April 25, 2006


“Desert of Death”

Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion

As our bags were loaded into the Land Cruiser for the journey toward Dasht-e-Margo, the Desert of Death, a man wearing a bomb closes in. Before striking off, we again visit the PRT in Lashkar Gah, where Steve huddles with some Afghan employees. An entire British Army unit has defected, he said, with their weapons and equipment. The Afghans grow quiet, until Steve says, “And they joined the Taliban.”

After talking with some friendly British soldiers we start the drive into a mostly desolate stretch through scattered villages. Steve needs to get to Camp Bastion where he has about $12 million in current construction contracts, and where his crews are just finishing the new base camps for the British Army.

Business and politics don’t count for much when a brainwashed man wearing a bomb is trying to make some westerners into Humpty Dumpty’s. The human-bomb-delivery-system was lurking close by, and ready to begin tracking a target. To me, suicide bombers are cheap laser-guided-precision-munitions, without the lasers.

Often when an attack is imminent, shops will close and children will vanish from the streets, and such was the case today. Driving away from the PRT down rough unpaved road toward the Desert of Death, a breakdown, flat tire, or a minor accident could be fatal, exposing us to bandits, Taliban or even Al Qaeda, not to mention that man who was packing lots of explosives. He was parked, according to a British soldier, in a red Toyota just near the PRT. The soldier said the man got out of the Toyota just as some Dyncorp contractors came by, and he walked over to the armored SUV and BOOM!

The BBC reported:

There has been a suicide car bomb attack outside the US military base in the capital of the Afghan province of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, officials say.

The provincial governor told the BBC the attack was aimed at Dyncorp, a US company training the Afghan police force in poppy eradication work.

The US military says three US nationals suffered minor injuries.

Though we barely missed that blast, we didn’t even hear it as we rocketed through the desert villages stirring a dust trail. I told Steve after the first bomb there would be more; such bombs are not made in a vacuum and normally they detonate proximate to where they are made, indicating that Lashkar Gah now has at least one serious bomb cell.

[A second bomb exploded at the same PRT just a few minutes ago - we having returned to Lashkar Gah. The explosion occurred at 1033, 14 April 2006, was very loud, and wounded one of Steve’s workers and three British soldiers.]

In many villages there was enough water to grow vast amounts of poppy. I was scanning for ambushes when Steve said, “A lot of times they’ll set up road blocks wearing police or Army uniforms.”

“But that’s not fair.” I chuckled, “That’s cheating.”

Steve laughed, “Sure is Mister. Sure is.”

In fact, hundreds of Taliban would soon mass on the route ahead resulting in a massive firefight that ended with more than 40 killed.

Steve believes it’s safer to travel overland through desert shortcuts where foreigners rarely venture; the various species of bad guys, he says, do not expect crazy foreigners to rocket through, and by the time we get close enough that they might notice, hopefully we are gone. In these open areas, the enemy can identify a military convoy from miles away and it can only take a minute to lay a deadly IED or prepare a hasty ambush. But a single fast moving vehicle is more difficult to identify as a target. Most of the overland areas are beyond cell phone coverage which, in theory anyway, precludes the bad guys from using phones to call ahead after we pass through villages. Of course, they might have radios…

Much of the three-hour trip meanders through vast, barren rock fields, where not even a blade of grass stands to cut the wind. I want to trace the route with my GPS, but it bounces all over the place and my hands are too full to hold it out the window. Much of these stretches have no water for poppy fields, but wherever there is water, the poppy was is to burst with the dark-magic juices that would soon be injected into mostly Asian and European veins.

Emergency? The poppy has more water than its xylem and phloem can handle.

The opium harvest for 2006 is healthy and huge.

Approximately 30 out of 32 provinces now grow poppy.

Bountiful harvest.

Farmers say prices will plummet, so those who can afford it will store the opium and wait for the off season.

Up and down a river: poppy.

BINGO! Zakat! The Mullahs take a 10% “Zakat” or “religious tax” off the top of opium revenue.

Some of the Americans and Europeans I meet theorize that the massive poppy crop has prompted European countries to reinforce their posse in Afghanistan. According to the Guardian in the UK:

In a report published today, the Commons defence committee describes the security situation in Helmand as “increasingly fragile”. Helmand, it notes, is a “power base for supporters of the deposed Taliban regime and contains areas of significant poppy cultivation”.

