The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan flew to a town previously held by the Taliban in the heart of the world's largest poppy-growing region and told the ex-militant commander now in charge there that Afghans must stop "producing poison."
Ambassador William Wood on Sunday drank tea and talked with Mullah Abdul Salaam, a former Taliban commander who defected to the government last month and is now the district leader of Musa Qala in the southern province of Helmand.
Wood urged Salaam to tell his people to leave behind "the practice of producing poison," and said poppy production, the key element in the opium and heroin trade, was against the law and Islam.
"In Musa Qala the price of bread has risen dramatically. I won't say why - you know why," Wood said, alluding to farmers' practice of growing poppies instead of needed food.
Southern Afghanistan was the scene of the heaviest fighting in the country in 2007, the bloodiest year since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban militant movement. More than 6,500 people - mostly militants - were killed in violence last year, according to an Associated Press count based on official figures.
Islamist insurgents held sway in Musa Qala for most of last year, until U.S., British and Afghan forces retook it in early December. Wood said he thought the chances were good Musa Qala would remain under government control and said Afghan forces were drawing up a "comprehensive stabilization program" to help ensure it does.
U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne now ring the town, but those troops will pull out of the region within days.
Officials say poppy production and the resulting drug trade help finance the insurgents, and that many Afghan farmers turn to poppies because they are a lucrative source of income. As a result, Afghanistan last year produced 93 percent of the world's opium, the main ingredient in heroin. Its export value was estimated at $4 billion.
Wood has said officials discovered $500 million worth of heroin in dozens of labs around Musa Qala. He said U.N. and Afghan officials have told him that farmers in Helmand have again been planting a lot of poppies for this season's harvest.
"There is a solution, but it depends on the people of Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan have to decide what kind of Afghanistan they want, and we will support them if they choose an Afghanistan of peace, of Islam and of law," Wood told Salaam.
Salaam offered Wood a list of things he said needed to happen immediately for Musa Qala to remain peacefully under government control. Topping the list, he said, was a request to the Ministry of Interior for 200 more police.
"We still have a problem with the police. We need more to come here," Salaam said. "We want the police to be honest and strong, because in the past they have stolen from the people, and because of that the people still don't trust them."
Salaam said he defected to the government in part because "un-Islamic" trials were being carried out in Musa Qala on the orders of Pakistani and Chechen fighters.
"The other reason was that they were calling everyone Taliban who were not real Taliban. They should make a difference between real Taliban and drug users and smugglers," Salaam said. "This place (Musa Qala) was under the control of smugglers, drug dealers, and Islamic law was not implemented here."
The original meaning of the word "Taliban" in Afghanistan means "religious student or scholar" and does not necessarily have the negative connotation of its Western meaning, which is an armed member of the radical militia.
Showing the era he comes from, Salaam told Wood he wanted to thank the United States and Britain for helping Afghans "do jihad" against the Soviets - a reference to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Reflecting the dangers of traveling in the area, the two Black Hawk helicopters carrying Wood's team flew extremely close to the sandy ground, barely skimming over rooftops. The two aircraft, escorted by two Apache helicopter gunships, banked sharply from side to side over populated areas as a defensive measure against any possible incoming fire.
Wood said the situation in Musa Qala is "filled with hope."
"One of the elements of that hope is that a former Taliban commander has now not only agreed to support the constitution and respect the authority of the national government, but as a district governor will defend the constitution and represent the national government," Wood said.
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