One morning during harvest season, Chief Kintuz and his team conduct a poppy eradication in the Argo district of Badakhshan, just two days after nine members of his counter-narcotics force were killed by a roadside bomb in Darayem. At dawn the convoy sets out from the provincial capital of Feyzabad—driving past clusters of newish houses built in the days before eradication brought such construction to a halt. Thanks to Chief Kintuz's efforts, this undulating countryside no longer features endless vistas of poppies.
The nine-mile road to Argo is a splintered mess—deterioration has left it worse now than it had been before a U.S. subcontractor was paid $2.5 million to resurface it. Rolling through the district center, past dozens of shuttered shops where opium was once sold openly, the convoy is greeted with hard stares from the villagers. A few miles beyond Argo, near the village of Barlas, the 30 or so armed counter-narcotics officers dismount their vehicles. The men set out on foot into the hills, searching for sequestered poppies.
The fields are everywhere: dozens upon dozens of crazy-colored tracts, none larger than an acre. The officers descend on them with bamboo canes and swing away at the flowers, reaper-like. The chief bashes away as well. A surveyor from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) faithfully records each obliterated site on his clipboard. A young farmer watches the havoc while crouching in his field. "That land belongs to my neighbor Israyel," he says. "I think he knew they were coming and didn't want to be around to see it. The police warned us last year not to plant poppy. So I've switched to melon. But all of this is rain-fed land, so if there's a drought, I've got a real problem."
I ask if he or his neighbors have received any of the millions of dollars being poured into Badakhshan Province by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other Western organizations in an attempt to lure Afghan farmers away from poppies. "They promised the Argo district's governor that they'd give us bags of wheat seed and fertilizer," he replies. "But they haven't." The remark is similar to one by an elder of the nearby Tashkan district: "The government said, 'We'll build roads, bridges, and canals, and you'll forget poppies forever.' That was five years ago. They've done nothing."
In fairness, several things have been done—a newly paved highway from Feyzabad to Kabul, road construction projects in Tashkan, a saffron farm in Baharak, and 18 new district police offices. But for every worthy project scattered throughout this vast northern province is a village like Sar Ab in Yamgan district, where the lack of a medical clinic led residents to use opium as their only medicine until half of the 1,800 villagers became addicts. Or the village of Du Ghalat, in Argo, where a hundred children huddle like cattle on the dirt floor of a collapsing schoolhouse built with opium money that has dried up as poppy eradication proceeds. Or the millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars earmarked to fund agricultural projects in Badakhshan, which, according to one counter-narcotics official, "never got here—it disappeared."