Lashes swished and whirled through the air in a burst of celebration around a sea of opium poppies, as farmers in a southern Afghan village rejoiced over a bumper harvest with a traditional rope game. Hundreds of farm laborers from across the Pashtun heartland, many of them Taliban, congregated last month in Naqil in Uruzgan province for the most lucrative time of the year—the poppy harvest.
After laboring all day in the torpid heat, extracting milky opium resin from swollen green pods, they broke into revelry around the bountiful farms. Hands tethered to long ropes, men lunged forward and back within a chalk circle, kicking up dust and knocking down opponents with heavy lash strokes.
Hissing and hooting, a crowd of turbaned spectators gathered around to watch the bare-knuckle game known colloquially as “dora.”
A tricycle cart pulled up nearby, selling ice cream drizzled with raspberry sauce, lending a carnival atmosphere to the harvest that is expected to bring record opium production this year.
“This is the only time of the year to make money,” said Afzal Mohammad, who came all the way from Kandahar, standing amid chest-high poppy stalks nearby. “People work here for about 15 days and then are jobless for the rest of the year.”
The revelry highlights how opium, refined into heroin, remains an economic linchpin amid rampant unemployment, and lays bare how the West lost a multi-billion dollar war on drugs in Afghanistan as it pursued a war on terror there.
Afghanistan, the world’s top opium producer, recorded more poppy cultivation in 2014—at the end of which NATO troops officially ended their combat mission—than in any year since 2002. Last year saw a sharp decline in production, but the crop failure was more due to drought than any eradication campaign, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The drop, observers say, has only intensified efforts to spike production this year.
Fighting usually ebbs during the harvest season, illustrating how the Taliban are deeply entwined in the $3 billion opium trade, believed to be the mainstay of their insurgency against the government. “As the harvest concludes… we expect to see an uptick in Taliban efforts to attack [Afghan forces],” Charles Cleveland, senior spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters this month. “There is a concern that the very good poppy crop this year… is going to result in the Taliban being able to turn that into money for their [insurgent] efforts.”
The ubiquity of opium farms in Uruzgan, a remote mountainous province straddling drug-smuggling routes, is staggering. Poppy grows within eyeshot of the provincial governor’s office in the capital Tarin Kot, government buildings and police bases, spurring allegations that officials are also profiting from the opium boom.
“We are in a state of war,” says Uruzgan Governor Mohammad Nazir Kharoti, voicing helplessness. “Forced eradication will increase economic hardship, fuelling sympathy for the Taliban and people will start sheltering them in their homes.”
Naqil, hemmed in between verdant hills on the outskirts of Tarin Kot, is a netherworld of opium farmers, drug lords, addicts and, increasingly, the Taliban. It is officially under government control, but authorities are openly wary about visiting the area.
With rolling fields of white-and-pink flowers splashed between dull green opium pods visible as far as the eye can see, Naqil is a magnet for laborers during harvest time.
The bulbs are typically lanced during the afternoon and left for the night as a sticky resin oozes out and coagulates into a dark brown mass. The laborers collect the sap in the mornings with a flat blade and wipe it into a plastic can hanging around their necks.
Many wax philosophical about the process, almost as though it were an act of veneration. “Cradle the poppy bulb gently,” said Sher Mohammed, going from bulb to bulb in his farm, making shallow incisions with sharp blades on the tip of a curved wooden spatula. He added: “Lance the bulb with love.”
For many, the labor-intensive season, which lasts less than a month, is the only productive period; the rest of the year is a hopeless blur. “Afghanistan has too much war, very little employment,” said tribal elder Abdul Bari Tokhi, whose extended family owns hundreds of acres of farmland in Naqil. “The world might say if there was no poppy there would be no war in Afghanistan, but for us if there was no poppy there would be no work and no food on the table.”
Many of the laborers in Naqil were Taliban fighters, residents said. “How did you get here from Dehrawud district, my brother? The Taliban have shut down the highway,” one of them asked a thickset man with scraggly hair and a gap-toothed smile. “The highway is closed for the government, not the Taliban,” the man smirked. “That’s right, you were the ones who shut down the highway,” the laborer cackled with laughter. “You are welcome here, my brother. Even the Taliban need to earn money.”