While destroying a field of opium poppies in Uruzgan Province, members of the Afghan Eradication Force came under fire in an ambush apparently orchestrated by the Taliban. Photograph by Aaron Huey.
n the main square in Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan Province, in central Afghanistan, a large billboard shows a human skeleton being hanged. The rope is not a normal gallows rope but the stem of an opium poppy. Aside from this jarring image, Tirin Kot is a bucolic-seeming place, a market town of flat-topped adobe houses and little shops on a low bluff on the eastern shore of the Tirinrud River, in a long valley bounded by open desert and jagged, treeless mountains. About ten thousand people live in the town. The men are bearded and wear traditional robes and tunics and cover their heads with turbans or sequinned skullcaps. There are virtually no women in sight, and when they do appear they wear all-concealing burkas. A few paved streets join at a traffic circle in the center of town, but within a few blocks they peter out to dirt tracks.
Almost everything around Tirin Kot is some shade of brown. The river is a khaki-colored wash of silt and snowmelt that flows out of the mountain range to the north, past mud-walled family compounds. On either side of the river, however, running down the valley, there is a narrow strip of wheat fields and poppy fields, and for several weeks in the spring the poppies bloom: lovely, open-petalled white, pink, red, and magenta blossoms, the darker colors indicating the ones with the most opium.
One afternoon this spring, at the height of the harvest, I drove through the area with Douglas Wankel, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official who was hired by the United States government in 2003 to organize its counter-narcotics effort here. Wankel, who is sixty-one and has piercing blue eyes, was stationed in Kabul as a young D.E.A. official in 1978 and 1979, during the bloody unrest that led up to the Soviet invasion. “I left on a flight to New Delhi a couple of hours before the Soviets rolled in,” he said. “People thought it was because I knew it was coming. I didn’t; I just happened to be leaving on a trip. But the Soviets branded me a C.I.A. agent, and so I couldn’t come back—until now, that is.”
Working first with the D.E.A. and then with the State Department, Wankel helped create the Afghan Eradication Force, with troops of the Afghan National Police drawn from the Ministry of the Interior. Last year, an estimated four hundred thousand acres of opium poppies were planted in Afghanistan, a fifty-nine-per-cent increase over the previous year. Afghanistan now supplies more than ninety-two per cent of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. More than half the country’s annual G.D.P., some $3.1 billion, is believed to come from the drug trade, and narcotics officials believe that part of the money is funding the Taliban insurgency.
Wankel was in Uruzgan to oversee a poppy-eradication campaign—the first major effort to disrupt the harvest in the province. He had brought with him a two-hundred-and-fifty-man A.E.F. contingent, including forty-odd contractors supplied by DynCorp, a Virginia-based private military company, which has a number of large U.S. government contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world. In Colombia, DynCorp helps implement the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia, to eradicate coca. The A.E.F.’s armed convoy had taken three days to drive from Kabul, and had set up a base on a plateau above a deep wadi. With open land all around, it was a good spot to ward off attacks.
Much of Uruzgan is classified by the United Nations as “Extreme Risk / Hostile Environment.” The Taliban effectively controls four-fifths of the province, which, like the movement, is primarily Pashtun. Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, was born and raised here, as were three other founders of the movement. The Taliban’s seizure of Tirin Kot, in the mid-nineties, was a key stepping stone in their march to Kabul, and their loss of the town in 2001 was a decisive moment in their fall. The Taliban have made a concerted comeback in the past two years; they are the de-facto authority in much of the Pashtun south and east, and have recently spread their violence to parts of the north as well. The debilitating and corrupting effects of the opium trade on the government of President Hamid Karzai is a significant factor in the Taliban’s revival.
The Taliban instituted a strict Islamist policy against the opium trade during the final years of their regime, and by the time of their overthrow they had virtually eliminated it. But now, Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud-Daud, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of the interior for counter-narcotics, told me, “there has been a coalition between the Taliban and the opium smugglers. This year, they have set up a commission to tax the harvest.” In return, he said, the Taliban had offered opium farmers protection from the government’s eradication efforts. The switch in strategy has an obvious logic: it provides opium money for the Taliban to sustain itself and helps it to win over the farming communities.
Wankel had flown in from Kabul five days earlier to meet with the governor of Uruzgan, Abdul Hakim Munib, about the eradication operation, only to discover that Munib had left for Kabul the day before. Wankel was told that a sister of the governor had died or fallen ill—there were several versions—but nobody believed this was the real reason for his absence. Munib, a former Taliban deputy minister, was suspected of retaining ties to the movement. And, Wankel noted, there were poppy fields within sight of Munib’s palace.
“We’re not able to destroy all the poppy—that’s not the point. What we’re trying to do is lend an element of threat and risk to the farmers’ calculations, so they won’t plant next year,” Wankel said later. “It’s like robbing a bank. If people see there’s more to be had by robbing a bank than by working in one, they’re going to rob it, until they learn there’s a price to pay.”
We came to a wide bend in the river, a stretch of good, flat growing land with broad poppy fields. The fields were neat and well tended, and the swollen bulbs beneath the blossoms on their long green stalks were dripping with dark-brown opium. A heady, acrid odor like stale urine hung in the air. Small groups of men and boys were in the fields, scoring the bulbs to bleed the opium. They stopped and stared at us when we drove past, and then continued their work.
