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"Through the dancing poppies stoleA breeze most softly lulling to my soul."

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After they finish helping the Mariners, there’s perhaps more work to be found for O’Pollahan in Helmand province, the “Taliban stronghold” located in southern Afghanistan. To the untrained eye, and to those who lack the kind of exclusive perspective dispensed by EvenLiberalWarCritics(TM), the situation looks well-nigh shitty. Behold:

Here in Helmand, the breadth of the poppy trade is staggering. A sparsely populated desert province twice the size of Maryland, Helmand produces more narcotics than any country on earth, including Myanmar, Morocco and Colombia. Rampant poverty, corruption among local officials, a Taliban resurgence and spreading lawlessness have turned the province into a narcotics juggernaut.

Poppy prices that are 10 times higher than those for wheat have so warped the local economy that some farmhands refused to take jobs harvesting legal crops this year, local farmers said. And farmers dismiss the threat of eradication, arguing that so many local officials are involved in the poppy trade that a significant clearing of crops will never be done.

Rest assured, though — the US is on the case:

Loren Stoddard, director of [USAID’s] agriculture program in Afghanistan, cited American-financed agricultural fairs, the introduction of high-paying legal crops and the planned construction of a new industrial park and airport as evidence that alternatives were being created.

Mr. Stoddard, who helped Wal-Mart move into Central America in his previous posting, predicted that poppy production had become so prolific that the opium market was flooded and prices were starting to drop. “It seems likely they’ll have a rough year this year,” he said, referring to the poppy farmers. “Labor prices are up and poppy prices are down. I think they’re going to be looking for new things.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Stoddard and Rory Donohoe, the director of the American development agency’s Alternative Livelihoods program in southern Afghanistan, attended the first “Helmand Agricultural Festival.” The $300,000 American-financed gathering in Lashkar Gah was an odd cross between a Midwestern county fair and a Central Asian bazaar, devised to show Afghans an alternative to poppies.

Under a scorching sun, thousands of Afghan men meandered among booths describing fish farms, the dairy business and drip-irrigation systems. A generator, cow and goat were raffled off. Wizened elders sat on carpets and sipped green tea. Some wealthy farmers seemed interested. Others seemed keen to attend what they saw as a picnic.

True, the United States has blown $600 million on a counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan — a program so wildly unsuccessful that the religious maniacs who uprooted the country’s poppy fields in the late 1990s have now re-emerged as the world’s opium kingpins. The good news is that opium cultivation is so vast, and its benefits so thoroughly entwined with local governments, that scorched-earth eradication efforts are a non-starter.

But with enough goat raffles, meager financial incentives that attract only the most prosperous farmers, and burnt offerings to the free market, this is a war on drugs we just might win.

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