It was the first day of Afghanistan’s new opium eradication programme and the quiet town of Maiwand in Kandahar province had been chosen for action.
Hundreds of Afghan eradicators under the command of American private security contractors were going to head into the fields around the town and destroy the beautiful red and white blooms days before they could be harvested for their narcotic sap.
But instead of the peaceful, model operation that was promised as an example to demonstrate the Kabul government’s serious intentions, Maiwand and its surrounding villages exploded into violence in what could be a foretaste of resistance to Western-backed efforts to bring Afghanistan’s opium industry under control.
By the end of yesterday four government soldiers had been wounded by gunfire from farmers, American security contractors were said to be sheltering behind razor wire in a protected camp, and Afghan police and counter-narcotics forces had fought fierce battles which local people said left five dead. Plans to eradicate poppies were temporarily shelved in the area as political bigwigs shuttled to and fro trying to ease tensions and broker some kind of deal with the angry opium farmers.
Dense clouds of black smoke hung over the town from burning barricades, hundreds of shots rang out from gun battles, and American helicopter gunships flew low overhead.
One policeman said he had seen five bodies, but it was difficult to tell from the ambulances speeding out of the town towards hospitals one hour away in Kandahar how many had been injured in the disastrous operation.
The poppy eradication force had driven out of Kandahar two days earlier on their way towards Maiwand in a motley collection of Jeeps and trucks, bristling with firepower and wearing a remarkable array of uniforms and ethnic dress.
Friendly looking Americans chewing cigars – most of them are retired policemen hired by the security company – had waved lazily as the convoy thundered past.
Maiwan was being targeted first for eradication because it was regarded as a relatively peaceful area with effective government control. The hard cases have yet to be tackled.
Driving across the desert from Kandahar, the first sign of trouble was the pall of black smoke from burning tyres pulled across the road, blocking it to traffic. Tall men in turbans could be seen standing next to them chanting. As we wondered whether to chance the blockade, a driver speeding out of town leant out of the car window and shouted at us in English: “Don’t go in there or you’ll never come out again.” As he vanished at high speed into the distance dozens of shots rang out.
Local people told us to go no further, and a passing police commander ordered three of his men to guard us. They assumed macho poses with their AK-47s and gave us bubble-gum.
One of them said the fighting had been so fierce it must have been the Taliban helping farmers to fight back.
A local man heard there were journalists near by and rode out of the town on his moped past the burning tyres to voice the passions being violently expressed within it.
“The farmers are angry with the Americans and the Kabul government,” said Ahmed Weil. “It is only the fields of the poor that are being destroyed, not the fields of the rich.” Afghans complain that wealthy warlords keep their stockpiles of opium while poor farmers are stopped from growing the crop or have their fields cut down.
There are also persistent claims that farmers are spared eradication if they can afford to bribe teams, or if they share the clan background of eradicators.