Before Doug Wankel could do anything in Uruzgan, he had to talk to the Dutch. In a bewilderingly complicated arrangement, NATO member states have been put in charge of military operations in different Afghan provinces—the British in Helmand, for instance, and the Canadians in Kandahar. Since August, 2006, the Dutch have been in Uruzgan. A seventeen-hundred-member Dutch force occupies a sprawling walled base southwest of Tirin Kot. Smaller bases within the walls house contingents of Australians, U.S. Special Forces, and the Afghan Army. Military aircraft land at and take off from an airstrip there at all hours. There are small firebases elsewhere in the province, but troops at the main base rarely venture far from Tirin Kot.
Suicide bombings and I.E.D. attacks, major features of the Iraq insurgency, were rare in Afghanistan until 2005, but they have become common, and not just in Uruzgan. On June 17th, a suicide bomber blew up a bus in Kabul, killing dozens of people. Although a threatened Tet-style spring offensive by the Taliban never quite materialized, the level of violence has risen significantly. Some five thousand people were killed in the war last year, including a hundred and ninety-one foreign troops and at least a thousand civilians. By contrast, half that number of people were killed in 2005. As the war gets worse, incidents involving the killing of Afghan civilians by American troops, unintentional or not, have increased, causing widespread discontent. In May, the upper house of the Afghan parliament called for an end to offensive military operations by foreign troops and for dialogue with the Taliban. Karzai has complained publicly about the civilian deaths, but he is dependent on the foreign forces to prop him up. (Thirty-five thousand troops from thirty-seven nations are now in Afghanistan under the NATO umbrella; seventeen thousand are American. Another eight thousand American troops operate under U.S. military command.) Karzai seems isolated and weak, and his authority barely extends beyond the capital.
The effects of the war and the drug boom are evident in Kabul. There are more security barriers and anti-suicide-blast walls in the city, and United Nations personnel and relief workers must adhere to constantly updated safety guidelines and curfews. The rules are even stricter for American diplomats and officials, who live and work within their own new Embassy compound. Meanwhile, in nearby Sherpur, a downtown neighborhood, dozens of gaudy “poppy palaces” have gone up—mansions owned by former warlords and by senior officials in Karzai’s government, built on public land that had housed war-displaced families until they were forcibly removed by police.
The official corruption and judicial impunity that have taken root under Karzai are seen as his greatest failings, and feature heavily in Taliban propaganda. Two years ago, his government announced a plan for fighting the opium trade, based on “eight pillars,” including building the justice system, eradicating the poppy crop, and funding alternative development programs that would provide seeds for other crops and credits for fertilizer. The plan is backed by a commitment of billions of dollars from the U.S., but so far there has been little to show for it.
A Western official in Kabul told me, “The narcotics issue is an example of the problems this government faces—corruption, tribal politics, and lack of central institutions. Here it’s not reconstruction—you’re starting from zero on a lot of issues. We’re trying to impose all of it at once, and it’s hugely frustrating.” The official went on, “Right now you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, and here you’ve got people who’ve figured out how to survive through thirty pretty horrific years. There’s a lot of dealmaking. We have to be realistic about whom we’re dealing with. And we have to show we’re going to be dogged on this.”
In Uruzgan, the Dutch have advocated a policy of nonconfrontation and the pursuit of development projects. (The Dutch commander, Hans van Griensven, was quoted in the Times in April as telling his officers, “We’re not here to fight the Taliban. We’re here to make the Taliban irrelevant.”) A European official told me that the Dutch had doubts about Wankel’s mission; they feared that it might be counterproductive, because it was only about destroying poppies and did not include any of the other seven pillars of the national plan. “There was concern that it might crosscut other activities focussed on security and development,” he said.
Wankel was frustrated by the wariness of the Dutch. “Most or all Europeans are opposed to eradication—they’re into winning hearts and minds,” he said. “But it’s our view that it isn’t going to work. There has to be a measured, balanced use of force along with hearts and minds.” He conceded, however, that the Uruzgan operation fell squarely on the use-of-force side of the scale. Later, he told me, aid, seed, and fertilizer would be offered to the farmers around Tirin Kot, but not yet. Other Americans were frankly contemptuous of the Dutch policy, which they regarded as softheaded.
The Western official told me, “We don’t have a lot of time here. If we don’t get a handle on this soon, we’ll have a situation where you can’t get rid of it, like we had in Colombia for a while, where the narcos owned part of the government and controlled significant parts of the economy. And we have a lot of evidence of direct links with the Taliban. These problems, and organized crime, too, are being embedded here while they’re talking about ‘alternative development.’ ”
Soona Niloofar, a member of parliament from Uruzgan, found the debate over development versus forceful eradication somewhat abstract; she didn’t think much had been accomplished on either front. “Before the Dutch arrived, I told them, ‘You must do reconstruction and help the farmers.’ And the Ministry of Agriculture also spoke about helping them with alternative livelihoods. But nothing happened,” she said. “They have done little reconstruction. There is a big gap between them and the people.” The Dutch presence was felt only around Tirin Kot, she said, and, as far as she knew, the only significant things they had done were to repair a damaged bridge and set up a women’s sewing coöperative. (A spokesman for the Dutch government said that there had been other projects, including one called Cleaning Up Tirin Kot, which involved painting storefronts and helping with garbage disposal.) At the same time, security had deteriorated. “The Dutch policy is a very weak one, and it makes the enemy stronger,” she said.
Niloofar, who is twenty-seven, is a striking woman with a strong face and high cheekbones, and, on the day I met her, at the Parliament, she wore, instead of a burka, a brilliant turquoise shalwar kameez and head scarf—all the more noticeable in the assemblage of drably suited and robed male M.P.s. The Taliban have targeted women in public life, including teachers at girls’ schools, and a number have been killed. Niloofar said that she could no longer safely travel to her home in Uruzgan or stay there overnight.
