25 The last decade of drought has brought Afghan agriculture to new lows. Some 80 percent of Afghans work the land, but, as a British government report called “Socio-Economic Impacts of Climate Change in Afghanistan” noted, “Most Afghan farmers are currently not self-sufficient in cereal production even in good years.”The UK Department for International Development reports, “The vulnerability of the agricultural sector to increased temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns and snowmelt is considered to be high. Increased soil evaporation, reduced river flow from earlier snow melt, and less frequent rain during peak cultivation seasons will all impact upon agricultural productivity and crop choice availability.”26

The winter of 2010 was again “unusually warm and dry,” stoking fears that drought “could cause food shortages, undermine efforts to slash poppy growing and worsen security problems.” Across the mountains of central Afghanistan, the snowpack was only four to twelve inches deep, compared to the normal one to six feet. The imams asked people to pray for rain.27

A report from April 2010 noted that “below-average rainfall has hit food production in eastern and northeastern Afghanistan where some rain-fed fields have dried out.” Hamidullah, a farmer from Nangarhar, explained, “I planted wheat on my land but it has failed due to lack of rain.” Another farmer in a nearby district said, “I spent 70,000 Afghanis [US$1,450] on wheat and onion seeds but my fields have dried out.” In spring of 2010, drought hit twelve of Nangarhar’s twenty-three districts. Farmers begged for food aid and irrigation assistance. Then in May, the drought gave way to sudden torrential rains across parts of central and eastern Afghanistan; flash floods washed away crops, livestock, and topsoil, displacing thousands and killing scores.28

That was merely a preview. August brought more sudden, totally unexpected floods. “After hammering Pakistan, this weather system then crossed the border into Afghanistan,” wrote Al Jazeera’s weather presenter. “The high mountains to the south normally shield the country from the southwest monsoon altogether. This is usually the driest time and virtually no rain falls between June and October … but the mountains did help a little. Most of the rain fell over Pakistan… . Peshawar saw more than they would expect in the entire year.”29

Merciful Flower

In the face of drought and flooding, one crop brings relative security: Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. Why? The usual answer is that drugs command much higher prices than apricots, raisins, or wheat. But consider this: poppy uses only one-sixth the water needed for wheat. That fact alone can explain the drug trade in drought-stricken Afghanistan. Additionally, though grain prices have surged since 2008, poppy still earns more than wheat.30 Afghanistan produces some 90 percent of world opium, and the opium economy is estimated to be about half the size of Afghanistan’s official GDP. The Afghan province producing the most poppy is drought- and flood-battered Nangarhar, where Wazir lives.

Drought-resistant and valuable, poppy is nonetheless an outlaw crop, attacked by the NATO occupation and Hamid Karzai government but defended by the Taliban. Thus, drought-fueled poppy cultivation is one more factor pushing farmers toward the insurgents. As one journalist explained, “A poor harvest, especially if combined with lack of food support, would likely make the cash offered by the Taliban to its fighters more tempting, and undermine support for a central government already seen by many as remote and corrupt.”31 The International Council on Security and Development (formerly the Senlis Council) argued that US-backed eradication campaigns were “the single biggest reason many Afghans turned against the foreigners.”32

Drought and flooding lead to increased poverty. Poverty fuels the sense of grievance and desperation among the people and creates ranks of unemployed unmarried young men. Destitute farm hands—unable to afford a bride price or to purchase land or even find work—drift into the ranks of the Taliban and become fodder for US drones, the war’s human fuel.

As Ahmed Rashid has explained, “The United States and NATO have failed to understand that the Taliban belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarized madrassas, and the lack of opportunities in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have neither been true citizens of either country nor experienced traditional Pashtun tribal society. The longer the war goes on, the more deeply rooted and widespread the Taliban and their transnational milieu will become.”33

We might add, the longer climate change goes on with its causes unmitigated, and with no adaptation to its effects, the more pervasive this rootless, millenarian Taliban milieu will become. In this regard, the poppy economy and its armed defense are local adaptation mechanisms.

Sticky Sap

“Three years ago we didn’t grow much poppy,” said my host, a local farmer and former mujahideen fighter. “Now everyone grows it, even the police chief. Tomorrow I will get you some.”

How does the poppy trade function within and fit into the war? In 2004 I traveled to Wardak, a province an hour outside Kabul. The guerrillas have since retaken Wardak, but it was then still in government hands. Wardak looks like New Mexico: green valleys with scattered poplars and clusters of adobe-style walled compounds, qalas, set back from the road. Looming above it all are huge, barren mountains and blue skies. I went to Wardak with photographer Teru Kuwayama and a man we’ll call Mustafa, who introduced us to his family, or at least his male relatives. (As Pashtun custom dictates, the women were kept hidden from the eyes of strange men.) We sat in a carpet-lined, second-story sitting room, or betek. This room, in which we ate and slept, stood safely away from the family quarters. Our hosts were burly men with beards, many of whom had fought with the mujahideen warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during the 1980s and 1990s. One of them had just come back from Iran, where he worked in an ice-cream cone factory. He was about to marry a woman he hadn’t seen since she was twelve and he a few years older. The whole family was getting ready for the big day, so our weekend road trip turned into a party, with lots of eating, tea drinking, cigarette smoking, laughing and high-stakes, all-night gambling.