It warns of the danger of British forces being attacked by groups seeking to protect their interests. But the committee says it supports the objectives of the British deployment in Afghanistan, the source of about 90% of heroin in Britain.

Significant poppy cultivation? Kansas has some corn fields.

Some days earlier I’d read a confidential report saying that 80% of some arable parts of Helmand are growing poppy, but the “good” news is that other areas of Helmand are only 30% under poppy. On average, the report indicated that well over 70% of the cropland in Helmand is yielding poppy. Next week, during harvest, the plants will be dripping and oozing opium. From Afghanistan, it seems obvious why our allies in Europe are concerned even while the U.S. draws down forces here.

No doubt some of the heroin also will land in America. A crop this bountiful is bound to flood the market. The reason most often cited for the Americans’ essential-acquiescence over the poppy is that we do not want to alienate farmers in our search for terrorists, although we contend that opium money funds the terrorists. Some of our European friends see this as, well - they have some choice words. Of those I am willing to convey in writing, the kindest and most diplomatic is that, “You Americans are making a pact with the Devil.” As much as I usually enjoy arguing with Europeans about Americans, there is no fun in it when they are right.

The Afghan farmers are only trying to grow a living. Their goal is not to make kids in Italy and Indiana into heroin addicts, but simply to scratch a life from the desert. When crops like wheat and corn are eschewed for poppy, the people who make the real dough will not be the farmers, but those higher up the profit chain who are willing to undertake the risk of a nefarious enterprise. So, much of the money flows into grimy hands. Not only that, but the people who deal in legal agricultural products are also damaged. No economy-of-scale benefits can be derived from products such as wheat when those products are relegated the minority market-share: In 2006, opium will bring more money into Afghanistan than all other revenues combined.

Meanwhile, the farmers who are overproducing opium are set to flood the world with a massive crop that will cause prices to plummet—meaning they likely will earn far less than they anticipated—but the cheap heroin this year will likely produce a larger market for the heroin crop of 2007. It’s doubtful that simple farmers here are thinking of building a larger global market for their brand of addiction, but that’s what’s happening, leaving people like Steve fighting poppy not because they are warriors in the so-called “war on drugs,” but because it affects their profits. The few who are willing to seriously fight the poppy onslaught in Afghanistan, instead of just pulling stakes and making a living somewhere else, somewhere safe, somewhere comfortable - have no alternative but to invest in alternative crops.

Steve Shaulis, owner of Central Asian Development Group, and a Government official check on a CADG alternative crop project in Lashkar Gah. This vineyard uses an Israeli drip irrigation system introduced by CADG that saves up to 60% of the water.

The vineyard above will not generate positive cash flow for about 3 years, and will not make a profit for perhaps 5-6 years, whereas the poppy fields around it turn profits in months. In the long term, the farmer with the vineyard likely can earn greater profits for less work - and not risk the wrath of an eradication team. But in the short term, where eradication is practically non-existent, the opium is sweet and grapes are sour.

The situation is much more complicated than can be described by simple economics with wild-card variables. Agricultural programs here that would compete with products in Europe or America are not likely to receive aid. Imagine the outcry from French and American farmers if our governments subsidized a wheat crop in Afghanistan. Every product Afghan farmers could produce will compete with western farmers. Every product, that is, except opium. There is practically no competition for heroin. What Florida is to the citrus tree, Afghanistan is to Papaver somniferum.

According to every knowledgeable person I spoke with, eradication, even if it were being done seriously, will not be enough. Farmers are investors, and as investors, they tend to avoid risks. A plausible eradication threat can add a risk factor, but with the massive amounts of poppy now dripping opium, eradication would require an army itself, and would leave destitute legions of farmers who invested in poppy. Many would probably start investing in RPGs and IEDs. The invasive weed creeping on the edges of this terrain waiting to choke out what little is left of order here. The eradication threat must be sizable and plausible, but the farmers also need investment and enticement to move to crops such as grapes which can be lucrative but only over time.

Ask the Afghans their opinions about the poppy, and many believe the Americans are in cahoots with the Taliban by allowing the Taliban to take part in the government. (Taliban has become a catch-all terrorist brand-name, similar to “Al-Qaeda.” “Taliban” now seems to refer loosely to smugglers, bandits, and real Taliban.)