“People are getting very angry with Karzai,” Niloofar said. “At the beginning of the year, he promised to sack the governors where opium is grown.” She smiled sarcastically. “Nothing has been done.”
“There is a fairly strong consensus view here that eradication alone, in the absence of the other seven lines, will not curb poppy cultivation or opium production,” Chris Alexander, a Canadian who is one of the top-ranking United Nations officials in Afghanistan, said. “But in Helmand and Uruzgan all of these steps depend on improved security, which must remain the overriding priority. The Taliban have partnered in intimate ways with the drug networks over the past two years. Their alliance deserves to be exposed for the opportunism and criminality it represents.” He added, “This Taliban is no fresh-faced Islamist movement. It is a violent, drug-fuelled rabble with a narrow and highly unappealing ideological base. Their defeat—or at least reduced influence—can open the door to a much more effective counter-narcotics policy.”
After a meeting with the Dutch, Wankel returned to the A.E.F.’s camp, looking tired and exasperated. He had a map approved by the Dutch, showing a tight quadrant of land within which his team was to confine its work. It was miles away from the Dutch base. “They’re as nervous as whores in a church,” Wankel said.
The eradication team set off early the next morning for their first day’s work. There were nineteen Americans and a hundred Afghans in a convoy made up of twenty-four all-terrain vehicles—similar to small dune buggies—eighteen Ranger pickup trucks carrying Afghan policemen, and four of DynCorp’s white Ford F250 pickups. I rode in a truck driven by David Lockyear, an amiable six-foot-seven-inch Tennessean in his thirties, known as Doc Dave. Lockyear, who had a goatee and was covered with tattoos, was a paramedic from Nashville who joined the Marine Corps after September 11th. (“I was just pissed off, like a lot of people, and wanted to do something,” he said.) He fought in the first siege of Falluja, and in 2007 he went to work for DynCorp. He smoked a Marlboro and held a cup of coffee in one hand as he drove.
A great dust cloud formed as the A.T.V.s hyperkinetically whizzed past us and the trucks kicked up plumes of swirling yellow powder. Picking up speed, Lockyear exclaimed, “This is redneck heaven. You get to run around the desert on A.T.V.s and pickups, shoot guns, and get paid for it. Man, it’s the perfect job!”
When we reached the target area, men on A.T.V.s cut through the fields, dragging metal bars on chains, which knocked down the poppies. Other members of the team whacked at the poppies with shovel handles. Around the edges of the fields and on small hills above them, armed Afghan Interior Ministry policemen stood guard. Wankel had attended a shura, or council of local elders, a few days before, to explain the mission, and a small group of local Pashtun policemen were on hand, but the A.E.F. team consisted mostly of men from other areas of the country. Major Khalil, the deputy commander, was an ethnic Tajik, and didn’t trust the Pashtuns. (Like many Afghans, Khalil uses only one name.) He came from the same village in the northern province of Panjshir as the mujahideen hero Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda two days before the September 11th attacks. Khalil described the area where we were as “the heart of enemy territory.”
Doug Wankel walked up to an angry-looking farmer who was watching his field being destroyed and asked him, through an interpreter named Nazeem, how much he got for his opium. Twenty-one thousand Pakistani rupees for a four-kilo package, the farmer said, and he harvested three to four kilos per jirib (a local land measurement equivalent to about half an acre). He added, “I get only a thousand rupees per jirib of wheat, so I’m obliged to grow poppies.” That comes to about thirty-three dollars from an acre of wheat, and between five hundred and seven hundred dollars from an acre of poppies. In Uruzgan, the opium was sold to middlemen who then smuggled it out of Afghanistan to Pakistan or Iran.
“How long have you been growing poppies?” Wankel asked him.
The farmer looked surprised. “When I was born, I saw the poppies,” he said.
When we were ready to move on, the farmer said, as if to be polite, “Thank you—but I can’t really thank you, because you haven’t destroyed just my poppies but my wheat, too.” He pointed to where A.T.V.s had driven through a wheat patch. Wankel apologized, then commented that it was only one small section. “But you have also damaged my watermelons,” the farmer insisted, pointing to another part of the field. “Now I will have nothing left.”
Wankel turned away. As we walked on, the farmer called out, “Are you destroying all the poppies or just my field?”
About a dozen men and boys gathered on a low dirt wall next to another field and watched the proceedings impassively. A young girl wiped away tears with her scarf and yelled angrily at a policeman. Nearby, several Americans were resting in the shade of some mulberry trees, talking to each other. One of the local men, who wore a black turban, said to them, “We’re poor—we’re not with the Taliban or anything. You’ve made a big mistake. Now we’ll grow more against you.” He added, “I have to feed my children.”
Nazeem, the translator, spoke to the men in Pashto, and recited passages from the Koran proscribing opium. One of the men retorted, “The Koran also says to fight against kafirs”—that is, infidels. His companions stirred and nodded.
A farmer approached Glen Vaughn, one of the DynCorp medics, and told him that he had pains in his back which made it hard to move his legs. He had gone to the Dutch base to be treated at the hospital there, but had been turned away. Vaughn, a stocky former fireman from Denton, Texas, began to examine him. As he did so, another man made a lunge for Vaughn’s holstered sidearm. Vaughn jerked backward and the man dodged away, grinning. “I’ll shoot you in the head if you try that again,” Vaughn said in English.
