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Because of the poppies, the raw material for most of the world’s heroin, the list of things 1st Lt. Christopher Gackstatter and his 2nd Platoon can’t do in Sartok is far longer than the list of things they can.
Marching into the mud-walled village in this sun-baked district of southern Afghanistan on an April 24 intelligence-gathering mission, the boyish 25-year-old lieutenant and his roughly dozen riflemen and machine gunners are mindful of the many poppy-related prohibitions, developed over 12 painful years of war, that have been passed down to their Bravo Company by the higher unit, 3-41 Infantry, part of the Texas-based 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division.
They’re not allowed to actually step foot in Sartok’s many acres of poppy fields or damage the fields in any way.
They can’t even threaten to destroy the fields or send in Afghan troops to burn, plow under or poison the delicate, pastel-colored flowers.
Nor can they discourage poppy farmers, however gently, from growing their illicit crop, which is hardier and commands a higher price than alternatives such as wheat. Poppy cultivation has been illegal in Afghanistan since 2001 but still represents a full quarter of the country’s gross domestic product and a major source of revenue for the Taliban, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Many of the middlemen who buy up raw poppy paste for onward sale to heroin-producers hail from the insurgent group.
The rules are fairly new and reflect a subtle but profound shift in the way the U.S. Army thinks about Afghanistan, its people and culture and conflict. Having furtively experimented with every possible approach to Afghan poppies since 2001 — from blissfully ignoring them to actively destroying them and everything in between — today the ground-combat branch has made peace with poppies, viewing them as a potential good thing for Afghanistan and the Army.
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