One English-speaking Afghan told me in a hushed voice that even high level government officials are major smugglers and that all Afghans know this. Whether this is true or not is, on at least one level, irrelevant. Our idea of avoiding alienating the farmers by overlooking their poppy crops seems to have alienated at least as many others by fertilizing the Taliban with opium profits - and seeding fertile Afghan minds with conspiracy theories, some of which might be true. The Great Game continues.

Nomad tents just off Highway 1.

On our way from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion, there is serious peril in simply getting lost. There are no signs, but there are myriad trails branching off in every direction. Eventually we negotiate through the last mud village and emerge on Highway 1, where many foreigners have met their end, including four men just a few weeks ago. I was told the Taliban cut off their heads, but news reports stated only that they were killed by order of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Each day, we receive multiple reports of violence surging all around. Small parts of Afghanistan are roaring with official activity, but during this three-hour trip, we didn’t see a single Coalition patrol except for when we left the PRT in Lashkar Gah, which was then hit by that bomb.

Government offices in some Helmand districts are closing under Taliban pressure. The countryside we saw was obviously not administered by western forces, and did not appear to be controlled by anyone other than, perhaps, the Taliban and the bandits.

Nomads: There are many types of nomads around the world, and I asked some Afghan men if these were Kuchi. Each man said these are not Kuchi, but did not know which sort they might be. Steve knows an older man who is a former development worker who used to travel with nomads and who helped Steve hire his Afghan staff in the beginning of his project. Steve said the gentleman once lived in Turkey, and could pick out different types of nomads based on many clues, such as the shapes of their tents, and he has studied their migratory paths. The man was apparently traveling with some nomads and one night in a tent, one of the wives asked incredulously, “Why are you here?” And Steve laughed when he said the old man thought, ‘Yes, why am I here?’

Perhaps these nomads are making some sort of far-ranging circuit. Maybe they will be part of the opium caravan.

Nomad boy. Looks like something straight from Romania or India.

An Englishman told me he was driving down the road when one of these dogs chased his car and tried to jump through the window.

Peering out the car window, knowing that bandits or Taliban might be upon us in a flash, I had no idea that a major, very deadly firefight was brewing nearby. Under that searing desert sun, my mind begins to drift on the heat waves radiating in the air around us:

Afghanistan, I think, is making tremendous progress. In the next one hundred years, these people might be poised to leap over the 12th and 13th centuries, landing with a smile, a sword, a gun and a bomb, in 14th Century. Perhaps another hundred years later they will land in the 17th century, and in another hundred into the 21st. But by then some of us will be in the 24th century, having either finally obliterated ourselves, or perhaps having finally conquered the common cold while raising kids on planets we never heard of today. A bratty human sapling on some strange planet reading my words in a cyber library might say, “Mommy, I want to be Taliban! Does anyone know what happened to those men who went into the Desert of Death!?”"Nobody knows honey. Foolish men… Nobody knows.”

I laugh to myself and Steve says, “What’cha laughing at?”

“The Desert of Death.”

Steve knows my sense of humor is difficult for anyone who is not me to understand. So he says, “That’s nice,” and drops it.

Probably one of the more important day-to-day trivia for nomads is to keep track of minefields. Many people are limping around Afghanistan on one leg. White painted rocks mean the area has been cleared. Red means mines. There are many red-painted rocks, but this stretch along Highway 1 looks like a safe place to change a tire. Safe from mines, anyway.

The road ahead grabs and holds my attention as we pass through a notorious town along a river with poppy all around. Somehow we make it through and barrel down Highway 1 until we exit to the left a short distance into the desert, emerging a few minutes later at a British and American Special Forces base. FOB Price was named after Bruce E. Price, a Green Beret who was killed nearby, one of dozens of special operations soldiers who have died in Afghanistan.

Once there, Steve checks on the status of his projects and we have lunch in the make-do mess hall, then departed the base and journeyed back to Highway 1. There, after one left turn, we pass fields of poppy, poppy, and poppy that the Special Forces soldiers must see every single day: poppy growing alongside a major highway.

The poppy fields of Afghanistan bring us back to Kansas where, once upon a time when everything was black and white, Dorothy imagines a place where there is no trouble, a place very far away, and she starts singing “S o m e W h e r e O v e r t h e R a i n b o w .”