Nazeem and a couple of Afghan policemen formed a protective circle around Vaughn. The other farmers, seeing Vaughn’s alarm as a display of fear, laughed at him. Nazeem spoke to them sharply, saying, “I’m Pashtun, too, like you, and I’m not afraid of you.” Staring coldly at him, the oldest farmer, a gray-bearded man, said, “You will be afraid when the time comes.”
Back at the base camp, Wankel changed into shorts and a T-shirt decorated with the Stars and Stripes and an eagle, and lay down on the cot in his tent to read Bob Woodward’s most recent book, “State of Denial.” On balance, he was pleased with how the first day had gone; it had been a good start. “It’s not fair to judge the eradication program against the figures for drug cultivation, because it’s really just getting off the ground,” Wankel said. “Corruption is a huge problem, though, and no doubt some of the guys we’re involved with are up to some stuff. But you just have to try and steer them.”
On the second day of the operation, the local police, who were supposed to show up at seven, were forty minutes late and, when they finally arrived, there were only a few of them. This was worrisome, because after the previous day’s foray there was more potential for trouble; the presence of the police was seen as a guarantee of local coöperation, and therefore of security for the eradication force. Mick Hogan, a tall, muscular man of fifty with a silver beard, who was Wankel’s manager in the field, stood silently, watching the convoy get ready. Hogan was a veteran of Special Forces anti-guerrilla operations in Central America during the nineteen-eighties, and of the I.N.L.’s counter-narcotics programs in Colombia, Guatemala, and Bolivia. He remarked evenly that the late arrival of the policemen was “not a good sign.”
The convoy moved out anyway. We travelled slowly in a long line of vehicles. I was in a Ford truck with Eric Sherepita, one of two DynCorp commanders of the operation in Uruzgan. Sherepita was a burly man in his thirties with a shaved head and tattoos, a goatee and a Fu Manchu mustache. The other DynCorp commander, Kelly, a former policeman from Arizona, also goateed, was driving another. The remaining DynCorp trucks were packed with guns and men, including two specialists in land-mine and explosives removal: a husky, soft-spoken Samoan named Suani, who often wore a sarong and draped a kaffiyeh over his head, like an Arab sheikh, and Anton, a Croatian from Mostar, who rarely spoke.
As we entered the nearest village, children gathered along the track waving and holding their hands out, and some of the DynCorp men tossed them gray plastic packages. “Halal M.R.E.s,” Sherepita explained. “The kids love them.” He threw a few, and the children scrambled to retrieve them. Some opened them immediately and began eating the contents, while others threw them under the tires of the trucks to watch them get squashed.
The area chosen for the day’s mission had been relayed to Wankel and the DynCorp team by the Dutch only the evening before. The drive, on the opposite bank of the river from the camp, took nearly two hours. We bivouacked on some sloping open ground above a village on a bluff. Below were poppy fields and the river; behind us was a row of bare hills and, a half mile or so farther away, the steep flanks of the mountains.
Two helicopters, called Diablo One and Diablo Two, flew in and landed on the ground near us, disgorging a small group of television journalists, including Dutchmen and a couple of Australians, who were to film that morning’s eradication work. They stumbled toward us, clutching plastic water bottles and their gear, and were introduced to Doug Wankel, who led the way down the hill.
Wankel climbed on the back of an A.T.V. driven by Mick Hogan to get across a stream at the base of the bluff, and, at the last minute, one of the Dutch newsmen got on, despite Hogan’s warnings that his weight would throw off the balance. The A.T.V. cleared the stream but toppled off the steep embankment on the other side. The Dutchman leaped clear; Wankel and Hogan were pitched into the field as the A.T.V. flipped over.
Wankel was on his back, and both his legs were pinned under the vehicle. Several of us lifted the A.T.V. and saw that his legs had deep, ugly gashes; on one, the white bone of his shin was exposed. Hogan, unhurt, began cursing the Dutchman, who had vanished. Someone brought a stretcher, and Wankel, managing a pained smile, was carefully loaded onto it and carried to one of the choppers, which would fly him to the Tirin Kot base.
Policemen were already busy whacking and crushing poppies, using sticks and A.T.V.s. They were spread out over several hundred metres. Unlike the day before, there were no children or any other civilians in sight.
As I walked along a trail between the poppy fields, gunshots rang out. Men began running, taking cover, and looking up toward the village on the bluff; the firing seemed to be coming from the mud-walled compounds there. Kelly, the ex-cop from Arizona, yelled at me to take cover. I headed toward a stand of trees with Aaron Huey, the photographer who was travelling with me; from there we could no longer see any other Americans. A group of six or seven Interior Ministry policemen—almost all of the local police had disappeared as soon as the shooting started—ran past with their guns drawn, and we followed.
Moments later, we were in an open section of the village, and under fire. There were now twenty or so policemen, in small groups bunched up against mud walls, shooting in various directions. One of them had been shot in the shoulder and was bleeding. I tried, with Huey, to make a run for where I thought the American convoy was, but we were turned back by gunfire.
Some of the policemen began pointing at a distant farm compound. “Dushman!”—enemy—one yelled. They fired an R.P.G. at the compound. The grenade exploded, sending up a large black burst of smoke and dust.
Major Khalil appeared, leading a few of the policemen and a prisoner in a brown robe; they had tied his hands behind his back with his own shawl. Huey and I joined them as they made their way down an alley and toward the fields. When we were in the middle of the poppy field, Khalil screamed, “Taliban! Get down!” Then he and his men, firing their guns, advanced, with us among them.
We could see the helicopters flying over the village and the river, seeming to leave the area. Several of the policemen asked me why they weren’t firing at our attackers. I didn’t know what to tell them. (Later, I learned that they were evacuating the television journalists.)