One of the men explained that a severe drought, then in its sixth year, had destroyed Wardak’s more traditional crops, like grapes, apples, and wheat. The drought-resistant poppy was all they had left. “Everyone around here grows poppy,” said a farmer called Nazir, whose relatives jokingly called him “Mr. Al Qaeda” because of his Taliban-style beard and skullcap.

The poppy boom was not unique to Wardak. All across Afghanistan the crop had made a comeback, in large part due to the drought. UN researchers believe that 1.7 million of Afghanistan’s 28.5 million inhabitants are directly involved in poppy cultivation, with many more working in processing, trafficking, money lending and laundering, and other associated activities. Warlords tax farmers and traffickers alike, and thanks to Hamid Karzai’s policy of appeasement, many now hold official positions, further facilitating their exploitation of the drug economy.

But the Taliban benefit as well. First of all, they tax the drug trade, just as they tax all trade. Second, they do not destroy poppy crops. In areas loyal to the Taliban, farmers do not have to worry about eradication or the abuse and bribery that go with it.

In Wardak, as the night went on, with dinner, then tea, then cards and more photos, the men became increasingly comfortable and explained the details of the poppy industry. “Poppy is cheap to plant. You can find seeds in any bazaar,” Mahid, a veteran who lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine in the 1990s, told me. In Wardak, poppy has two seasons; in hotter and colder climates, only one season is possible. The first crop, planted in March and harvested in June and July, is always the better one. Of the three flower colors—red, white, and purple—white is the best.

“After you plant and water the poppy, it sprouts in fifteen days,” Mr. Al Qaeda explained. “Then you must weed the crop and keep weeding until the plants are bigger than the weeds. In three months, they blossom. Seed pouches emerge and grow in the blossom, and then the flower falls away, and the seed pouch continues to grow. Then we scratch the seedcase with a ghoza [a small, homemade trowel with a serrated edge of six teeth. From the wounds, sticky white milk emerges]. You scrape the poppy in the morning and then collect the sap in the evening, when it is more sticky and brown. A little from each flower and then you have a ball, and that dries and is the opium,” Mr. Al Qaeda said, grinning.

In most parts of Afghanistan, a farmer can milk each seed case up to seven times. Eventually, it is tapped out and left to dry, before being harvested for the next planting. The seeds are also used to make edible oil and are sometimes boiled into a tea that mothers use to drug their infants during the long hours of work.

To illustrate the economic influence of poppy, the one-legged Mahid starts talking about land measurements. The unit here is a jerib, about half an acre. The men in Wardak say that from one jerib farmers can usually get twenty-eight kilograms of opium, which they can sell for up to $5,000. Alternatively, one jerib of wheat might earn a farmer $100, or it might not bring in any money at all, depending on weather and prices.

In some areas, smugglers make loans that are repaid in opium. The system in Wardak seems to be more streamlined: farmers borrow from shopkeepers and repay them in cash when they’ve been paid by the smugglers. “In the last three years, many farms have got out of debt because of poppy. No other crop compares to it. And with the drought, we only have 10 percent of our apples and wheat. These crops use so much water compared to poppy. And the wheat is almost worthless,” Mr. Al Qaeda said before turning back to the cards.

“We have many former Taliban and mujahideen commanders here who are getting angry at America because of what is happening in Palestine and Iraq and because the economy here is no good,” Mr. Al Qaeda remarked. “Cutting down poppy will only make them more angry.”

Out of Nangarhar

Sadly, the dialectical connections between climate change, war, and environmental degradation become mutually reinforcing. The Worldwatch Institute’s Michael Renner summarized it well: “Three decades of armed conflict have displaced a large portion of the population, impeded access to farmland because of landmines, and destroyed many irrigation systems or rendered their maintenance impossible. Add recurring droughts and floods and the population’s desperate coping strategies, and the net result has been a severe degradation of Afghanistan’s natural environment and its water and farming infrastructure. Massive deforestation and heavy pressure on grazing lands has led to erosion and reduced flood resistance.”34

The official rhetoric of poppy eradication is ridiculously ambitious when compared with facts on the ground. Among the five pillars of the strategy are “judicial reform” and “alternative livelihoods.” None of that exists here. The only NGO in this district digs wells, but Wazir said that the corrupt drilling team charges a fee for what should be aid.

As the sun started to slide down in the sky, we headed out. Halfway to Jalalabad, five armed men emerged from behind rocks. One aimed a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, at our truck, while another stepped into the road, his AK-47 leveled at the windshield. The lead gunman approached and asked, “Is that police truck still down in the village?”

By freak luck we had passed a Frontier Police pickup truck going the opposite direction. Thinking fast, one of my Afghan colleagues answered, “Yes, and they will be following us in a few minutes.” The gunman paused for one very long second, then allowed us to pass. We assumed these men were local thieves, or possibly Taliban, who lay in wait for us but choked at the last minute due to the random passing of the Frontier Police. Weeks later, my translator, Naqeeb, spoke with Wazir again and confirmed that these armed men were local thugs, desperate for money. Their plan had been to kidnap us and sell us to their Taliban contacts. In the face of drought, floods, and failed crops, we would have been an economic windfall.