In Badakhshan, chief of police Kintuz appears to be making some headway against poppies. Five years ago the province was Afghanistan's second-biggest opium producer, after the Taliban-controlled province of Helmand. For a brief period after a Taliban ban on poppies in 2000, Badakhshan even took the lead in poppy cultivation, because the province was controlled by the Northern Alliance militias, rather than the Taliban. When Kintuz started his job in 2007, 9,000 acres were planted with poppies. Two years later fewer than 1,500 were.
Eradication efforts have forced poppy farmers into the margins of the countryside. Their fields are, by design, all but invisible. To find one, you must drive for hours on a crumbled and isolated mountainside road, accompanied by someone who knows the district and will if necessary explain your presence there. You must look far from the roadside, gazing over the rolling terra incognita of northern Afghanistan—studying its monochromatic creases for that rogue burst of color, simultaneously innocent and obscene, that finally screams out what it can only be: a field of poppies.
A farmer squats with his back to the flowers, weeding an adjacent field. He is a 37-year-old man with the distinct Mongolian features characteristic of the borderlands, and he wears a brown tunic, a turban, and a tentative smile. He introduces himself as Mohammed Khalid. He acknowledges that the poppy field is his.
"My father taught me how to grow poppies ten years ago," he says. "Until this year, I was able to produce 60 pounds of opium from my farmland." Crouching while his fingertips brush against the tilled soil, Khalid describes how the smugglers would advance him the money for his crop and how a half-dozen members of his family would join him in the fields to weed, thin, and finally harvest the inky opium paste from the poppy bulbs—a four-month season of tedium that he hardly begrudged, given the benefits. The bricks of opium that he wrapped in plastic and took to the market would pay for all the food his family needed. In addition, the farmer would use the seeds to make cooking oil and burn the stalks as firewood and for ash to make soap. "It provided everything," he says.
With the relentless eradication, Khalid has come up with a strategy. His most visible farmland, the area he is now weeding, will hereafter be used for wheat and melons. Only the sliver of land that is almost impossible to see from the road will remain the sanctum of his high-value crop. "From that small field," he says with a glance over his shoulder at the riotous profusion of violet and pink and white, "I'll get about two pounds of opium. Maybe $80."
Possessing only the barest sense that he has become the hinge on which Afghanistan's future and America's national security interests swing, Khalid frowns and says, "I have no idea why they're eradicating. I'm just a poor farmer, and all I have time to think about is how to feed my family."