LETTERS FROM AFGHANISTAN - Opium harvest, ethnic conflict spur violence


To harvest opium off of a poppy, the poppy farmers slash the sides of the bulb in order to allow for a brown resin to seep out of the incision.

The day after making the incision, the farmers pick the dried brown resin (the opium) off the bulb.

The border areas of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, are notorious for poppy production. Lal Por, a district of Nangarhar that sits directly to the west of Pakistan was nearing the time of its fourth opium harvest this week.

The Kabul River cuts through Jalalabad and heads straight for Pakistan before making a bend to the north and thus creating about 10 kilometers of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On the banks of this stretch of river sits the lush poppy fields of Lal Por.

The Afghan National Police requested the assistance from the Afghan National Army to begin poppy eradication operations along this stretch of poppy fields earlier in the week.

The threat of anti-personnel mines, IEDs, and deliberate ambushes surround these fields as the Taliban use the opium as a large part of their funding.

I sat down with Maj. Rahmdil, the 2nd Brigade ANA S2, prior to his reconnaissance of the area and his subsequent involvement in the operation. We discussed the threat and what to expect when rolling into the area.

Rahmdil set out with the rest of the soldiers for the purposes of providing security for the ANP and not more than four hours after he left, my cell phone started ringing. On the other end of the line was Rahmdil informing me that they were taking DSHK-A, a Soviet-style machine gun, fire from a hilltop above one of the Lal Por villages.

Whether it was a farmer protecting his crop or Taliban ensuring they would have funding for their spring operations is still unclear. Regardless, the drug trade is certainly prevalent.

The tragedy of this war not only lies within the insurgency and the drug trade, but also within the ethnic tensions.

At a base in the south, an ANA soldier, who happened to be Hazara, was denied access to the chow hall by a Tajik NCO because he was wearing sandals; the result was the start of a fight between the two individuals.

The soldier who was wearing the sandals ended up with a bloody nose but somehow acquired a weapon and began shooting like a "madman." He hit one soldier in the legs before somebody else acquired a weapon and shot him down.

Rahmdil, along with the legal officer, was tasked to investigate the incident. There are still some questions surrounding how the weapons were acquired, but the unfortunate cause of the whole ordeal certainly points to the ethnic issues surrounding the people.

While this was all happening here in Nangarhar Province, the withdrawal of the Korengal Valley in Konar Province occurred without any major issues.

While I never had the opportunity to go into the Korengal Valley, I was fortunate enough to make a couple of trips past its mouth. The Korengal Valley has remained a spot of consistent activity throughout the entire deployment.

With the shift in the overall strategy here, the necessity to close down the remote outpost in the valley became necessary. The vulnerabilities during a retrograde quite often cannot be helped.

Fortunately, our brigade did not sustain any fatalities like we did during the attack on COP Keating back in October.

The whole operation was a success; only time will tell what the long term consequences of such a withdrawal will be.

The weeks here seem to pass by a little slower than they used to. Our mission here as the embedded training team has been fading away as we are passing the reins to the field artillery battalion that has started to take over the partnership with the Afghan National Army.

I learned earlier in the week that my West Point class lost its first graduate due to the war since we graduated two years ago. My prayers extend to his family and I pray that we don't lose too many more as more and more of my fellow classmates flow into Iraq and Afghanistan.

First Lt. Andrew Plucker is deployed to Afghanistan. He is not an Army spokesman, and his updates from the field are written from his personal perspective as a soldier.


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