Camp Bastion: Emerald City?

Dorothy was in a great mess.
“I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”
When Dorothy implores how she can get back to Kansas, the Good Witch says to take the yellow brick road to Emerald City. After a long adventure, the only thing standing between Dorothy and Emerald City is a giant poppy field. The Wicked Witch, watching through her crystal ball, desperately wants to steal the powerful ruby slippers.
Now, as Dorothy enters the poppies the Witch says, “Aha!” and cackles.
The Wicked Witch sticks her envious green face closer to the crystal ball, “So you won’t take a warning, eh? All the worst for you! I’ll finish you now instead of later. When I gain those ruby slippers, my power will be the greatest in Oz! Now, my beauties… Something with poison in it I think… With poison in it… Poison… But attractive to the eye, soothing to the smell.”
The Wicked Witch keeps looking into the ball and casts the spell, “Poppies! Poppies will put them to sleep! Sleep. Now they’ll sleep…” Such an evil-doer!

The Sleeping Poppy:Papaver Somniferum. Now I know we’re not in Kansas. People come and go so quickly around here.

Dorothy and crew are all very excited running through the poppies, but when they trample the pods, the opium leaks. Toto conks out. Then Dorothy falls asleep. The Lion falls asleep. The stupid Tin Man starts crying. And the only one holding it together is the Scarecrow with no brains!

Against the odds, Dorothy and her commandos make it to Emerald City. But the Witch sweeps in, writing a message in the sky:


Frightened, Dorothy looks into the sky and asks, “Whatever shall we do?”
Dorothy finds the Wizard and he says, “I am Oz! The Great and Powerful! Who are you! Who are you!?”
The Wizard sends Dorothy and crew to steal the Wicked Witch’s broom, but this amounts to a hit job. They would have to kill the Witch to get her broom. But Dorothy really wants to get back to Kansas, so apparently homicide is on the table. Along the way, the Wicked Witch dispatches her squadron of winged monkeys who bang up the Tin Man, rip the stuffings out of the Scarecrow. The damn Lion refuses to fight. The monkeys capture Dorothy and Toto!
Back at base in Tora Bora, the Witch orders one of her hench monkeys to drown Toto in the river if Dorothy doesn’t give up the slippers. The Witch tries to take the slippers but they will not come off while Dorothy is alive. Luckily, Toto is resourceful and courageous, and escapes to organize a rescue for Dorothy, but the Witch turns over the hourglass and time is running out.
The rescue team infiltrates the castle, battle ensues, and that crazy Witch sets the Scarecrow ablaze. When Dorothy douses the flames, water splashes on the Witch and melts her! Dorothy gets the broom!
Dorothy’s combat team heads back to Oz, where Toto—he’s really smart—discovers that The Great Oz, the man behind the curtain, is just a carny from Kansas. “I’m not a bad man,” he says, “just a bad wizard.”
But he gives the Scarecrow a diploma, the Lion a medal that says “courage” and the Tin Man a testimonial heart which really is just a clock, but at least it ticks. Then he installs them as the new government, as he prepares to float away in his balloon.
Dorothy wakes up in Kansas, where everything is black and white, and faces skepticism about her memory of the journey. “No… this was a really truly live place. And I remember some of it wasn’t very nice. But most of it was beautiful.”

“I’m not gonna leave here ever, ever again!”

It was only a dream: But these two men really are running to escape a giant sandstorm at Camp Bastion.

We travel miles down the concrete Soviet-built road, patch-quilted by repairs, until another left turn off Highway 1 leads us miles out into the barren desert to a British base under construction called Camp Bastion. Steve broke ground on Camp Bastion about two months ago. The camp had been a vast nothingness until his workforce got underway. He and the workers slept in the open desert on cots, unguarded, in the middle of Taliban country, where the British army complains it is outnumbered. That Steve and most of his crews have escaped seems a miracle, especially so knowing that they live unguarded in Afghan cities and towns and are known to all the Afghans around.

At Camp Bastion, the initial tasks of installing basic security, drilling for water and completing the tented camp surfaces are complete. In fact, the first Royal Air Force C-130 to land at Bastion would fly over our heads that day and land on the airstrip. An engineer told us that the first touchdown caused no damage to the strip.

Final approach: The first RAF aircraft to Camp Bastion.