As we approached a steep hill, from which the Afghan policemen were firing rockets and Kalashnikovs into the village, Khalil told everyone in our group to lift our hands and weapons in the air, and he began calling out loudly, identifying us to the policemen above us, telling them to hold their fire. As they covered us, we climbed the hill to join them.
It had been about ninety minutes since the shooting began. As we looked for cover on the hill, Khalil directed his men to fire into the village. Bullets came cracking at us. The prisoner, his arms still bound, crouched next to me. There was a plume of black smoke; the men said that it was one of our vehicles burning. Khalil, seemingly panicked, ordered everyone to run. (He later told me that he had seen movement below and feared that the Taliban were about to surround us.) We headed for another hill, from which I was finally able to see the convoy, about a half mile away, across a wadi.
A group of men had gathered in a large foxhole at the summit of our hill, and I spotted Mick Hogan, who was looking through his gun’s scope at the village below. I crawled up to him. Below us, I saw a man dressed in black move quickly through the village and dodge out of sight behind a wall. The men in the foxhole pounded bullets in his direction.
Hogan told us to get to the convoy; the Americans wanted to pull out right away. As Huey and I headed down, one of the Afghans came running past us, pointing to a hole in his trousers where a bullet had just missed his leg. I congratulated him on his good luck. Then I spotted Kelly driving one of the white pickups and we got in with him.
We had to get back across the river, but the route we had used that morning was too dangerous; some Afghan policemen had just been ambushed in an attempt to head that way. Our way to the river cut between two walled orchards, and the convoy, a long line of slow-moving trucks, was taking fire from both sides. Kelly called the helicopters on his radio, and soon we heard the grinding sound of the helicopters’ miniguns—.30-calibre machine guns that fire up to four thousand rounds per minute.
When we reached the river’s edge, we saw that one of the white pickups was stranded in the water and some of the A.T.V.s were submerged. Men were clambering about—trying to hold on to vehicles, calling for towropes—and returning fire. Kelly stopped midstream to help them. Two of the A.T.V.s were towed out, but the others, and the pickup, were abandoned. The DynCorp men ripped the radio out of the pickup so that the Taliban wouldn’t take it. Kelly managed to get his truck to the other side, where the shooting continued.
Nearby, a DynCorp crew had opened full automatic fire on a group of gunmen who had moved from deeper in the orchard to the treeline on the opposite bank and were shooting at us. Aaron Huey and I took cover behind a truck as Kelly joined the fight. Rockets exploded near the Diablos, and then the choppers disappeared. (They had both been hit several times, but made it back to the base in Tirin Kot, one with a fire on board.) After a few more minutes, the decision was made to retreat.
The road was almost obscured by the dust kicked up by the trucks in front of us. We passed another orchard, and, again, there were gunshots from both sides of the road. In the back of our truck, Bulmaro Vasconcelos, a machine-gunner from Hemet, California, fired into the orchard with a heavy machine gun. I saw a military cap in the road in front of us, and then a man lying face down. We couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead, and swerved to avoid running over him. It was one of the Afghan policemen. Kelly yelled for the truck behind us to pick him up.
A few seconds later, the window on Kelly’s side exploded and he yelled, “Shit! I’ve been hit!” He grabbed his leg, but kept driving, feeling the leg with one hand. He looked at the hand: there was no blood. The bullet, evidently slowed by the metal door, had not pierced his skin. “I’m all right,” he said. A bullet hit my side of the truck, and another struck the back. A minute or two later, we were out of the orchards and into more open territory, headed toward the camp. For the first time in four hours, there was no shooting.
About ten minutes after we got back to camp, we heard loud explosions coming from the river. The Dutch had dispatched an Apache helicopter to destroy the abandoned pickup with a Hellfire missile.
In addition to the man we had found in the road, who had been shot in the head and was barely alive, four Afghan policemen had been shot, of whom two were critically wounded. One was spouting blood from the femoral artery in his right leg. Another had been shot in the lung and the liver. Sylvester Pocius, known as Sly, another goateed DynCorp contractor, had been grazed on the neck by a bullet that ricocheted off the bolt of his gun. The wounded were rushed into camp for emergency treatment and driven to the Special Forces hospital. (A month later, the policeman who had been shot in the liver died of his wounds.)
Later, Major Khalil said that he had been informed that eleven other Afghans were wounded and eight killed during the attack. There was conflicting information about the identities of the dead, and uncertainty about whether the reports were accurate, but the victims were said to have included an old woman, or possibly an old man, and a twelve-year-old girl.
The eradication team remained in camp under a tight security lockdown for ten days. The camp was set up like a kraal, with thirty-odd trucks parked in tight groups to form a large, fanlike defensive circle. Within this perimeter, the team members pitched their tents, with the DynCorp men in one area and, in another area, the Afghan police, some of whom slept on cots in the backs of trucks. Each group had its own cookhouse tent and its own toilet truck. The Americans also had a shower truck and a laundry truck. Beyond the camp, at each point of the compass, Nepalese Gurkhas hired by DynCorp maintained sentry positions in foxholes and in sandbagged machine-gun nests on the roofs of trucks.
The DynCorp men spent their time swapping stories, watching DVDs, surfing the Web, and catching up on e-mail; the camp, which had its own satellite gear, was wireless. Camp life soon acquired a “Groundhog Day” routine. Every afternoon, Pocius and Vasconcelos lifted weights, and then Pocius sunbathed. Tyrone, a fifty-seven-year-old logistics man, called his wife in North Carolina every evening, using Skype, and talked to her for hours. Kevin, a personable Ohioan, brewed Starbucks coffee that had been sent from home.
