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A key step to securing peace will be to wean Afghan farmers off growing poppies.

OK Privacy policy. As one USAID irrigation specialist said as we watched water gush from a canal across a brutally arid landscape, "Amazing, isn't it, to see this when we're basically in the 13th century? There is ample agricultural ingenuity to be harnessed here.

Many of the young men were from farming communities and could not help but admire the acumen of their Helmand counterparts. Wes Harris is impressed by how the farmers manage to grow soybeans and cotton side by side and to cascade grapevines down desert berms—"using every square centimeter to some end," he says. Given that Marjah's Helmand Province is the source of 54 percent of Afghanistan's opium, the subtext of last year's campaign was clear to all. Far less clear is whether it's working.

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A substantial number flatly refused to participate. Many of those who did sign on failed to meet the seven-day deadline for the eradication. In a good-faith gesture, the deadline was extended—giving some farmers enough time to first harvest the opium, then collect their check from ISAF. Probably so," one military source conceded. But luck was on the Marines' side: was a bad growing season for Helmand's poppy farmers, with frost, drought, disease, and insects cutting yields by half. At Camp Hanson, the Marine regiment's station in Marjah, tons of fertilizer and seed packs sit heaped beside the trucks that just delivered them.

One of the trucks has a shattered windshield, and four of the men who drove the convoy here from Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah, are now in the hospital, having been shot in a Taliban ambush. The seeds—black mung beans, red radishes, alfalfa, watermelon, corn—will be sold to a thousand farmers in the area in the hope that they will quit growing poppies.

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The commanding officer in Marjah is a tenaciously upbeat young man named Brian Christmas who sounds like Santa Claus when he rattles off the things he would love to see America do for Afghanistan's farmers. There have to be alternatives here. Like factories. Why not have a chicken coop, so that they can sell their eggs here in Marjah?

Instead of just providing cotton, why not make Marjah yarn? A drug factory that employs 30 guys—I'd like to compete with that and say to those guys, 'Let's send you to a vocational tech school. Get you a small business loan. Set you up in a mechanics shop.

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Or hey, how about going into the police force? Pretty good salary, go home every night—not a bad gig!

Opium Farming - How do they do it ?

The next day, dozens of farmers show up to claim their latest inducement. Simply setting foot on the Marine base is a risk that many of the area's farmers have decided not to take. The Taliban have set up checkpoints and relieved passersby of their new commodities. One boy is said to have been made to eat his ISAF-issued registration card. A tribal elder found to be assisting the Marines was "beaten to an amazing shade of green," according to a military interpreter. For most, the Taliban are the devil they know—and, more to the point, the devil who will likely still be here long after the ISAF troops are gone.

Personally, I think they'll sell the fertilizer and seed and go back to growing poppies. Will the Afghan authorities continue to press for a poppy-free future once the troops have left Helmand? Things will get percent better if they have a police force made up of their own people, ones they can trust. The Taliban aren't pressuring me—that's just a story you see on TV.

I grow for myself. I smuggle for myself. The Taliban are not the reason. Poverty is the reason. And they'll keep growing poppies here—unless they're forced not to. Force is the solution for everything.

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As we say in Pashtu, 'Power can flatten mountains. You see the big buildings in Lashkar Gah and Kandahar. This is money from corruption.

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Still, his bemused cynicism fades when I ask, "Is a poppy economy really all that bad for Afghanistan? When a father feeds a boy with money from poppies, he will grow poppies too. He'll have no other skill.

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We have no carpenters, no engineers, no mechanics. We have nothing. Is it possible for the cancer to be removed? Bordering Pakistan to the east, Nangarhar Province has long been a drug smuggling thoroughfare, and its mountainous reaches—which include the Khyber Pass and the Tora Bora cave complex—are notoriously lawless. With its Mediterranean climate, Nangarhar was Afghanistan's biggest opium producer as recently as Forced eradications began in , but the government's promises of alternative livelihoods were not met initially, and even the provincial capital of Jalalabad remained underdeveloped and quiet.

Today the city and its environs appear to be a post-poppy success story. The fertile countryside, long regarded as Afghanistan's breadbasket, is alight with red cabbages and tomatoes. Jalalabad's streets are now among the most vibrant in Afghanistan, and at its teeming wholesale market, hundreds of trucks arrive every morning, bearing dozens of crops such as watermelon, potatoes, squash, okra, and onions. None of these rival the cash value of opium, and one potato farmer I meet at the market tells me that he works an evening job as a security guard to make ends meet.

In the village of Yaghi Band, which once grew poppies almost exclusively, a group of tribal elders reflect on Nangarhar's post-poppy era in a room overlooking fields of cotton, rice, broccoli, and other crops. And we're hopeful of the new projects. Contributions to the province from such programs seem endless. Among those I visit are new irrigation dams and canals, new bridges, a women's weaving co-op, a potato chip factory, a honey processing plant, a jam manufacturing facility, and the city's wholesale market, whose deputy director, Khwaja Mohammad, praises the contributions of NGOs but then adds, "Afghanistan is still at war.

We can't stand on our own two feet. If a country's been at war for 30 years, it may take 80 years to rebuild it. If the farmers don't continue to receive assistance, you can't expect them not to grow poppy. Eighty years of assistance? Is poppy-free Nangarhar a Potemkin village propped up by aid from the West? What might it cost to offer equivalent generosity to Badakhshan and Helmand, and would it make a difference?

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When I put these questions to Nasrullah Bakhtani, senior agriculturalist for Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, he says, "Nangarhar has a tribal system. There's one big man in the village, and people accept what he says. The governor there talked to these elders. He asked, 'If we eradicate poppies, what will you need? Helmand and Badakhshan don't have those kind of tribal structures. Bakhtani once grew poppies himself.

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