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A View From The Fields

CBS News Investigative producer Laura Strickler wrote this story for

Few people know the Afghanistan poppy war like Eric Sherepita.

After a career in the military, Sherepita, 36, signed up with a private security company to eradicate opium fields in Afghanistan for a US State Department contract. He quickly found it was one of the most dangerous jobs he's ever had, "I've been in more firefights doing poppy eradication than I have been in the whole nine years I was in the U.S. Marines."

Over 35 Afghans who were destroying the poppy fields were killed since March 29th this year; more than one hundred were killed last year. And the danger is echoed by others. A current contractor speaking to CBS News from Helmand Province in Afghanistan who did not want to be identified, says he faces gunfire, "All the time."

As part of its war on drugs, the US government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars trying to encourage Afghan farmers to grow other crops but the returns from poppies remains a better economic alternative. When asked why farmers continue to grow poppies the contractor in Afghanistan replied, "Because if a farmer is growing vegetables and sees another farmer growing poppy and making 10 times more, what's he going to do?"

Sherepita worked for most of 2007 as the military equivalent of a battalion commander overseeing a team of contractors who trained, mentored and oversaw hundreds of Afghans who cut down poppy plants all over the country. He described an almost daily battle with farmers, warlords, insurgents and locals.

"Towns and villages would all come out and meet us, block roads and refuse to move to let us through. They'd go out there and fill up the fields, they'd throw rocks, sticks, argue with the police," Sherepita said.

And he says he could always tell when things were about to go wrong, "You get a very eerie feeling and it makes you almost sick to your stomach." He says he would notice a quietness, "people start leaving, especially the women and children leaving, that's a sure sign right there."

The violence is predictable. Poppies are a cash crop for the Taliban. But the eradication also upsets local farmers who depend on the money from the Taliban to make ends meet.

"It's dirt cheap to grow opium," Sherepita says, "The Taliban will pretty much provide the seeds for you. So, all you have to do is just put them in the ground and provide water."

Sherepita believes in the program but says more needs to be done to fight the historically high poppy harvests year after year that fuel the Taliban, "Terrorism and the sale of the narcotic goes hand in hand. You just can't have one without the other…So both of them need to go."
By Laura Stricker