Most of the DynCorp men were Southerners or Midwesterners, and all but a couple were ex-military men. Almost all had children, and told me they had become contractors because they were able to earn a great deal more money than in civilian jobs back home. Their contracts obliged them to stay in Afghanistan for six-month periods, after which they received a month of paid vacation. Money was not their only motivation, however. Many spoke about wanting to recapture the camaraderie and adventure of military life. Being in Afghanistan also gave them a sense of purpose: they were patriotic, and saw themselves as participating in the war on terror.
Hook, a former Army man and prison guard, had been hired by DynCorp just the month before. One morning, he said, “The real problem in this war on terror is you guys, the press. Ties our hands. The only way to fight this is to give them back the same medicine, like Operation Phoenix, in Vietnam. My Lai—what Calley did there was probably just on orders.”
Tyrone, who was a Vietnam veteran, said he thought that the war could not be won the way it was being waged. “We’re really not fighting it,” he said. “The Taliban are just right over the ridge there. The Dutch are tolerating it.”
By this time, news had circulated that Khalil’s prisoner, who had been tied up and kept in a tent for four or five days and interrogated at the U.S. Special Forces base, had talked. Allegedly, the day before the attack, men from another village had brought in weapons and a group of fifteen to twenty Taliban fighters, and had told the village men to evacuate women and children. (The A.E.F. men estimated that there were forty to fifty attackers in all.)
Mick Hogan had debriefed each of the men who had been in the field on the day of the attack, and he was angry at the Dutch. They hadn’t sent an ambulance for the critically wounded Afghan policemen, he said, or treated them at their hospital. From the beginning, Hogan said, the Dutch had issued petty rules that had made it harder to accomplish the mission. “They gave us a grid less than nine clicks by two to operate in, and something my time in the S.F. taught me was that unpredictability is the key to survival,” Hogan said. “The more people know what you’re doing, the more likely something bad can happen to you. They said, ‘Oh, you can’t go here, you can’t cross the river there.’ Makes you think that our so-called international allies are not our friends.”
One of the senior members of the A.E.F. told me that it appeared that the fields in the target area belonged primarily to the Alkozai tribe, leaving those of the Populzai—Karzai’s tribe—relatively untouched. “So the Dutch, wittingly or unwittingly, appear to be favoring the Populzai,” he said. “By targeting the Alkozai, it was almost mandated that they would retaliate.”
After hearing so many recriminations, I tried to arrange an interview with the Dutch military. They declined to speak to me while I was in Uruzgan. But when I returned to Kabul I spoke to a European official based in Afghanistan, who dismissed the reports that the Dutch had been unwilling to treat the wounded; the problem was that their hospital had been full at the time, and the Special Forces hospital had had space available. (Later, a Dutch government spokesman said that they had never received a formal request for an ambulance. The spokesman also said that the target area was selected in conjunction with the Afghan government and others in the international community, and was meant to be “tribal neutral,” although there were other factors at work, including security and the richness of the fields.)
The ambush, the European official said, should not have surprised anyone, especially that late in the season. “You can put the eradication team wherever you want, but it’s not really a fighting force,” he said. “If you get attacked, you can only retreat.”
One problem with eradication operations such as the one in Uruzgan is that they tend to set up confrontations between armed men and poor farmers: the only American a farmer ever meets might be the one who is destroying his harvest, rather than someone who is building a school or a clinic. Another problem is that knocking down or plowing under the flowers is time-consuming. “The per-acre cost of forced eradication is also excruciatingly high,” Chris Alexander said.
A way around this would be to spray the poppies with chemicals from the air, as coca is eradicated in Colombia. This is a highly controversial approach, however, because of its indiscriminate destruction of crops and the uncertainty about its health effects. As a compromise, the Americans have strongly advocated ground spraying from tractors. The Western official said, “You have to get past manual eradication and discuss chemical spraying. The Europeans are adamantly opposed—just look at the whole genetically-modified-crop debate in Europe. If they decided to spray over the next few months, we would need to have an information campaign on spraying, telling the Afghans they’re not going to have two-headed babies but also telling them so in Europe, in The Hague and in Rome.”
The official said that last year Karzai had authorized ground spraying, but, under pressure from the Europeans, decided to wait. “Karzai is balancing a lot on this. If the international community goes to him in a united front, he can make the hard decision. But on this issue we weren’t united, and he couldn’t make the decision.”
The narcotics issue, like almost every other piece in the Afghan jigsaw puzzle, poses a conundrum to the Americans. While attempting to pacify Afghanistan, they must stabilize it politically and rebuild it, too; as the eradication issue shows, the actions required for one can undermine the other. Added to this is the absence of a unified international strategy, and the resultant infighting between the U.S. and its allies. There is disunity not only on the opium problem but on how to fight the war. Doug Wankel said, “Americans have this image of being cowboyish and pushy, and we’ve suffered in this from what’s happened in Iraq.”
Distracted by Iraq, the U.S. only belatedly began serious counter-narcotics and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. In the vacuum, the Taliban returned, and most of the foreign experts and Afghan officials I met with acknowledged that they, not NATO or the Karzai government, held the initiative. No one speaks with any assurance about “winning”—only about the long road ahead. In Chris Alexander’s carefully phrased appraisal, “The trend is not monolithically positive.”
