TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan — Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan is fast becoming a major source of opium in the country. Both the Taliban and the commander of a private local militia appear to be reaping enormous profits from growing the illegal crop.
And there doesn't seem to be anything the local authorities can do about it.
Hajji Abdul Habib is a farmer from Shah Zafar village in the Darafshan Valley, northeast of the main provincial town of Tarin Kowt, and has been growing poppy for years.
"I harvest 12 kilograms of opium from one acre of land annually, and I sell it at $200 per kilogram," he said.
With his 10-acre plot, Abdul Habib is making about $24,000 a year. That's a lot of money by Afghan standards.
But that's nothing compared with a major operation spanning 14 square kilometers that's controlled by a local strongman.
The former militia commander, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, insists he is aligned with neither the government nor the Taliban.
"I am a jihadi commander and a tribal elder of the Barakzai," he said, naming a Pashtun tribe strongly represented in his district.
The commander says he uses about a fifth of the area to grow almond and apricot trees and leases about 11 square kilometers to local farmers who grow opium poppy. The commander, who normally travels with a retinue of six armed men, says he employs "100 guards to protect my land — all of them equipped with Kalashnikovs (Russian-made assault rifles)." But an elder from a different nearby tribe insists the commander's armed force really numbers around 300, one son each from 300 families of the Barakzai tribe. In return, each family received housing and a lease of farmland.
Ahmad Shah and his 22-year-old son are both members of the commander's militia. His younger sons, 14 and 16, tend to the poppy crop.
Ahmad Shah says he takes his Kalashnikov wherever he goes. "I protect (his) land with my weapon, because he has given me both house and land."
Meanwhile, it's not just the commander and the individual farmers who profit from the illegal crop.
According to Hajji Abdulbari Khan Tokhi, a Ghilzai tribal elder from the region, local Taliban commanders collect a regular "zakat," or tithe, from growers both large and small.
"Everyone pays taxes to the Taliban," he said.
Ironically, the land being used to grow the illegal crop appears to actually belong to the government and has been illegally expropriated by the commander.
Sardar Mohammad Aloko, the head of the provincial agriculture department, had a straightforward answer when asked why he allowed the illegal use of the land.
"I cannot do anything, because (the commander) has weapons and I am afraid that he might kill me."
Ezatullah Latifi is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company