Treading Water in Opium Country

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Zalmaï for TIME

Major Mike Shervington, commander of D Company, 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, speaks with a farmer in the village of Kajaki Olya, Northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

The farmers carefully scraping opium sap from their ripened poppies near the lush bank of the Helmand River are counted as a success story by Major Mike Shervington. They may be feeding the global drug trade, but at least they're here. Most locals had fled the village of Kajaki Olya when British forces took on the Taliban in 2006, and today their orchards, spilling with grapes, pomegranates, almonds and apricots lie untended. But the farmers have lately trickled back to tend crops of poppy and wheat — the wheat will feed their families, the opium will provide their income for the year. Shervington stops his patrol of British paratroopers to ask whether the farmers will stay on after the harvest. It is too dangerous to bring their families, they answer. They are stopped and searched at a Taliban checkpoint every time they enter or leave the village, forced to hand over a portion of their harvest and whatever goods have been donated by foreign troops.

"So wouldn't it be safer to move here?" the British officer asks.

"The Taliban threatens us if we stay," one farmer answers.

"There is no bazaar here," says another. Daily essentials, like cooking oil, sugar and tea are on the other side of the checkpoint. "If I go to the bazaar they will say I am an informant."

"But if more villagers like you will stay, then I won't have to come here with my guns and my soldiers," reasons Shervington.

"You are right," says the farmer. "But we need more security. We need a military checkpoint where the Taliban stop us. Why don't you soldiers push more?"

"We are working on it," says Shervington. "But I ask you to be patient. Your lives will be better soon."

"How soon?" asks the farmer. "Five days?"

Shervington sighs. He has learned a lot of Pashto during his six weeks in Afghanistan, but the phrase he uses most often is yao wradz, meaning "one day..."

More troops would be nice. So would a second Forward Operating Base further down the valley that could help defend these tiny villages. His men could easily take the Taliban checkpoint where the farmers are harassed, but for how long? As soon as his company withdrew up the road to Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge, the Taliban would return. A police post would help, or an Afghan National Army presence. These things are coming, one day.

Meanwhile, he does what he can. He has befriended District Commissioner Mullah Abdul Raziq, and is encouraging him to take a stronger leadership role. He gives Raziq money, flour and oil to pass out to the villagers that have returned. Today, he has asked Raziq to convene a shura, or meeting, with the village elders. En route to the gathering, Shervington encounters another farmer tending to his opium harvest. "Last time you brought us shoes as gifts and it made big problems for us," Ghulam Madin tells the major. "The Taliban came and took them away. We had to promise not to take anything from the British forces. This time if we take the gifts, the Taliban will finish us for sure. Give us security first."

Shervington grimaces. "I understand," he said. "But I need your help too. If more of you move back here we could stand against the Taliban together."

The farmer is unimpressed. "Now that you have come here, the Taliban will use my compound to fire at you. I can't tell them no, because they will say I am collaborating with you. But you will fire on my compound."

"So how do we win?" says Shervington.

"You can't," says Madin.

"We can," insists Shervington.

"You will come down to the green zone and fight, and you will win," the farmer concedes. "But you will win only for one hour. Then you will go back to your base. The Taliban will return. You have to fight the Taliban for more than one hour, you have to push them back."

The clearly frustrated British officer knows Madin has a point — he doesn't have the troop strength to provide the security the farmers demand.

District Commissioner Raziq hugs old friends as he arrives for the shura in the mosque courtyard where some 30 men wait under shade trees. They are happy to see him, but wary too, having been warned by the Taliban to stay away. But these are hungry times, and the promise of flour draws them anyway. Shervington tells the gathered men, "I know you are scared of the big guns up on the hill. If the Taliban come here and fire at me, I promise I will not fire back into your village. But I also need your help to defeat the Taliban. I can't do it myself. If they come here you people should let me know, because I do not want to fire guns in here."

A man with a long white beard responds. "I have heard from the Taliban commander that you British soldiers have come to kill civilians." Before Shervington can answer, a rocket-propelled grenade whistles over the gathering. He dives to protect Raziq, while the soldiers take cover. The villagers, unperturbed, gather around the flour-laden truck to get their rations; then they disappear. The RPG had come from a compound further south, aimed not at the shura, but at the British forces waiting on the road. Unable to spot the insurgents, the soldiers are prevented from returning fire.

Shervington returns to camp despondent. His mood darkens further the next morning, when he hears that the Taliban had held their own shura in the same courtyard the previous night, where villagers were warned off taking anything from the foreigners or the district commissioner. The insurgents told the farmers to leave Kajaki Olya within 15 days, at the end of the poppy harvest.

"I am depressed," says Shervington, who is dedicated to Afghanistan and believes NATO can succeed, although not as quickly as he'd like. "What can you do? The easy thing would be to listen to the Taliban, and not go to Kajaki Olya anymore. The villagers are caught between us and the Taliban." He spreads his hands apart and smacks them together. "But we can't not go in. And we can't fight the Taliban, either. So we are caught."