Karzai, in his efforts to mollify his restive fellow-Pashtuns, has made conciliatory gestures to the Taliban which have alienated Tajiks and Uzbeks who helped him come to power. There is the danger of a broader divide between north and south. A coalition of former warlords and politicians predominantly from the north recently formed an opposition front to challenge Karzai, who is up for reëlection in 2009. A group of retired generals—again, mostly northerners—have called for a more hard-line approach in the war against the Taliban. While in Afghanistan, I travelled several hours north of Kabul to the Panjshir Valley, and met with Ahmed Kushah, a nephew of the assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud. Kushah was living with a band of armed followers high up in the mountains, to prepare for the new guerrilla war he believes is coming. He told me he felt certain that Karzai’s policies, backed by the West, would lead to a Taliban takeover, and he was preparing to defend the north, just as his uncle had once done. He told me that although he had no immediate plans to attack Americans, he would do so if they moved against him. Islam, he told me, was his inspiration.
Among ordinary Afghans, conspiracy theories are rife. Major Khalil asked me one day, “If the Americans can put a man on the moon, why can’t they defeat the Taliban?” His implication was that, if the Americans didn’t win, it was because they didn’t want to badly enough.
I arranged to be escorted to the poppy fields by a local police unit, so that I could speak to farmers freely, without members of the eradication team present. The policemen, who arrived in a pickup, did not inspire confidence. There were six or seven young men, most of them wearing shalwar kameez instead of uniforms, under the command of a tiny hunchbacked man who walked with difficulty, using crutches. He wore a rakish turban and a dirty robe, and he spat constantly. Suppressing my misgivings, I went with them.
At the edge of a wadi, we found several men and a boy at work, harvesting opium. The policemen stood at the edges of the field as I waded into the poppies with a translator, a local young man named Saibullah, who had learned English as a refugee in Pakistan. Once he had explained that I merely wanted to see how they collected the drug, they were friendly enough. The boy showed me how he ran his thumb over the oozing bulbs and then scraped the gooey brown opium into a glass he held in his other hand. When the glass was full, he emptied the contents into a large bowl. It was 8:20 A.M. and the harvesters had been working since 5 A.M. It looked as though they had already collected about two kilos. Nazir Ahmad, a bearded man in a long, opium-stained smock, said that he had twenty people to support and four jiribs of land, from which he expected to harvest twenty-five kilos of opium.
The development projects meant to offset the loss of the poppies didn’t benefit people like him, Ahmad said. “The Karzai government doesn’t give the money to poor farmers growing poppy. It gives it only to its friends who grow it”—corrupt officials and landowners with political influence. (Many of the farmers were sharecroppers.) “We would be happy to stop growing opium if they would give us some help, and stop giving the money meant for us to thieves.” Instead of receiving aid from government officials, Ahmad said, “if they tell us to break the poppies, we must pay them not to.”
Ahmad’s younger brother said that he had just returned from the harvest in Helmand Province—the source of forty per cent of Afghanistan’s opium. The opium farmers there often had to pay bribes, he said. This echoed what the DynCorp men had told me about their experience in Helmand the previous month. There, after shuras with elders, the local policemen had guided them to certain fields while leaving others intact. Presumably, the farmers whose poppies were spared were well connected or had paid bribes. Chris Alexander told me, “In Helmand and Uruzgan, eradication has been subject to political manipulation and corruption. It has also proven virtually impossible to conduct in districts where the Taliban are relatively strong, thereby inevitably penalizing farmers in pro-government districts.”
Before I left the field, Ahmad looked at me directly and said, “I know the opium is turned into drugs that destroy young people, and I am sorry, but we are twenty people and we have no help. We must grow it to survive. If we get help, we won’t grow it next year.”
Driving up out of the wadi, we had to wait for a convoy of three armored personnel carriers, with Australian flags, to pass. In Tirin Kot, we parked in the traffic circle at the center of town, where a large group of turbaned and bearded young men had gathered, waiting for opium farmers to come along and hire them as day laborers. The men looked at us with suspicion. Several covered their faces. One of the men was the farmer who had tried to grab Glen Vaughn’s pistol on the first day of the mission. Saibullah, the translator, said, “We should go now—there may be suiciders.” As we drove on, he said that there were Taliban among the men in the crowd: “They were the ones who covered their faces.”
When we returned to the camp, I heard that a suicide bomber on a motorbike had blown himself up next to an Australian convoy, wounding a number of soldiers and civilians. Most likely, this was the convoy that had passed us.
There were doubts about whether the eradication would resume; the Embassy in Kabul was not sure that it was worth the risk. The Americans had always been cagey about the number of acres of poppies they hoped to eradicate in Uruzgan, claiming that it “wasn’t about numbers” but about making their presence felt. They had intended to spend at least ten days in the fields, and thus far had managed only one—in which, by their rough calculations, they had destroyed less than two hundred acres. (By contrast, earlier this year, in a monthlong operation in Helmand, they had destroyed an estimated seventy-five hundred acres—out of an estimated hundred and seventy-five thousand planted with poppies.)
“We’ve been and shown we can mess things up,” Hogan said. “Sure, we’ve taken our losses, too, and maybe we lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the war.”
After a week, the DynCorp men were told that the Uruzgan mission was complete. The Nepalese Gurkhas slaughtered a goat in celebration. That night, however, Hogan reported that the U.S. Ambassador and the Afghan Minister of the Interior had decided that the team should not leave Uruzgan without a final show of force.
Major Khalil came to see Kelly. The local Afghan Army commander, he said, was worried about accompanying the eradication team into the fields—one of his patrols had recently been ambushed.
“So what are you saying?” Kelly asked warily.
