I sit in a broken green lawnchair, writing. It is hot here: the sunlight is overwhelming, and even in shade the temperature is easily in triple digits; nightfall-the only respite anyone can hope for-is a long way off, and in the meantime there is little to do except sweat, and wait. Everything takes longer than it should: sand trickles through the hourglass in fitful spurts: the sky is swollen with the day’s heat, throbbing with its own pulse. I sit in a dusty, broken hell; I sit in the Helmand River Valley.
In recent days a great deal has been written about Helmand, and rightfully so, the area has become a focal point for NATO operations, as well as the Taliban resistance, and as the war goes on Helmand will only swell in prominence.
The area is surprisingly lush, thanks to the efforts of USAID half a century ago. Canals were dug, drawing riverwater into fields growing wheat, or poppies. It is the poppy crop that causes NATO commanders the greatest amount of concern. Where there are poppies there are Taliban, protecting, managing, and harvesting their cash crop.
The importance of poppies to the war can not be overstated. It has become the lifeblood of the Taliban, and the money from the sale of the opium manufactured from poppies buys weaponry, public officials, and the loyalty of the local population.
It is the last purchase that is most worrying to commanders in the region. Poppies pay more than wheat, this is a fact that no amount of of crop-replacement programs can change. Even in areas where wheat fields outnumber other crops there is always pressure to grow poppies, each field is another banknote in the Taliban’s not-insignificant wallet. A farmer who is growing opium is more likely to harbor fighters, more likely to allow IEDs on the roads, more likely to take up arms against NATO forces in the opportunity presents itself.
Everybody knows that the human terrain can be far more treacherous than the physical one; a river may be forded, but there are no such shortcuts for people who have every reason to distrust you. This is a hard land, and the people who live here are harder still; but if their trust, their loyalty, can be won, there is every reason for NATO forces to expect success.