In Afghanistan, Flowers Call The Shots

May 13, 2011

Claire O'Neill

David Gilkey
A little girl stands in the middle of a poppy field as Marines pass by on patrol.

For years the Sangin District in southern Afghanistan has been one of the deadliest areas of operation. For the British, who controlled the area until U.S. Marines replaced them last year, the focus was securing the road that ran along the Helmand River, on the edge of the lush farm fields.

The Marines have taken a different approach since then. They have pushed deep into the river valley from the desert to get at the heart of Taliban control and movement.

Poppy is a key crop here, and in a way, flowers fuel the fight: The Taliban earn hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade, which supplies 90% of the world's raw opium used for heroin. Locals rely on the work it generates. But the government wants to end poppy production. So the locals, who need the work, support insurgents who will protect it. It's a deeply ingrained catch-22.

There are rules, even in the drug trade: Since farmers need to work the fields, fighting between the Marines and the Taliban are almost non-existent during the harvest, which happens at the same time every year, in May. It is a function of local economics, not a truce. Fighting could resume at any given moment. And it will.

Just like every other year, there is a strange quiet overseas right now in Sangin. The Taliban have, more or less, unplugged its IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and is lying low. NPR photographer David Gilkey, who was just embedded with the Marines, says that a nearby market — typically bustling — has been completely empty. Everyone, he says, is at work in the lush, green fields.

This is good news for the Marines: A lull in fighting provides an opportunity for face-time with the Afghan people. It's the Marines' main mission, after all, to secure the local population.

"But there is a tepid trepidation to all of this," says Gilkey. Just last year, more than 25 Marines were killed — and more than 150 wounded — in the fighting that followed poppy season. IEDs could be plugged back in at any given moment. And the Marines must be ready.

It's quite the juxtaposition: This idyllic scene of children roaming fields of flowers, and the knowledge that somewhere out there, insurgents could be stuffing bombs below the soft, fertile soil. For the Marines, it's a game of wait-and-see. Wait and see when the fighting starts again. Wait and see if anything changes as a result of Osama bin Laden's death. Wait and see what the next season may hold. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.