Pubdate: Tue, 16 Feb 2016
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2016 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Azam Ahmed, New York Times


GARMSIR, Afghanistan - The United States spent more than $7 billion 
in the past 14 years to fight the runaway poppy production that has 
made Afghan opium the world's biggest brand.

Tens of billions more went to governance programs to stem corruption 
and train a credible police force. Countless more dollars and 
thousands of lives were lost on the main thrust of the war: to put 
the Afghan government in charge of district centers and to instill rule of law.

But here in one of the only corners of Helmand province that are 
peaceful and in firm government control, the green stalks and swollen 
bulbs of opium were growing thick and high within view of official 
buildings during the past poppy season - signs of a local narco-state 
administered directly by government officials.

In the district of Garmsir, not only is poppy cultivation tolerated, 
the local government depends on it. Officials have imposed a tax on 
farmers similar to the one the Taliban uses in places they control.

Some of the revenue is kicked up the chain, all the way to officials 
in Kabul, the capital, ensuring that the local authorities maintain 
support from higher-ups and keeping the opium growing. And Garmsir is 
just one example of official involvement in the drug trade.

Multiple visits to Afghan opium country over the past year, and 
extensive interviews with opium farmers, local elders, and Afghan and 
Western officials, laid bare the reality that even if the 
Western-backed government succeeds, the opium seems here to stay.

More than ever, Afghan government officials have become directly 
involved in the opium trade, expanding their competition with the 
Taliban beyond politics and into a struggle for control of the drug revenue.

At the local level, the fight itself can often look like a turf war 
between drug gangs, even as US troops are being pulled back into the 
battle on the government's behalf, particularly in Helmand in the south.

"There are phases of government complicity, starting with 
accommodation of the farmers and then on to cooperation with them," 
said David Mansfield, a researcher who conducted 15 years of field 
work on Afghan opium. "The last is predation, where the government 
essentially takes over the business entirely."

The administration of President Ashraf Ghani has made fighting 
corruption a central promise. A spokesman for his government, asked 
about official involvement in opium trafficking, insisted there was 
"zero tolerance" for such behavior.

But in Garmsir and other places in the Helmand opium belt, the system 
is firmly in place. It relies on a network of village leaders and 
people employed by farmers to manage the water supply, men known as 
mirabs. These men survey the land under cultivation and collect money 
on behalf of officials, both in district-level government and in Kabul.

The connections run deeply into the national government, officials 
acknowledge privately.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom