A circumstantial encounter of two United Nations international staffers with a poppy grower in Kandahar, Afghanistan not only speaks volumes but is also riveting. The story dates back to 1995. At the time, my colleague and l were from Somalia and Ethiopia respectively. Two years later we became Canadian citizens.
Sitting in our UN Kabul Offices tumultuous changes swept Asia and Africa. In Kabul, we witnessed the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Mohammed Najibullah Ahmadzai’s government. In 1992, Najibullah was escorted to the UN compound, where he remained internally exiled until his execution by the Taliban in 1996.
The charismatic and intelligent Najib once expressed to me his desire to hand over Kabul peacefully to the Mujahideen rather than him see Kabul destroyed by civil war. With Najib in the UN compound, I was able to see the human side of dictatorship.
After several years of protracted civil war, Western and Pakistan backed Mujahedeen stormed Kabul shortly after Najib entered the UN compound. Soon after, Najib’s nightmare and fear of a civil war among Mujahedeen factions rocked Kabul. In few weeks, the destruction of Kabul reached gargantuan proportions. Sitting in the UN compound, I witnessed the death of Kabul, once known as the pearl of Asia.
Simultaneously, Ethiopia and Somalia underwent irreparable chaos and destruction. Somalia disintegrated from being the golden port of the Horn of Africa to a failed state. Ethiopia changed guard from Marxist military rule to ragtag guerrillas of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front from Northern Ethiopia. Overnight, Ethiopia’s 14th province, Eritrea, became an independent nation, leaving Ethiopia as the largest landlocked country in the world.
Following the deterioration of security in Kabul, the UN Afghan operation was relocated to Islamabad, Pakistan. UN’s cross-border operations were intermittently launched to neighbouring Jalalabad and Kandahar from Pakistan. My colleague and I were reassigned to Kandahar to open UNICEF and WFP offices in South Central Afghanistan. Gung-ho by the new assignment, my friend and I resumed UN activities in Mujahedeen controlled city of Kandahar.
Unfortunately, my mission was short-lived. Taliban forces hailing from the “Madrassas” of Quetta, Pakistan, swept into Kandahar at lightning speed. Once again, the two humanitarian musketeers were evacuated to Quetta, Pakistan. On the way to Quetta, the evacuating UN conveys were stopped by black Turbaned Taliban forces, descending towards Kandahar in columns of two. Expectedly, the evacuating UN convoy was asked by the Taliban to return to Kandahar. We two Mujahedeen hardened UN staff refused politely but firmly. Without much ado, the Taliban escorted our UN convoy to the Afghan-Pakistan border, to its safe exit.
A few weeks prior to the Taliban takeover of Kandahar, my colleague and I drove to the outskirts of the City one Sunday afternoon for site-seeing. I spotted a farmer poking his poppy pods in his poppy field. Curiously, I pulled over to the corner of the farm to make customary greetings. After a lengthy Afghan greeting, I asked him about the revenue he generates from the poppy farm. His answer was “in thousands of Pakistani Rupees”. At the time the purchasing power of the Afghan currency was weak and Afghans express their transactions in Rupees or Dollars.
The farmer, who seemed surprised by UN personnel, was curious to know our origins. Instantly, I responded “Mulali Mutahid” – a Pashtun phrase for the United Nations. The farmer, who felt insulted, angrily said “I see that from your car logo. I am asking -your country of origin-exclaimed?” Laughingly I responded “Ethiopia and Somalia”.
Surprisingly, he said “I understand why your countries are poor. Take these seeds to your farmers to lift them out of poverty”. Politely rejecting his offer, I said “growing poppy is illegal by the United Nations. I advised him to grow wheat instead”. Bemused by my advice, he said “your advice smells like the US policy”. Curiously I asked “why?” His response was as dramatic as his advice. He said “the UN is an extension of the State Department’s foreign policy. I won’t stop from growing poppy.” With a commanding tone, he sat the UN staffers down for further story telling. His anger towards the US and the West started gushing out like magma erupting from an active volcano.
Continuing with his lecture, he said “the US and its allies generously supplied Afghans with Kalashnikov to fight US’s arch enemy, the Soviet Union. Afghan farmers including myself optimistically joined the dirty war called ‘Jihad’. In retrospect, the US/West supplied Afghans with wheat, rice and oil. Thousands of Afghan farmers abandoned farming and joined the ‘Jihad’. Inevitably, the Soviet army was defeated at the expense of millions of Afghans’ lives.
For the US and its allies, it was mission accomplished. Regrettably, nothing changed for Afghans. Soon after Afghanistan was abandoned without a central government. A second civil war started, this time Mujahideen against Mujahideen.” Mesmerized by the farmer’s story, I listened attentively.
“The dirty war of resistance and the ensuing civil war killed, maimed, and displaced millions. The country’s meager socio-economic infrastructures are in ruins. Ten million Afghans became refugees in of the world. An entire generation was lost. Abandon Afghans are regurgitating their bitter and sad reality,” said the poppy grower.
Emphatically, he also said that Afghans do not produce Kalashnikovs to destroy others. Western allies trained our farmers how to use Kalashnikovs and not how to harness plow shears. For two-decades, Afghans were made to forget growing wheat and rice. Instead, they became capable of producing a silent munition called ‘poppy’. Knowing that poppy neither explodes nor kills instantly, Afghans export it to the open and covert markets of the west.
Understanding the West’s interest to consume poppy, the war-hardened Afghan generation is keen to produce it in abundance. Unlike Kalashnikov, poppy kills people silently and agonizingly. It paralyzes the minds and morals of the so-called civilized world. It is a bloodless revenge, culturally permissible and religiously justified by the teachings of the Koran. He concluded his story by thanking his Prophet -Mohammed.
We remained mortified and speechless. Certainly, the two UN staffers received lessons that will last a lifetime from a poppy grower sitting in the middle of a poppy field. We had no words to respond to a desperate farmer whose life was shattered by a war that ravaged his country for over two decades.
At a glance poppy is the most beautiful and attractive flower. However, what comes out of it is evil, and destructive. Didactically, western foreign policies are synonymous to poppies in more ways than one. From the outset it seems attractive but destructive from within. Such dishonest policies have failed in the past and will fail in the future. That is why the US is harvesting the sour fruits of its misguided policy in Afghanistan and around the world.
After losing about 3,000 soldiers, 35, 000 injured and spending about one trillion dollars of US taxpayers’ money, America still lost the Afghanistan war. This year the Biden administration decided to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, a country it messed up so badly. Yet America’s children continue dying from consuming Kandahar’s poppy. And China has formed a new alliance with the Taliban who are poised to take over Mohammed Najibullah’s palace in Kabul in the coming months
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