The battle against the Taliban in Helmand province was so fierce two years ago that farmers say there were some fields where every ear of corn had a bullet in it.
Now it is peaceful enough that safety concerns were an afterthought during this year's harvest. In districts of
Helmand like Marja and Nad Ali that used to be Taliban strongholds, life has been transformed by the US troop surge that brought in tens of thousands of Marines three years ago. Over several recent days, a reporter was able to drive securely to places that in the past had been perilous without a military escort, and many of the roads were better paved, too.
So why, then, was it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand province?
In conversations with dozens of tribal elders, farmers, teachers and provincial officials, three factors loomed large: dissatisfaction with the Afghan government, the imminent departure of Western troops and recognition that the Taliban are likely to return. Few expressed much faith in the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the security gains won by the huge US and British military effort here.
Although some people said they believed that areas near the provincial capital would remain secure, beyond that there was little confidence, and many voiced worries that much of the province would drift back under Taliban control after the Nato mission ends in 2014.
Even now, with at least 6,500 Marines still in Helmand after a peak of 21,000 troops last year in Helmand and neighbouring Nimroz provinces, local people say the Taliban have begun "creeping back." Residents report that threats from nearby militant commanders have increased, and that the Taliban are sending in radical mullahs to preach jihad in the mosques and woo the young and unemployed to their cause.
As fearful as residents may be of a resurgent Taliban, they are also angry at the government for what they see as widespread corruption and hypocrisy. Some of that anger focuses on bribery connected with government services, and some on policies relating to the opium trade, which still thrives here.
Helmand is the supplier of more than 40% of the world's opium, according to UN statistics, and the poppy crop is still the most profitable one by far. Even farmers who are willing to grow other crops are angry at officials who have eradicated poppy but failed to provide enough help with alternatives. Farmers say some of those same officials profit from the drug trade they profess to be fighting.
"Before the surge, the government in Helmand did not control even a single district," said Hajji Atiqullah, a leader of the powerful Barakzai tribe in the Nawa district of central Helmand. "They had a presence in the district centres, a very small area, but the Marines cleared many districts, and they expanded the presence of the central government."
Afghan forces now control his district, he said, but will not be able to hold it unless "the foreigners manage to get rid of corruption in the Afghan government, in the districts and the province levels."
Local elders fear that many farmers, especially those impoverished by the government's strict poppy eradication policies, will return to opium cultivation and look to the Taliban or other criminals for protection because the government has not offered them a satisfactory substitute livelihood.
"Before the Marines launched this big offensive, Marja was the centre of the opium trade," said Ahmad Shah, the chairman of the Marja development shura, a group of elders that works with the government to try to bring change here. "Millions and millions of Pakistani rupees were being traded every day in the bazaar. People were so rich that in some years a farmer could afford to buy a car.
"We were part of the eradication efforts by the government, and if they had provided the farmer with compensation, we could have justified our act. But the government failed to provide compensation, and unless it does so, the people will turn against us or join the insurgency and be against development, as they were during the Taliban."
Part of the government's rationale for poppy eradication was to starve militants of the opium profits that have been important to their finances. As opium cultivation was pushed away from the centres of the US troop surge, the Taliban made new allies by providing protection for farmers who moved their poppy cultivation to outlying deserts. Over the past few years, militants and opium farmers have increasingly found common cause.
A largely British-financed alternative crop programme made significant headway at first in persuading farmers to switch crops, but few farmers could do as well as they had with opium.
Juma Khan, a farmer in Nad Ali, substituted wheat and corn for opium poppies but now cannot make enough to feed his family. That means not only a gnawing in his children's stomachs but a delay in seeking medical services and marriages for his sons, as well as a feeling of being abandoned by the government.
"When we used to cultivate poppy, I made enough money to have sheep, and we could eat meat whenever we wanted," said Khan, 53, standing in the middle of his corn fields in Loy Bagh. "Now we eat a little meat only once every two weeks."
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