3. Telegram 4948 From the Embassy in Afghanistan to the Department of State1 2


  • Poppies in Helmand Valley


  • A. Memo to the Administrator from J.S. Brown
  • B. Memo to J.S. Brown from Inspectors Kraft and Marvin
  • C. Kabul 4094
  • D. Stamberg to Boehme letter, June 22
We are pleased with IG advocacy of early attention to the urgent need to eradicate cultivation of opium poppies in the U.S.-sponsored Helmand Valley project area. Mission has itself been advocating positive Washington inter-agency support and action to counter growing narcotics problem in Afghanistan since beginning of year—as you well aware and as voluminous cable traffic attests. The poppy problem in Afghanistan is not a Helmand Valley problem nor is it a problem to be approached—with panic mentality—in terms of the Helmand valley project (where poppy cultivation problem generally and increase this year appears to be among most minimal [Page 2] in Afghanistan). The poppy problem is country wide. Its most serious manifestations, moreover, are outside the project area being supported by USAID. While planting to the poppy is estimated at 10–15% of total cultivation in some locations outside the U.S.-assisted project area, plots within the project area show zero to 1–2% cultivation in poppies. A clear indication that U.S. financially-supported improvements have helped Helmand Valley Project farmers to earn a liveable income without resort to illegal crops. “Irrigation, drainage, land levelling, use of fertilizers and improved seeds, and teaching of better framing practices” has given the farmers of the U.S.-supported area more ability to resist the extraordinary economic incentives of poppy cultivation. USG inputs are, of course, neutral inputs—at worst they improve the farmers’ capacity at whatever he undertakes but at best they give farmers viable alternatives to clandestine/illegal operations.
The observation of extensive cultivation of illicit opium poppies on project lands in the Helmand Valley is erroneous. The Helmand Valley is extensive; the project area limited; poppy cultivation on project lands is relatively extremely limited.
Large U.S. financial outlays at the expense of the U.S. taxpayers, [Page 3] to suppress opium production in such countries as Turkey, Thailand and Mexico suggest a simple economic explanation for what may be extraordinarily heightened rewards to the illicit cultivator of opium poppies in remote and underdeveloped Afghanistan where the fragility of life is great—survival itself a dangerous game, and where rural economic desperation following two drought years may have provided considerable special incentive to high value poppy cultivation this year.
At the time of Messrs. Kraft and Marvin’s inspection, opium poppies were in full bloom in one, repeat one, field they photographed in the Shamalan project area. The photography could not have been duplicated often in other parts of the project area. AID technicians, along with a Peace Corps Volunteer, were indeed working directly with the Afghan farmer, teaching land levelling and other improved agricultural techniques in an adjacent field. The farmer is a leader—one of the most progressive farmers in the project area. The fact that he was cultivating a small plot of poppies at the time would now rule out his receiving any U.S.-financed advice. (USAID Director, in May, banned U.S. support to individual farmers cultivating poppies in the project area.) While our people expressed disapproval over his poppy cultivation, they were aware that negotiations underway leading to RGA contravention of poppy [Page 4] cultivation—nationwide (support for which is under consideration in Kabul, Geneva, Washington and other capitals) would likely rule out his cultivation of poppies in the future. Moreover they were aware that responding to an eagerness for help in acquiring new, modern techniques would enhance his ability to prosper without resort to illegal means.
The northern part of the Helmand Valley, from Girishk to the vicinity of the U.S-financed Kajakal Dam is not a part of the Helmand-Arghandab Project area receiving U.S. assistance. It has benefitted, of course, from proximity, but it is not a receiver of U.S. aid.
AID has never ignored the fact that U.S. financed improvements may be used by some farmers in inappropriate ways. AID assistance decisions have been based on the assumption that people who can live a reasonable life for themselves and their children within legal means will chose such means over the illegal.
Poppy cultivation in the Helmand Valley as all over Afghanistan is more extensive this year than it was last year. Exogenous forces ought, we suspect, be looked to for the explanation.
The Mission has, in as the IG reports, been concerned with poppy cultivation in Afghanistan for a number of years. The Mission is, as the report indicates, anxious to support a comprehensive, long-term plan to eliminate poppy cultivation throughout all of Afghanistan, such as the UN is now suggesting. A piecemeal effort by the U.S. in so minimally affected an area as that encompassed by our project—where a withdrawal of U.S. advice will hurt the majority of innocents in order to punish a few guilty—ill suits the U.S. image and character. It would be particularly inappropriate at a point in time where the Palace and the Prime Ministry have expressed determination to take definitive steps, country-wide, with help from the international community, to eliminate the cultivation of the poppy in Afghanistan.
The UN report has appropriately proposed that emphasis be placed on Badakshan and Nangrahar Provinces—these are the parts of the country where poppies are grown most profusely. Efforts to curb poppy production must, of course, also include the Helmand Valley; we identified this need in our March evaluation of the UN report.
We fully support the IG view that total suppression of illicit opium poppy cultivation should be undertaken at the earliest practicable date. [Page 6] AID has already taken, on a “unilateral” basis (with RGA support), at some risk of “getting ahead” of the UN, the first requisite steps—i.e., an aerial survey (prior to conclusion of this flowering poppy season) of much of the Helmand Valley area. Photography is completed and analysis is now underway.
Responding to American and growing worldwide concern over narcotics, Mission has been arguing U.S. support for multi-donor efforts to provide the help Afghanistan needs to accomplish effective enforcement of the Afghan law prohibiting opium production.
Poppies are being grown in the open in Afghanistan but fact finding and planning (lacking the ability to stop their cultivation) while trying to mobilize a meaningful effort at enforcement aimed at elimination is not synonymous with toleration.
The Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA) does not, lacking a viable, concerted national effort, posses a meaningful ability to enforce a ban on poppy growing. Control over distribution of irrigation waters, fertilizer, improved seed, technical assistance, etc. is not so individualized or divisible in this primitive, interdependent environment as to be susceptible to directed and selective application.
AID recognizes a capacity, despite its new collaborative and non-directive style, to influence HAVA authorities (and more importantly the central government) who are dependent upon and deeply (politically as well as economically) interested in future flow of U.S. funds to support desperately needed development. Mission has made clear to RGA that continuation of assistance is critically dependent upon eradication of poppy production not in one small area—but throughout the country. They have asked for the help needed to do this. We are urging a full measure of U.S. commitment to this important end.
Re IG recommendations: (1) Mission concurs but reiterates a concern for elimination of poppy production countrywide rather than a simple, almost symbolic concern over the relatively small production from HAVA; (2) Mission concurs, such action has already been taken; (3) Mission concurs in need to include Helmand Valley in UN-led program but believes, in broader U.S. and worldwide interest, that “top priority” should be focused on major production areas of Afghanistan since our most serious concern is quickest possible limitation of world narcotics supply.

