Along the narrow tarmac road linking Kabul to Kandahar you could be in New Mexico: green valleys, with scattered trees turning orange and yellow; clusters of adobe-style walled compounds; and looming above huge barren mountains and empty blue skies. This small road is one of the few signs of progress in an appallingly underdeveloped country; indeed, it is one of only very few paved roads in the whole of Afghanistan. It cost international donors a mere $198 million, and thanks to it remote villages in south-east Afghanistan are building new links with the global economy, though these links aren’t always of the sort imagined by donors and planners.
In Wardak province, several hours west of Kabul, on the edge of the central highlands, the new road has brought with it a wave of smugglers, who have encouraged the local farmers to grow opium poppy. ‘Three years ago we didn’t grow much poppy,’ a farmer tells me. ‘Now everyone grows it, even the police chief. Tomorrow I will get you some.’
I’ve driven out here with a photographer, Teru Kuwayama, and a man I’ll call Mustafa, who has taken a few days off from his work as a driver for an NGO in Kabul to introduce me to his family, or at least his male relatives – as Pashtun custom dictates, the women are kept hidden away from the eyes of strange men. Families in this part of Afghanistan live in qala, fortified compounds, surrounded by thick, high mud walls. We are taken to a carpet-lined second-storey sitting-room, or betek. The room, in which we will eat and sleep, is safely away from the family quarters.
Our hosts are all big, burly men with beards, many of whom fought with the mujahidin warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during the 1980s and 1990s. One of them has just come back from Iran, where he works in an ice-cream cone factory. He’s about to get married to a woman he hasn’t seen since she was 12. The whole family is getting ready for the big day, so this weekend road trip turns into a party, with lots of eating, tea drinking, cigarette smoking, laughing and high-stakes, all-night gambling. One of the men explains that there has been a severe drought, now in its sixth year in some provinces. It has destroyed Wardak’s more traditional crops like grapes, apples and wheat. The drought-resistant poppy is all they have. ‘Everyone around here grows poppy,’ says a farmer called Nazir, whose relatives have decided to call him ‘Mister al-Qaida’ because he still has a Taliban-style beard and skullcap. ‘Look! Take a picture,’ one of the cousins orders, as he draws a .45 automatic pistol and holds it to Nazir’s head. ‘Mister al-Qaida arrested!’ Everyone laughs. Then we take a series of gun photos. Later, a Kalashnikov rifle is produced and everyone poses for more gun photos, some intentionally silly with added props like sunglasses and turbans; some preposterously serious with hyper-macho stares at the camera.
The poppy boom is not unique to Wardak. All across Afghanistan the crop has made a comeback since the defeat of the Taliban. One Western counter-narcotics official estimates that production increased by 50 per cent in 2004. And with the poppy revival comes the consolidation of the heroin processing and smuggling business.