Khalil suggested another shura, to get the coöperation of the village elders. He also urged that they move quickly, because the harvest was almost over—the fields were already “trash.” Kelly said, “It’s true, the fields are shit now, but that’s not the point. The point is to go back in there and kick some ass.”
Kelly told Khalil to set up the shura. Rolling his eyes, he said, “This is just the way it was in Helmand, with the shuras repeating themselves over and over again, all the same fucking shit. It’s a stalling tactic.”
Limping, but managing without crutches, Doug Wankel reappeared the next morning. He had flown from Kabul with Gene Trammell, the head of the DynCorp counter-narcotics program. Colonel Marouf, Major Khalil’s superior on the A.E.F., met us at the governor’s palace with the local police chief, Qassem. The errant governor of Uruzgan, Abdul Hakim Munib, who had finally returned from Kabul, arrived a few moments later.
Munib began talking about his commitment to eradication. “We’ve tried to do as much as we could, but we’re hampered by lack of tools and equipment,” he said. “I was happy when I heard you were coming.” The Americans listened quietly, their faces neutral. Then Munib announced that he had met with the elders, and they had agreed to eradicate half their poppy fields by themselves—there was no need for the A.E.F. to do it.
Qassem stood up. He said that there were two areas where eradication could still be conducted. Before he could continue, Wankel cut him off, and announced that President Karzai and the Afghan minister of defense had been informed about the attack on the team. “Kabul says it’s very important for the government to come back and eradicate for one, two days in the area where it happened, to show that the government has the ability to exercise the rule of law in Tirin Kot,” Wankel said.
Qassem said, “We can come and show you where to go.”
“You will have to come early. We leave at seven sharp,” Wankel said, standing up. “Thank you, that’s it.”
Qassem arrived on time, along with several jeeploads of his policemen. I rode with David Lockyear, the Tennessean. Overhead, we could hear the whine of a Special Forces drone. We passed a man on a motorbike; Lockyear exclaimed that he had a Kalashnikov, and radioed to the Afghan police truck behind us to pick him up. The poppy fields were on both sides of the road where we had come under fire during our retreat, running toward the river on one side and toward the desert on the other. Several fields were already brown, drying in the sun, but others were still green. The eradication team entered the fields on the desert side and began whacking the stalks with sticks.
Several farmers ran up to Colonel Marouf, yelling furiously, “We are all Muslims! Why are you doing this to us?” Marouf told the policemen to keep them at the edge of the fields. Allen Barnes, one of the DynCorp medics, was standing guard nearby. He was wearing a khaki kilt, claiming relief from the heat and some Celtic ancestry. One of the other contractors called him a “gear queer.” Barnes laughed.
Marouf called off the men once they had destroyed two-thirds of the poppies—to leave the farmers with something, he said. The farmers were released. As they left, one of them said to Marouf, “If we had known you were coming to do this, we would have fought you.” Calling after them, Marouf retorted, “When you fight, you use your women and children as shields!”
Governor Munib and the intelligence chief arrived with a clutch of elders. They made their way to a shady spot under a mulberry tree at the edge of a field and sat down. I saw the hunchbacked police commander approach Munib and kiss his hand. Wankel went over and told Munib that the plan for the next day was to destroy poppies on the other side of the road, down by the river, where the fields were bigger and richer, in order to be “fair.” Munib just nodded.
Afterward, I asked Munib about the links between the Taliban and the opium trade; he had, after all, been a deputy minister in the Taliban regime.
“In the areas where the poppies are cultivated and there are Taliban, it is under their influence. But elsewhere it is not fully so,” Munib said. “We know that the Taliban are telling the people to oppose the government’s eradication strategy, but, as you also know, the Taliban, when they were in government, eradicated all the poppies.”
He added, “When the Taliban imposed their decree, there was followup. They were capturing and punishing people, so the people stopped growing opium. Also, there was no opposition—the Taliban had all the power.”
Munib and the elders did not show up the next day. Qassem and his local policemen appeared, however, with a village councillor. They led the eradication force to the same side of the road where we had been the day before. Doug Wankel was furious. After the policemen had spent half an hour whacking one small field with their sticks, he told them to stop. He said again that he wished to eradicate poppies in the fields toward the river. The councillor told Wankel that he would not accompany the men if they went on that side of the road, nor could he guarantee their safety.
Wankel insisted. He ordered Major Khalil and the DynCorp men to set up a good security perimeter. Qassem and his men stayed behind. Wankel and Trammell and a group of men, guns drawn, walked down into the fields below, a checkerboard of green wheat and luxuriant poppies. After a few minutes, Marouf received a call from Qassem on his field radio saying that he and his men were pulling out. Alarm spread among the Americans and the Afghan policemen who were with us.
“Someone powerful obviously controls this area,” Wankel told Trammell. “The local authorities’ leaving has sent out the message that we’re unsafe and can be attacked. We should go.”
We climbed back up the bluff. Qassem was standing there with several of his men. Doug Wankel didn’t approach him. Marouf went to talk to Qassem, and then came back and told Wankel, “The police say you can eradicate there”—he pointed up to the other side of the road.
“Fuck the police,” Wankel snarled, and he turned and walked away. He told his men that it was over.
I walked past one of the jeeps where some of Qassem’s policemen, dressed in robes and sparkly skullcaps, were laughing and talking with the opium growers. I caught a whiff of something burning as I passed. They were smoking hashish.Back at camp, everyone was in a bad mood. Hook, the former prison guard, remarked, “We ought to take all those guys and hang them in public, beginning with the governor.” He laughed, and added, “Good thing I’m not an idealist—I’m just here for the money.”