A Year in Opium Country

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Le Blanc photo

Leonard Le Blanc as a "deputy Taliban commander" for a day, at the fair.

The tailor returned with clothes in brown paper wrapping. I took the package and dressed in my room. The voluminous pants were forest green, perhaps a yard wide, but it could be tied with a stout piece of cord through the pants loops.

The jacket was the same color as the pants that ended at wrist length. There was a white, knee length set of underwear. I added a white t-shirt of my own. The long folded rectangular piece of black cloth was my turban. A short black vest and brown leather sandals completed the ensemble.

I walked outside for assistance from one of the Poppy Elimination Program members with wrapping my head turban.

Mr. Humayun did the honors.

This brought out all the Afghans to watch.

When done, I stood for inspection. Everyone immediately laughed uproariously and pronounced that I looked exactly like Commander Mullah Omar’s new right-hand man.

They said no one would think I was an American…as long as I didn’t speak English.

They pointed out the tailor had used fine cloth and quality materials to make the garb, something a senior Taliban commander might wear. With my salt-and-pepper beard they all added I was perfectly disguise.

The Poppy Elimination Program guys who decided to go with me to the agriculture fair would also dress up, but as Pashtos. John Ratcliff also decided to accompany us and he asked the tailor to make him a similar Taliban costume.

On the day of the ag fair we decided not to blow our cover by taking the up-armored SUVs. Instead, we would travel in three regular sedans, like those you see on the streets every day, to maintain our low profile as ‘Taliban’ members and Pashtos.

We’re all unarmed as we knew security would be tight all the way to the fairgrounds. The Afghan National Police manning the first checkpoint on the east side of the river took one look at us and started getting twitchier than Rambo’s trigger finger.

I smiled and waved like a college homecoming queen on a float.

At each checkpoint there were more nervous guards, but we managed to get through unventilated.

After crossing over the Helmand River Bridge and heading west for perhaps half an hour we came to where the U.S. Agency for International Development Ag Fair was being held. We were searched for weapons and explosives and entered the expansive grounds.

According to Mr Humayun. the Afghan National Army had worked out a truce between the national army and the Taliban for one day. He added that there were equal numbers of Taliban troops and local Pashto farmers, city folks and the curious – about 3,500 each. Also included were Afghan local, district, provincial government officials and some Afghan security forces. It seemed everyone was enjoying themselves.

I was an immediate, if confusing, hit.

First the Pashtos quickly scattered like birds away from me as I approached.
Second, ANA Intelligence troops were snapping my photo like Paris Hilton at the Oscars. They no doubt were eager to put my mug shot on their status boards back in Kabul, prelude to printing new wanted posters bearing my likeness.
Third: the Taliban all seemed to be asking each other: “Who is this new deputy commander?”

Amid the buzz generated by my garb, I spent the rest of the visit touring the fairgrounds with Mr. Humayun.

From Leonard H. Le Blanc III’s mini-memoir Afghanistan: Lashkar Gah, Home of the Warriors (One Year in Opium Country), about the year he spent as an adviser to an Afghan-led counter-narcotics team in the heart of Helmand, the largest opium-producing province in the world’s largest opium-producing country.

2 comments
RBScott
RBScott

Our counter-narcotics program in Helmand, the national center of opium cultivation, has been a failure for the past 12 years but no one will admit it. It has been the center of our military operations and we have spent millions on "reconstruction" but most farmers in the area still cultivate poppy. And we still continue to not do the obvious like support the legitimate traditional cash crops like cotton that was the second most important cash crop in the 1970s, and there is still a functioning cotton gin in Lashkar Gah built by the British in about 1965. The farmers have been asking for help with the cotton industry as one of the prerequisites for getting out of poppy since 1997. And the last figure I saw on the costs of putting on one of our ag. fairs was $300,000...a waste of money since we are not supporting the ag. economy in any effective way. Good propaganda for the US public to justify the continued waste of funds. See my website to get the details: www.scottshelmandvalleyarchives.org  

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

The counter-narcotics effort apparently scored some success. Annual opium production in Afghanistan has been cut from 8,200 tons in 2007 to 3,700 tons currently. (In 2001 under the Taliban it was only 185 tons, but we won't talk about that.)

Getting to the story, the real question is -- did LeBlanc, who "looked exactly like Commander Mullah Omar’s new right-hand man", only go to the fair in his get-up? Or was there more? Peace talks, perhaps?

Nov 2010
The Afghan government and its Nato allies were duped into holding peace talks with a man posing as one of the most senior members of the Taliban leadership, it was revealed today. According to Afghan and US sources quoted by the New York Times, authorities held face-to-face talks with the man who claimed to be Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the second highest official in the Taliban movement.


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