This story is about a single engagement. It changed how I saw my role in the conflict and the impact of my actions. We all serve with the hope that the results of our actions would positively affect our world, the people and the moment. However, that is not always the case. When it isn’t the case, are we aware enough to notice, open-minded enough to understand, strong enough to accept responsibility and courageous enough to change?
Since September 11th 2001, we have learned many lessons. This is one of mine.
Over a decade ago, I found myself in the mountains of Afghanistan, the second deployment of what would be four combat tours over a 10 year period. As the afternoon sun beat down on our team just outside an Afghan village in Southern Afghanistan, I reflected on what actions I could have taken to change the outcome of our mission. We were returning to Kandahar Airbase after another “dry-hole.” We were unable to kill or capture our intended High Value Target, an Al-Qiada leader who was a local warlord.
While our team waited for the Chinook to bring us back to the steak and lobster dinner that awaited us this Friday night in Kandahar, I noticed a poppy field down in the valley below. On the edge of the field, I saw an old Afghan farmer. Out of curiosity and a pinch of boredom, I convinced my perpetually exhausted interpreter and three reluctant team members to go with me to engage the farmer.
As we slowly made our way down the hill, the farmer stood up from tending his crop and ran towards us waving his arms and yelling in his native tongue. We suddenly stopped among the rocks and scanned the area for any threats such as an ambush or an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Witnessing the man's reaction to our approach, I thought maybe this isn’t such a good idea.
After a few moments, the farmer’s trot became a walk but he continued in our direction waving his arms. Was he distressed by our necessity to search every home in his village? Or was he distraught by the conflict he believed we brought to his people? I was positive I was going to get an earful of complaints, issues and condemnation. After a few moments, we lowered our weapons and the man stopped. I motioned to him to continue his approach and he did.
While advancing, the farmer maintained his message and our interpreter began to translate. The translator told us the man was said, "Don't cut. Please . . . please don't cut!"
As he translated, I took note of the farmer's hands, face and clothes. He looked as if he was 70 years old, but in reality he could have been in his mid-30's like me. Life in Afghanistan is not easy.
The farmer’s hard labor was evident in the fields that were full of flowering poppy, ripe for either harvest or eradication. It was the beauty of the flowers that sparked my interest from the top of the hill.
Through the interpreter I reassured the farmer that our mission was not to cut his fields and eradicate his poppy crop. We had only come to look for one individual who was no longer in the village, and we were heading back to our base. With this understanding, the farmer relaxed his face and thanked us all as he gently shook my hand.
I then had the interpreter ask the farmer, “Why are you yelling at us not to cut? And why are you growing this poppy?” The farmer gave me a befuddled look as if to say you are not as smart as I thought you’d be. At that moment, the farmer's tone changed from concern for his crop to concern for my lack understanding. The elder took a deep breath and prepared to educate a young foreigner.
As I listened to him, I focused on his facial expressions and body language. His head shook slowly back and forth. He moved closer to me, gesturing with both of his hands as he spoke, pointing from one end of the valley to the other. The farmer continued to share his story, forgetting that I could not understand a word he said. Even the translator, so intrigued by the farmer’s words, failed to explain his words to me. Both men were so absorbed in the moment that they overlook my inability to appreciate the story as it unfolded. The farmer went on and on for quite some time. Then he finally paused and looked at the translator. The translator, a bit embarrassed over his error, apologized and quickly brought me up to speed on what the farmer had shared.
The interpreter pointed back toward the valley and explained, “This farmer is telling us a story about his family and his village.” The interpreter continued, “The farmer's father, grandfather, great grandfather and entire tribe has lived on this land, in this valley, for hundreds of years. Generation after generation, they’ve not only lived in this valley, but they’ve cultivated wheat here with many other families for the well-being of their entire tribe.”
The farmer nodded and continued; this time the interpreter kept pace with the translation.
The farmer said, "Only a few hours walk down the valley toward the water there is a market. My family sold our wheat at this market since before I was born. They were able to exchange the wheat for whatever they needed: food, material, currency… anything. However, over the last couple of harvests our wheat crops have become worthless. Our crops are worthless because of you (the elder pointed his weather-beaten index finger at the American flag on the front of my body armor). You brought wheat by the truck loads and have given it away for free. Because of this, our wheat crop can no longer sustain my family. And because of that, I have no other choice but to grow poppy in these fields.”
After pausing to process what I just heard, I reluctantly asked him, "What would happen if we destroyed your crop?" I braced myself for his response. I’d been in Afghanistan long enough to know his answer could be intense.
As our interpreter finished translating my follow-up question, the farmer did not hesitate with his answer. He held up three fingers and said, "I will lose my three daughters.”
He continued, “My three daughters were my collateral for the poppy seeds. If I do not produce this crop, the drug lords will take my daughters from me.”
Our conversation stopped.
A sudden radio transmission from one of our guys interrupted the moment, “The helicopters are one minute out. We wait on helicopters; helicopters don’t wait on us. Sir, stop talking to that old farmer and get back up here!”
I quickly thanked the farmer and wished God to be with him and his family. Our small party then walked back up the hill, boarded the helicopter and flew away.
The farmer's story forever changed my understanding of the problems on the ground and the role I played in creating the conditions. Up to that point, my limited personal engagements with the Afghan people had created a gap in my understanding of the reality at the edge of the poppy fields. From that moment forward, I knew that I had to do everything within my power to create change.
I no longer had the luxury of ignorance.
De Oppresso Liber,
U.S. Army Special Forces, Retired