Wrap-up and additional background: A. The Mission has and is taking steps directed against opium production in the [Page 8] Helmand Valley. If new project for the Valley is programmed—beginning in July 1974—steps by RGA to eliminate poppy production in area to be precondition to new project activities. USAID, some months back, issued instructions precluding technical assistance from U.S. advisors to poppy growers. Plan requires borrowers, under proposed small farmer credit program, to sign in loan instrument, a covenant requiring that inputs will not be utilized in growing poppies or other “illegal crops”. USG aiding and urging UN and RGA to reach agreement on proposed national poppy eradication program.

B. USAID staff members prepared report on poppy production (Poppies in Afghanistan, Owens and Clifton, published June 1972) based on interviews with farmers in all known poppy producing areas in the country except Badakshan, where not permitted entry. At that time opium production in Helmand Valley appeared to be decreasing because of 1) low price for gum in bazaar; 2) enforcement efforts of Government of Iran; and 3) farmers considered opium an unpleasant crop to raise.

C. This year, however, evidence began to mount indicating that something (which we are unable to firmly establish) had happened [Page 9] to trigger an increase in acreage of opium poppy. The number of poppy fields country-wide appeared to have increased several fold. May 4 overflight of Helmand-Arghandab area (reported Kabul 4094) also included among passangers, Mr. Abdul Chafoor, Deputy MinAg and Irriagion, Mr. Ali Ahmad Khurram, Deputy MinPlanning and Mr. Y.S. Zamir, liaison officer in the MinPlan for the

Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority. Plane flew from Kajakai Reservoir down Sanguin Valley, over Mara and Nad-i-Ali project areas and then Shamalan at an altitude of about 800 feet above ground level. Poppy fields plainly were visible and rather easily identified by all air passengers at this height; crude estimate (basis overflight and ground reconnaissance) indicated that up to 10–15 percent of land was in poppy in some parts of the Sanguin Valley (north of an outside of) Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority project area) while in U.S-assisted HAVA project area, poppy production varied from nothing to perhaps a high of 1% to 2%. Previous year estimates were only one tenth of this year’s.

