KANDAHAR, Afghanistan >> It is spring that determines how a year turns out, according to an Afghan proverb. And if the Helmand poppy fields this spring are any indication, the Taliban will have a very good year.
As the opium harvest winds down across Helmand province, Afghanistan’s largest in territory and poppy cultivation, farmers and officials are reporting high yields. The skies were generous with heavy rainfall, and the Afghan government with its cancellation of annual eradication campaigns. It had lost much of the territory in Helmand to the Taliban anyway.
So it was with peace of mind that farmers, and thousands of seasonal laborers who had traveled to Helmand, scraped the gum from the opium bulbs. Taliban fighters were just around the corner to lend a hand — and to receive their share of wages and taxes, in cash or kind. The crowded fields amounted to an insurgent recruiter’s dream.
“We are happy that we had a good harvest this year compared with previous years,” said Abdul Rahim Mutmain, a farmer in Musa Qala district. Mutmain said his modest plot saw a fourfold increase in yield compared with 2015, which was plagued by crop failures and concerted government eradication.
“There is no security concern for a single laborer being checked or robbed by the police,” Mutmain said. “The entire district is under Taliban control and the bulk of the harvesters are Taliban.” He added, “Actually, this is the Taliban regime — you can take your narcotics anywhere or anytime you want to sell them.”
The United Nations, which has described the Taliban behavior “more like ‘godfathers’ than a ‘government in waiting,’” says the insurgency extracts a large share of its expenses from the narcotics trade, which the agency put at roughly $3 billion a year within Afghanistan.
The story of just how deeply the Taliban are intertwined in the business even at the farm level can be told by the fluctuations in violence since last year’s poppy harvest.
For much of the winter, the insurgents had the Afghan forces on the back foot in Helmand, inflicting heavy casualties, overrunning outposts and even entire districts. The fighting reached the gates of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, drawing U.S. and British special operations forces into the combat.
Then, just as harvesting began in late March and early April, officials reported a sudden dip in fighting. Despite the Taliban’s official launch of their annual offensive on April 12, with violence intensifying across other parts of the country, Helmand is still experiencing a relative lull as the last bulbs of poppy are scraped.
The period of calm has allowed the Afghan army in Helmand a rare breather to train and rebuild a force that took a bad beating last year. With men dying at alarming rates and outposts overrun easily, the 215th Afghan Army Corps was forced to abandon certain districts, bringing what remained of the troops to the headquarters for collective retraining.
The U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, which has officially shifted to a limited role of training and assisting the Afghan forces, has said that overall training lagged behind because of the relentless tempo of fighting last year. The army was forced to turn out raw recruits simply to fill the gap caused by casualties and desertion. Now, Afghan military officials and NATO advisers say they are trying to refocus on quality, better logistics and cooperation at the large-unit level.
During the monthlong harvest season in Helmand, the Taliban have better things to do than fight: They profit in multiple ways from the lush opium fields.
Their fighters often lay down their weapons to work as day laborers, farmers say. They also collect the opium tax they impose on the local level, as well as stick around for the additional 10 percent Islamic tax on farm produce, called ushr. Those proceeds are supposed to go to the needy, but often end up going to the Taliban.
Above all, the harvest season becomes a Taliban recruitment drive, with thousands of men coming in from all over the country who are already frustrated with their lack of job opportunities.
“The poppy harvest is a good time for the Taliban to interact with new faces — best time for new recruitment,” said Bashir Ahmad Shakir, the head of security committee at the Helmand provincial council.
Abdul Jabar Qahraman, the Afghan government’s representative in charge of the fighting in Helmand, said the Taliban were campaigning “24/7” to recruit from the pool of 15,000 laborers, mostly jobless young people, who arrived in Helmand for the harvest season. He said the government arrested some 700 of the laborers to disrupt the harvesting, but the men were released a few days later except for a small number suspected of being Taliban members.
“The war in Afghanistan is not a war of ideology, it is a war of financial benefits,” Qahraman said.
“The poppies support the Taliban financially,” he added. “The commanders of the Taliban stuff their pockets with cash. Once they receive the cash that makes their stomachs oily, they prepare themselves for fighting.”
But Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said opium cultivation was a regional and “traditional” issue that brings people the income they need for the rest of the year.
“Poppy farming has nothing to do with us, and in such in an environment of conflict we cannot prevent it either,” Mujahid said. “It’s natural that in some areas the Taliban are residents of that area and have family needs, maybe for meeting those needs they may have participated in the harvesting. But it is not some formal work from our side.”
Consider Mutmain’s roughly 4 acres in Musa Qala district. This year, he said he collected about 88 pounds of raw opium, compared with about 30 pounds from 6 acres last year. Among the 25 laborers he hired for the 15 days of gum collection, Mutmain said 10 were active Taliban members who took a break to work the harvest. The rest were young men from other provinces, mostly neighboring areas.
“You know, they become good friends with each other — they spend at least 12 or 15 days, which is enough time to build trust,” Mutmain said. The Taliban fighters recount “stories of bravery, how they manage to blow up armored vehicles” and overrun checkpoints.
“Those kinds of tales really impress the newcomers, and some go to the battlefields with them and join,” Mutmain said.
Since he lives quite a distance from his fields, Mutmain built makeshift huts for the workers to rest in during the afternoon and sleep in at night. He also hired a cook who served beans, chickpeas and the traditional southern yogurt drink, shrumbai.
Soon after the harvesting was over, a Taliban tax collector arrived with a notepad and a witness, Mutmain said. Sometimes, the farmers need to line up the plastic bags of opium they have collected, each weighing about 10 pounds, for inspection. But most of the time, the Taliban take their word for it.
“You either pay them in the current price, or in narcotics,” Mutmain said about the tax. He paid cash, the equivalent of $400.
Mahatabuddin Khan, another farmer in Khanshin district, said he paid his taxes in kind. He had hired 15 people, five of them Taliban and the rest young men from northern districts of Helmand, to work on his 2 acres, which ultimately yielded about 35 pounds of opium.
The tax collector arrived before the harvesting was even over. He estimated how much the plot in front of him would yield, and Khan paid just under 2 pounds in raw opium.
“He had a notepad to write my name and the amount of narcotic collected from me,” Khan said of the collector.
Many across Helmand fear a difficult year of fighting ahead, now that the insurgent machine is fueled with new cash and fresh fighters.
“The Afghan military forces in Helmand are preparing to face the toughest summer season of fighting,” said Shakir, the provincial council member.