Afghanistan Dispatch

In Afghanistan, Flowers Call The Shots

For years, the Sangin District in southern Afghanistan has been one of the deadliest areas of operation. For the British, who controlled the area until U.S. Marines replaced them last year, the focus was securing the road that ran along the Helmand River, on the edge of the lush farm fields.

The Marines have taken a different approach since then. They have pushed deep into the river valley from the desert to get at the heart of Taliban control and movement.

A stray poppy bud flowers in a field of both planted and wild grasses. i i

A stray poppy bud flowers in a field of both planted and wild grasses. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
A stray poppy bud flowers in a field of both planted and wild grasses.

A stray poppy bud flowers in a field of both planted and wild grasses.

David Gilkey/NPR

Poppy is a key crop here, and in a way, flowers fuel the fight: The Taliban earn hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade, which supplies 90 percent of the world's raw opium used for heroin. Locals rely on the work it generates. But the government wants to end poppy production. So the locals, who need the work, support insurgents who will protect it. It's a deeply ingrained Catch-22.

  • The men from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., are based in the lush farm fields of Sangin District in the Helmand River Valley in southern Afghanistan. A main source of revenue for the Taliban comes from this region during poppy harvest.
    Hide caption
    The men from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., are based in the lush farm fields of Sangin District in the Helmand River Valley in southern Afghanistan. A main source of revenue for the Taliban comes from this region during poppy harvest.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • The northern Helmand River valley is bordered by barren desert on either side — but is as lush as a jungle where its waters are drained to flood the farm fields. Fighting in the area is practically at a halt during the annual poppy harvest, when villagers occupy the fields.
    Hide caption
    The northern Helmand River valley is bordered by barren desert on either side — but is as lush as a jungle where its waters are drained to flood the farm fields. Fighting in the area is practically at a halt during the annual poppy harvest, when villagers occupy the fields.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Marines watch as a massive dust storm approaches their base. Though fighting slows during poppy harvest, Marines remain on edge, as fighting could erupt at any moment.
    Hide caption
    Marines watch as a massive dust storm approaches their base. Though fighting slows during poppy harvest, Marines remain on edge, as fighting could erupt at any moment.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Marines wait for the mud and rain to stop falling after a massive dust and thunderstorm slams their base. The understanding is that while villagers are working in the fields, insurgents unplug IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and lie low.
    Hide caption
    Marines wait for the mud and rain to stop falling after a massive dust and thunderstorm slams their base. The understanding is that while villagers are working in the fields, insurgents unplug IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and lie low.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • For Marines, the mission is to secure the local population. An upside to the lull in fighting is increased interaction with Afghans. Children become accustomed to seeing Marines, and have even adopted some gestures, such as fist-bumping.
    Hide caption
    For Marines, the mission is to secure the local population. An upside to the lull in fighting is increased interaction with Afghans. Children become accustomed to seeing Marines, and have even adopted some gestures, such as fist-bumping.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A local farmer talks with Marines in the "green zone" — a strip of irrigated land along the main Helmand River, also a hotbed for insurgency and violent fighting after poppy cultivation ends.
    Hide caption
    A local farmer talks with Marines in the "green zone" — a strip of irrigated land along the main Helmand River, also a hotbed for insurgency and violent fighting after poppy cultivation ends.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Lance Cpl. Anthony Espinoza wipes the salt and sweat out of his eyes at the end of a daylong patrol. The 100-degree temperatures and humidity of the flooded farm fields make walking and patrolling in the area a daily battle.
    Hide caption
    Lance Cpl. Anthony Espinoza wipes the salt and sweat out of his eyes at the end of a daylong patrol. The 100-degree temperatures and humidity of the flooded farm fields make walking and patrolling in the area a daily battle.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Lance Cpl. Joshua Stowers stands in the middle of a field of tall grass near the poppy fields in Sangin District.
    Hide caption
    Lance Cpl. Joshua Stowers stands in the middle of a field of tall grass near the poppy fields in Sangin District.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Cpl. Daniel Wheeler lights a cigarette after late afternoon patrol in the scorching heat. Some of the Marines have nicknamed the area "Vietnamistan," after the marshes and junglelike terrain that they navigate daily.
    Hide caption
    Cpl. Daniel Wheeler lights a cigarette after late afternoon patrol in the scorching heat. Some of the Marines have nicknamed the area "Vietnamistan," after the marshes and junglelike terrain that they navigate daily.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A group of Afghan farmers stand in the middle of a Marine patrol passing through the "green zone."
    Hide caption
    A group of Afghan farmers stand in the middle of a Marine patrol passing through the "green zone."
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Sgt. David Leon looks over a poppy field. Insurgent sniper teams that typically work the area shoot from hiding spots known as "murder holes."
    Hide caption
    Sgt. David Leon looks over a poppy field. Insurgent sniper teams that typically work the area shoot from hiding spots known as "murder holes."
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Lance Cpl. Victor Sierra holds the hand of an Afghan girl at the end of an all-day patrol in Sangin District.
    Hide caption
    Lance Cpl. Victor Sierra holds the hand of an Afghan girl at the end of an all-day patrol in Sangin District.
    David Gilkey/NPR

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There are rules, even in the drug trade: Because farmers need to work the fields, fighting between the Marines and the Taliban is almost nonexistent during the harvest, which happens at the same time every year, in May. It is a function of local economics, not a truce. Fighting could resume at any given moment. And it will.

Just like every other year, there is a strange quiet overseas right now in Sangin. The Taliban have, more or less, unplugged their IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and are lying low. NPR photographer David Gilkey, who was just embedded with the Marines, says a nearby market — typically bustling — has been completely empty. Everyone, he says, is at work in the lush, green fields.

A girl stands in the middle of a poppy field as Marines pass by on patrol. i i

A girl stands in the middle of a poppy field as Marines pass by on patrol. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
A girl stands in the middle of a poppy field as Marines pass by on patrol.

A girl stands in the middle of a poppy field as Marines pass by on patrol.

David Gilkey/NPR

This is good news for the Marines: A lull in fighting provides an opportunity for face time with the Afghan people. It's the Marines' main mission, after all, to secure the local population.

"But there is a tepid trepidation to all of this," Gilkey says. Just last year, more than 25 Marines were killed — and more than 150 wounded — in the fighting that followed poppy season. IEDs could be plugged back in at any given moment. And the Marines must be ready.

It's quite the juxtaposition: This idyllic scene of children roaming fields of flowers, and the knowledge that somewhere out there, insurgents could be stuffing bombs below the soft, fertile soil. For the Marines, it's a game of wait and see. Wait and see when the fighting starts again. Wait and see if anything changes as a result of Osama bin Laden's death. Wait and see what the next season may hold.

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