News: Poppy farming days are numbered in southern Helmand
Story by Sgt. Michael Cifuentes
KHAN NESHIN DISTRICT, Afghanistan – A patrol leader with the Afghan Uniformed Police here said his message against growing poppy is reaching farmers. In return, farmers are sealing their compliance with handshakes and understanding.
Bismullah Khaliq, the patrol leader making rounds from village to village, is optimistic that Khan Neshin will be a safe district without poppy cultivation. He said “if we can just get the people’s attention in this matter, I’m certain we will get their cooperation.”
First Lt. Jorge Colon, a team leader with the Police Advisor Team, Delta Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, said the government exercising its will on the people in order to deny insurgents its cash crop shows that the rule of law is taking hold in places were there previously was little to no rule.
“This is a milestone that will ease the transition from International Security Assistance Force to Afghan National Security Forces lead in security,” said Colon, a Worcester, Mass., native.
However, patrol leader Khaliq and his team of police aren’t the uniformed men responsible for poppy eradication operations in this southern region of Helmand province. Another team serving with the AUP from the Khan Neshin precinct, who primarily shares the same language and regional culture as the people in their patrol beats, are currently conducting eradication operations here.
Khaliq, a native of an Uzbek province in northern Afghanistan, said his goal is to simply give a fair warning to the villagers who depend on their crops for income.
“It’s a shame if they spend their time and hard work growing poppy hoping they’ll sell when it’s time to harvest,” said Khaliq through a Dari to English interpreter. “I want to warn them that we have police destroying poppy fields so they shouldn’t waste their time growing it.”
Staff Sgt. Alejandro Santiago, an assistant leader with the Police Advisor Team, said telling some farmers to stop growing poppy is similar to telling them to stop making a living. The Afghan government’s eradication efforts have typically been unpopular among village elders in southern Helmand, but Khaliq has a unique way of soothing an otherwise painful order to the farmers.
“Growing poppy is not only illegal; it’s against the Quran,” Khaliq told two poppy farmers during a patrol here March 27. “There are many other crops you can grow that are legal or aren’t harmful and will still help you provide for your family.”
He quickly jumped to a more humble technique of reasoning.
“You know I’m not from here, but this is my country. I want what’s best for our country and so should you,” Khaliq told the farmers. “Think of us (police) as your brothers and your sons who are trying to build a better future for you and your family. There’s a reason why I’m telling you to find another crop to grow: harvesting and selling poppy isn’t safe. It brings corruption and unwanted people into our country,”
In this meeting, the eldest farmer reached out his hand with a smile to confirm his understanding with Khaliq. Nonetheless, the farmers voiced their concerns as the two parties discussed alternative crops.
Santiago and Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Spear, a Navy corpsman with the advisor team and Happy, Texas, native, provided guidance throughout the patrol, but stood back during this impromptu meeting with the farmers. The police advisors are not part of the Afghan security force’s eradication efforts, said 1st Lt. Charles Hostetler, the advisor team executive officer.
“I believe that if Marines began to destroy their poppy, they would be seen as invaders trying to impose their beliefs on the people of Afghanistan,” said Hostetler, a Saint Louis native.
According to the Quran, Islamic people are forbidden to grow opium poppy. However, the culture accepts Afghans doing what’s needed to survive. Khaliq stresses that poppy cultivation funds insurgents, a threat to stability in the Afghan government. Some farmers show signs of indifference.
“Not everyone will be motivated to stop growing poppy initially, but Bismullah realizes that if he can convince a few farmers at a time to stop growing poppy, then other farmers will have fewer excuses to continue growing poppy,” said Santiago, a San Francisco native.
Khaliq said he will continue to spread the word to villages in Khan Neshin district, giving farmers a chance to dispose of their poppy before an Afghan Uniformed Police team arrives to eradicate the illegal crop.
“Even if only a few farmers stop growing poppy, Bismullah has contributed to the accomplishment of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s mission,” Santiago said. “Bismullah and his entire patrol team are the type of policemen that any villager would want to be serving in the community because they constantly strive to improve the security and welfare of the people in the district.”
Editor’s note: First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion is part of Regimental Combat Team 5, 1st Marine Division (Forward), which works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.