Damaged Poppy Crop To Benefit Taliban

The Afghanistan poppy crop is under siege from an aphid. As much as one-third of the country's considerable poppy crop may be destroyed, which is complicating U.S. and NATO plans. Renee Montagne speaks with Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Afghanistan's poppy crop has been hit, this spring, by a devastating blight. The culprit is likely the common aphid or possibly a fungus. But this being Afghanistan and opium, this small pest could have a big impact. For more, we called Gretchen Peters, who's written a book on the drug trade there called "Seeds of Terror."

Ms. GRETCHEN PETERS (Author, "Seeds of Terror"): This infestation appears to be most severe in the southern provinces, where the bulk of Afghanistan's poppy crop is grown - Kandahar, Helmand. In some areas, it appears to be wiping out as much as one-third of the crop or one-third of the opium yield will be completely eradicated by this.

It's ironic. A year after the Obama administration decided to put an end to U.S.-funded eradication in Afghanistan, that this infestation is going to do more than millions of American dollars worth of eradication programs could ever achieve.

MONTAGNE: Is this a good thing that nature is doing it for the U.S., the military?

Ms. PETERS: What's going to happen here is that opium prices have soared because supply is down. It's Economics 101. And that means the drug traffickers stand to make more money, and the Taliban that tax and protect the trade stand to make more money, whereas farmers will suffer immensely if they've seen their entire crop wiped out by this blight.

The other really worrisome aspect of this is that the farmers seem to suspect that the American military or government is somehow behind this. In conspiracy-prone Afghanistan, this is seen as a plot to wipe out the opium trade and not a natural occurrence, even though it isn't just affecting the poppy crop. It's also affecting other crops there.

MONTAGNE: So this is not just affecting poppies. I mean, it's affecting fruit, and what else?

Ms. PETERS: Oranges, pomegranates - it's affecting a wide range of crops that farmers are growing in Southern Afghanistan. And in some parts of Kandahar, USAID is helping the farmers to fight that by providing chemicals that will clean the plants and wash away the aphids.

MONTAGNE: Well, then, is that one way to turn this around - that is, show that the U.S. and, let's say, NATO, that they're on the side of the farmers and trying to help them?

Ms. PETERS: I think that the opportunity here is for the international community, for NATO and the United States to come in with some of the funding that the farmers will need to get through the winter months. The U.N. has suggested that such funds be provided to poppy farmers, as long they pledge to switch to alternative crops in the coming season.

In that regard, this could be seen as an opportunity. But it's going to require very careful monitoring. History shows us that when a country is trying to reduce its narcotics crop, it's much better to go gradually than have dramatic declines like this.

MONTAGNE: Is there a way to come out of this where this blight on the poppy crops will do some good?

Ms. PETERS: If this can be handled in a way that farmers feel they've had positive interaction with the international community, that will be a silver lining on this. And it could - if handled properly, I'd like to think it could result in a rather dramatic decline in opium production in some of these areas.

MONTAGNE: Gretchen Peters is a journalist and the author of "Seeds of Terror: How Drugs, Thugs and Crime are Reshaping the Afghan War."

Thanks very much for joining us.

Ms. PETERS: My pleasure.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And now this note about a U.S. military officer killed in Afghanistan this week. Army Colonel John McHugh and four others died when their convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber in Kabul. McHugh was remembered yesterday by U.S. soccer coach Bob Bradley, who's preparing the American team for next month's World Cup.

Bradley and McHugh grew up together in New Jersey. Brothers from both families played soccer and baseball against each other. Bob Bradley said he'd been talking with his players about how special it is to represent your country. Things like this, he said, absolutely bring it to light.

Colonel John McHugh leaves behind a wife and five children.

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NEARY: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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