D. Mission over past many months has been aware of growing problem of opium production in Afghanistan and has discussed its seriousness at many Afghan levels, from the King and the PM down through [Page 10] HAVA leadership, to local agricultural extension agents and opium producing farmers.

E. It is an unfortunately fact that much modern agricultural technology may be just as effective when applied to opium poppy as when applied to wheat or corn for which originally developed. It probably is true that if poppy is planted in field where modern techniques were used to grow wheat in previous years, yield of opium will be somewhat higher because of residual fertilizer, reduced stand of weeds, and slightly improved level of land.

F. As far as we have been able to determine, in these circumstances, the poppy production problem cannot be overcome even by resort to (a) a general withholding knowledge of new technology and (b) withholding actual inputs (in this case fertilizer and water). Realistically, (a) and (b) constitute panicky, desperate impracticable steps. An effective enforcement program to prevent production is necessary and difficult but will work only to extent farmer can make living from other crops. Americans in Valley can influence a number of decisions affecting development activities but they cannot shut off supplies from bazaar (seed and fertilizer) and they cannot shut off water. Even RGA would have difficulty denying water either because traditional [Page 11] irrigation structures are beyond practical RGA control or because closing off one guilty farmer may shut off the water from dozens of his innocent neighbors. It is even impossible for U.S. to completely close off supply of new technology to offending farmers since they can learn from their neighbors or by seeing new ways of doing things from bus window.

G. USG does not “permit” anything in sovereign Afghanistan. We either assist or refrain from assisting.USAID Director has issued orders that no one in Mission will knowingly work with any farmer cultivating opium poppies. We also expect proposed small farmer credit program to contain provision that credit will not be given to farmers who expect to produce opium and that fertilizer purchased on credit is not to be used for opium production.

H. Indictment of the Valley authorities and AID by the inspectors—on (truistic, perverse) grounds that “AID’s decision regarding assistance to farmers of the Helmand Valley have largely ignored fact that U.S.-financed improvements may also help these same farmers raise better opium poppy crops”—ignores fact that current thinking within AID, the UN and other nations and donors is that in the long run, only hope for getting rid of opium, even with a strong enforcement program is [Page 12] to teach farmers how to feed and clothe family without resorting to poppy production and by making necessary inputs readily available so that this is possible.

I. For over a year, the Mission has been discussing with RGA possible development of new projects in Helmand and in agriculture for whole country. As discussions continue and if negotiations commence on the Helmand Valley, banning of poppy production in project area is expected to be major point. For some parts of country, not Helmand, Development of Afghan research capability is essential. Assistance will also be required in order for agricultural extension service to improve information gathering and dissemination capability so that farmers can be taught sufficiently profitable methods of farming to keep them from turning to poppy desperation.

J. Area where inspectors found highest concentration of poppy (between Girishk and Kajakai) is not in HAVA project although it is in Helmand Valley. (Much of poppy produced elsewhere in the Valley is outside of the project area as water on the fringes is available intermittently but not regularly enough to produce good crops of wheat or other foods.)

K. U.S. assists HAVA but is not involved in civil governing of area. Although President of HAVA is also Governor of Helmand Province [Page 13] Mission staff in no way serve as counterparts to the Governor. They are counterparts only to President of HAVA and his staff who are charged with developing project area in an engineering and agricultural sense. The major effort to make changes in enforcement and local administration must be made in Kabul. The Mission is using all the leverage under its control to encourage these changes.

L. The Mission still hopes that the UN/FAO proposal (already accepted by RGA) will be accepted by the UN agencies and other donors, and that action on it will start shortly after the Geneva meetings in July.

FYI: Mission is struck by similarity in dramatic license of Weinraub and Kraft/Marvin reports which we can only conclude indulge in overstatement, tantamount to distortion, in effort to gain attention. End FYI.
Message represents overall U.S. Mission/Afghanistan view.
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 84, Kabul Embassy Files: Lot 76 F 44, AID–7, U.S. Program operations, Helmand Valley, 1973. Limited Official Use. It was drafted by Arthur Boehme, Jr. and John Wilson (AID); cleared by DP and RDA; and approved by Boehme. Written in an unknown hand on page 2 is the marginal note: “The farmers don’t think like that—they don’t try to ‘resist’ poppy growing because we think it is evil.”
  2. The Embassy encouraged further departmental attention to the problem of poppy cultivation in the area of the USAID-administered Helmand Valley project (HAVA).