They call Malik Nyaz "spin giray" -- meaning graybeard in Pashto -- for his old age and wisdom.
Nyaz can often be found sitting on jirgas, or local councils, mediating money squabbles, complex disputes over land ownership, or long-running feuds among families and clans.
A few years ago, Nyaz gave up cultivating opium poppies on his small family farm in Aachin Valley, in eastern Nangarhar Province. He still has mixed feelings about the decision.
"We stopped planting [opium poppies] because we want to see our homeland develop," Nyaz said. "These foreigners told us that if we don't plant poppies, they would help in developing our homeland.... But we haven't seen our homeland being developed."
Nyaz was among the thousands of farmers who helped make Afghanistan the world's largest opium producer. Afghan opium in turn provides raw material for 90 percent of the global supply of heroin. Faced with the prospect of fighting for survival in a poverty-stricken and war-torn environment, many Afghan farmers turn to growing poppies as a means of earning a reasonable living amid the prevailing insecurity.
The estimated $5 billion-a-year drug industry is believed to bankroll the Taliban, while keeping in power notorious warlords and drug lords whose wealth and influence casts a dark shadow over major government institutions.
But experts now anticipate that the United States' recent announcement that it is shifting its Afghan antidrug policy from eradication to interdiction and finding substitute crops might put the long struggle against poppy cultivation and drug trafficking in Afghanistan on the right track.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced the policy shift during a June 27 G-8 conference on stabilizing Afghanistan.
"The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure," Holbrooke said. "They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people, and drove people into the arms of the Taliban.
Holbrooke continued: "So I need to stress this: The poppy farmer is not our enemy, the Taliban are, and to destroy the crops is not an effective policy. And the U.S. has wasted hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on this program and that is going to end. We are not going to support crop eradication."
In Defense Of Eradication
Not all Afghan officials in Kabul are convinced, however.
Zulmay Afzali, a spokesman for the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry, welcomed Holbrooke's statement about helping Afghan farmers, and said that public-information campaigns, interdiction, development projects, law enforcement, demand reduction, institution-building, and international and regional cooperation can all help solve Afghanistan's drug dependency.
But Afzali also says that eradication is a central pillar of the Afghan counternarcotics strategy.
"Our view is that irrespective of the circumstances, an illegal act should remain illegal and should be dealt with in accordance with the law," Afzali said. "Thus, poppy eradication is one such procedure. We are waiting for the U.S. government to share their new strategy with the Afghan government so we can compare it with our own strategy. Our strategy has gradually brought new achievements."
Afzali claims that as a result of the government's efforts, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has fallen. Last year, 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces were declared poppy-free. This year, he says, this number could reach 24 or 26.
However, international experts don't see those numbers correlating to a significant reduction in the overall size of the Afghan drug industry.
Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes, calls the eradication strategy "a sad joke." "Many, many Afghan policeman and soldiers...have been killed and only 5,000 hectares were eradicated, about 3 percent of the volume," Costa said.
Bringing In Drug Lords
The U.S. strategy now appears to be focused on nabbing major figures in the Afghan drug industry. Last week, CBS News reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently arrested Haji Baghcho, Haji Juma Khan, and Haji Baz Muhmmad -- all suspected drug lords. They are suspected of helping finance the Taliban and are now standing trial.
In May, a New York court sentenced another Afghan drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, to life for a massive heroin-smuggling operation.
Steve Shaulis heads the Central Asia Development Group, a for-profit aid group pioneering alternative agricultural projects in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where most Afghan poppy is grown. He suggests that the United States and its allies need to go after all major drug lords, "regardless of whether they are inside or outside the government or inside or outside the country."
He also said that although the eradication policy has not worked, publically announcing its end was not wise. "I think it [the eradication strategy] was close to a total failure. But the threat of eradication has to be there at all times," Shaulis said. "Ultimately, farmers need to know that it's still illegal to grow poppy. So while I agree that the policy didn't work, I don't think that it was a great idea to just advertise and telegraph your views or show what you are going to do. It's better to keep it unspoken."
Shaulis said, however, that this policy could "ultimately prove positive" if the right kind of alternative crops were introduced.
"Basically they have to have long-term programs with tenure of five to 10 years. Personally I am in favor of putting in as many long-term horticultural crops as you can," he said. "So that when a farmer prepares his land for fruits or grapes, that man would be locked into those crops for a long time and you won't have to fight him every year to make a decision to plant poppy or not."
Back in his village in Nangarhar, famer Nyaz is desperate for help, and second-guessing his decision to stop cultivating the opium poppy.
His main concern is whether aid money intended for Afghan farmers will actually reach them. Instead, he suspects much of it could be lining the "deep pockets" of local officials.
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.