DEH RAWUD, Afghanistan — The splash of colors in Deh Rawud begins a few hundred yards from the sidewalls of Forward Operating Base Hadrian and stretches for miles.
Bright pink and white poppy plants stretch across vast fields in and around the local villages in Uruzgan province, underscoring the findings of a recent U.N. report that said poppy cultivation in Afghanistan — which has been booming in recent years — was heading for a new record high in 2013. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of poppy, now estimated to account for about 90 percent of world production of opium, which is used to make heroin and provides significant funding for insurgent groups.
Eradicating the poppy crop is a perpetual battle in Afghanistan.
It is up to Afghan security forces to carry out eradication efforts, but they may have incentive not to. District police chief Haji Nematullah said he created a plan for getting rid of the crop in his region, but his own officers have resisted it as the narcotics trade has infiltrated the ranks.
Poppy is the most profitable crop Afghan farmers can grow — a kilo of dry opium brings between $160 to $200, where as a kilo of wheat pays only 41 cents, according to the U.N. report. That is why, despite the warnings and the risk of eradication, they tend their flowers and prepare for summer harvest.
"In Pashtu, there is a saying," said Malak Esmailaka, a village elder. "Do what the rumors say." And, the rumors have been born out: cultivation of poppies is a lucrative trade.
"Before they started to plant the poppies, the government announced on the radio for them not to do it, because it's against our laws and regulations," Esmailaka said. "They didn't listen to that."
"So, they shouldn't be disappointed," he said, referring to eradication plans.
At a checkpoint on the west side of the Chutu Bridge in Deh Rawud, Esmailaka sits with Nematullah and discusses the issue.
"Please, just bring some type of spray and eradicate this, because I know it's a lot of work for the Afghan police to do," he tells the commander.
"As long as we don't get rid of the narcotics, we cannot bring peace to Afghanistan," Esmailake said.
Down a small hill, the familiar pink and white poppies sway in the wind.
Nematullah has been tasked with the eradication of the crop in his district. According to U.N. estimates, that means 1,000 acres that have to be destroyed before the main harvest in mid-May.
Complicating Nematullah's mission is the involvement in the poppy trade of his own officers.
"Yesterday, in one of my operations, I had an officer who was breaking down his own poppy field," Nematullah said. "He was probably just helping his father and brother, but when it comes to eradication, he didn't have a choice. It was an order from the government."
"The big problem we have is the civilian people. In Deh Rawud, they're usually supporting the Taliban ... because of poppy," said Abdul Ali, the finance and administrative officer for the Afghan Uniform Police in the district. "If the Taliban came in and took authority, they would let the people grow the poppy."
According to a 2009 report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the Taliban and other insurgent groups made profits of an estimated $200 million to $400 million a year in 2006-2007.
In its latest report, the U.N. said the the exact figure for poppy cultivation in 2013 remains unclear, but was likely to exceed the roughly 152,000 hectares planted last year. It said opium cultivation was mainly concentrated in the provinces of Farah, Ghor, Kandahar, Kapisa, Helmand, Nangarhar, Uruzgan and Zabul.
ISAF troops stationed at Forward Operating Base Hadrian are involved primarily in an assist and advise mission with the Afghan police and the army. They were invited by Nematullah to join a poppy eradication mission as observers recently. The Afghan National Army set up a security perimeter while the police walked through the fields, slashing away at the poppies and killing the plants.
Yet, the struggle between survival, custom, culture and law continues. Ali said it's likely to be this way for a long time to come.
"I challenge any military to come in and try and get rid of these poppies," he said. "There are powerful people out here, and they will never let it happen."