Tribal fights, drugs, and desert in Eastern Afghanistan
Ten years after 9/11, Afghanistan remains affected by insecurity, underdevelopment and illicit drug production. In Afghanistan’s Eastern province of Nangarhar there are no Taliban, yet tribes fight for land. Traditionally, this region has been used for the cultivation of illicit drugs. Although the region has received some international assistance since 2001, it remains seriously underdeveloped at the border with the North West Frontier of Pakistan. A village chief, Haj Ismael, says “there has always been illicit drug cultivation, but in a social contract with the government, the communities decided to stop producing a few years ago. However, we have not seen much compensation.”
Conditions are harsh, there is no electricity and you need to dig 50 meters to get water. In order to get a doctor “you have to travel 50 km of unpaved road” says Jalil, a young boy. Only few educational facilities have seats or a roof and the land is vastly disputed and covered by a desert. In Nangarhar province, just below the mountains and within walking distance from the border with Pakistan, there are more than 100 villages. Local livelihood depends significantly on the informal economy and illicit drug production.
Most villagers are aware that drug production is illegal and haram (prohibited by Islamic religious principles) but “we have no choice,” says Mohammad, a farmer, “we have nothing and these illicit crops secure our livelihood.” Afghanistan is a major grower of cannabis; it produces more resin or hashish than any other nation. While cannabis is mainly cultivated as a mono crop, some farmers cultivate cannabis along with other crops on so-called ‘bunds’ along the boundaries or edges of illicit fields. Most cannabis fields require irrigation due to the dry soil. The market for cannabis cultivation is so important and much more profitable than wheat – almost tenfold, that subsidies are provided by the narco-traders.
Farmers report that the incentive to grow cannabis is currently higher as money and poverty alleviation remain the primary reasons for cultivating cannabis. Price levels of cannabis rose sharply in 2010, particularly in this region of the country. Farm-gate prices of cannabis resin powder (garda) range between USD 150 and USD 600 per kilo, depending on the garda variety. In Nangharhar, farmers can get USD 8,000 for one hectare yield (3 Afghan jeribs). In comparison, they only received USD 5,000 per hectare for the same fields cultivated for opium earlier in the year. Opium cultivation is less profitable (and riskier), as almost half of the income is used to cover labour costs.
Some of the villagers say that Pakistanis have an influence on the illicit cultivation of this region. Mohammad, a farmer admits “they come and promise to collect the cannabis plants four months later. I plant the seeds in May and get the money to support my family. It is the same with poppy. By sewing in November you get opium to sell in May”.
Distribution of cannabis cultivation changed over the last years, and now it appears to be more widespread. Still, cannabis cultivation has long been associated with opium cultivation and insecurity. Similar to eastern Afghanistan, Nangarhar province, most of the cannabis is cultivated in insecure areas. In these districts, one out of two farmers also cultivate opium.
Like in most parts of rural Afghanistan, in the districts with the traditional systems of shuras and jirgas, village elders live side by side with police and local administrators. Kabul’s centralized rule and administration and local power structures do not manage to be entirely consistent. A young army official, Bashir, who wants to become a pilot when he gets his license in Kabul, comes back to the village two nights a week to help his brother and father fight to protect their crops. He says, “we have no choice, we have to defend our land, so we need to have sufficient family members working together to be able to cover the shifts.”
The US/NATO army camp, based in Jalalabad, is only 50 km away, but military convoys of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF/NATO) seldom patrol these border areas. In these regions, local bandits and transnational connections with Pakistani syndicates exploit local lawlessness and indigence in order to take advantage of the illicit industry of opium and cannabis.
The link with insurgents is weak, but local fights persist fuelled by poverty and tribal frictions. In fact, for over two years now, two large communities have been fighting at night causing several deaths on both sides. What seems to be a common feature in this rural part of Afghanistan is the informality of everyday life, the struggle for survival and the solidarity within communities.