Sunday, May 6, 2007

Canadian soldiers walk fine line on Afghanistan's poppy crops

Nearly a century since the humble poppy first blossomed as an enduring symbol of military sacrifice, Canada's soldiers find themselves shoulder-deep in flowers of a very different colour, striking a delicate diplomatic balance between policy and practicality.

The opium poppies that blanket Afghanistan in spring are far different and a great deal more treacherous than the red Remembrance Day variety that bloom on city streets in November.

As Canadian soldiers patrol the vibrant pink opium fields of southern Afghanistan, they walk a narrow bridge of neutral territory that divides the Afghan government's U.S.-backed program to rid the country of poppies from the interests of dirt-poor growers whose help keeps coalition soldiers alive.

"We walk through fields all the time; every time we were patrolling through the towns, we'd walk through all kinds of (opium) poppy fields, everywhere," said Maj. Steve Graham, a squadron commander with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, just back from two months in the volatile Zhari district west of Kandahar.

Graham and his soldiers took pains to distance themselves from the poppy-eradication teams of President Hamid Karzai, even as they worked alongside members of the Afghan National Police - the same agency that provides security for the crews tasked with destroying the crops.

"Our line is we have nothing to do with poppy eradication," Graham said Tuesday in an interview. "But even though we want nothing to do with it and we stay away from it, it can't help but have an impact on us."

For Graham, it's simple self-preservation. Local farmers who depend on the poppy crop for their livelihood are a critical source of invaluable intelligence, such as the movements of local Taliban insurgents and where improvised explosive devices - or IEDs - are planted.

"They were telling me where the IEDs were, they were telling me when guys were moving through there that they didn't recognize, and they were pointing out a lot of good information for us," Graham said.

"Anything that damages that relationship is detrimental to what we're doing, and there's no doubt that poppy eradication damages that relationship."

It gets even stickier when poppy-eradication teams come under attack from the Taliban. No less an authority than Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant, the commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, decides whether to intervene if a request for help comes in, Graham said.

For the Canadian government and NATO, the equilibrium is more subtle.

Though Canadian soldiers play no role in poppy eradication, Canada supports the program as one of the pillars of the Afghan national drug-control strategy, said Gavin Buchan, the political director of the provincial reconstruction base in Kandahar.

Other pillars of the strategy include programs to encourage farmers to grow different commodity crops, developing alternative sources of income for locals, treatment for opium addicts and improved interdiction and law enforcement.

source: Canadian Press
authors: James Mccarten And A.R. Khan

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