Steve told some British soldiers that he had his bags packed in case the plane crashed on the new airstrip.

Cheers at first touchdown: The British are Coming.

The C-130 touched down at 0908 local time on 10 April 2006. Meanwhile, an hour earlier, about 11:30, two trucks that were delivering supplies to CADG here at Camp Bastion were on Highway 1 when they were attacked. It was in the same area where I had photographed the nomads earlier that morning.

The two semi-trucks were driven by two Pakistani brothers, Mr. Aabid Ali Khan and Mr. Swat Khan. Mr. Aabid Ali Khan’s truck bore the brunt of the attack. Bullets struck 11 tires, all the glass in the cab was shattered and both doors were hit. Bullets smashed into the dashboard, at least two RPGs struck the truck, and its engine was hit with bullets. Mr. Swat Khan’s truck was also hit but less severely.

Calls and messages flashed out, including this email:

Importance: High
Thanks & Rgds
Capt. Asim

The first report was wrong, only Mr Aabid Ali Khan was killed. Nothing was stolen from the trucks. Steve ordered one of his people to pay for the 11 tires that were shot out, and to give $2,000 to the brother of the murdered driver. And so the brother headed back to Pakistan with about $2,000 and his dead brother’s body.

Such a savage, savage land.

But on Camp Bastion the first wells are pumping water, and a mess hall with a capacity of 2,000 is well underway. For now, Camp Bastion is still a tent village on tenterhooks, and most of those here are Afghans working for CADG.

The desert days creep by, dust storms blow through, a bomb dog alerts on a truck delivering cement which is then parked off in the desert. Meanwhile Pakistan announces publicly that it’s halting all cement shipments to Afghanistan. The CADG staff starts buying all the cement they can get.

Camp Bastion is a desolate, ugly place, devoid of desert beauty, and the camp itself is filled with many hundreds of Afghans, a sprinkling of Thais, Filipinos, British civilians and a small contingent of British soldiers. At night, in the CADG mess-tent that has been ripped by the winds, the bugs bump and drip off the bare light bulb hanging above me and fall into my soup. I keep flicking them out with my spoon. The place is awash in foreign language as rough men eat after a day of scratching and poking holes into the desert. Steve is the only other American I see.

The Great Game continues, only this time there are two Americans to watch it. After a few days at the site, we prepare to set off down the highway, where we will pass by the scene of the ambush that killed one of Steve’s drivers, and where the major fight that will kill dozens is still brewing.

But before we go, Steve gathers a huddle of rough Afghans who are building the base. No doubt all have at least a blade.

Speaking in Pashto, Steve says that British and American soldiers defected with their weapons and equipment, heading out into the desert. The men grow serious, leaning in to hear the details. Then he says, “…and they joined the Taliban!” and the men laugh, stepping closer while jabbering quickly to each other.

Steve laughs along with them and then quiets the group with both hands, and says, “But seriously. Allah has blessed us with a great poppy crop this year!”
“Yes, yes, Allah has blessed us!”
“Allah has blessed the fields!”
“Yes, yes, Allah has blessed the fields!”

They answer with ebullient smiles and gnarly teeth. They all stink like hell, and so does Steve. So do I. Steve glances at me and smiles, then continues with the men.

He wants to know how many of his workers are going to leave CADG in the coming weeks, switching from building the British base that would be used in part to fight poppy, (The British deny this) to harvesting poppy. So he asks in Pashto, “How much do you earn for working the fields?”

Several men answered at once: “1/3 of the money.”
“Christ! 1/3!” Steve says in English. “That’s unheard of.” The Afghan men explain that the crop is so big that the farmers can’t hire enough hands for harvest.
Steve asks who will quit this job to lance the poppy. All of the men say they are leaving, and in fact in addition to this dirty dozen, Steve might lose hundreds of employees to the fields. Steve asks about eradication, and again the men laugh, “Nobody touches the fields! Taliban protects!” The men find more humor with eradication than with the idea of British and Americans defecting to the Taliban. They all continued to laugh when one of the men describes how they see airplanes and helicopters sometimes, but that’s it. No soldiers ever come.

We say goodbye to the men who will shortly take to the fields, and we strike out again down Highway 1, away from the Desert of Death, passing by where the trucks were attacked, by the nomads again, through the poppy fields, back to Lashkar Gah, where another suicide attack is unfolding.


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