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Poppy fields, the financial lifeblood of the Taliban, hide in plain sight.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - It isn't visible from the road for obvious reasons.


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - It isn't visible from the road for obvious reasons.

The field is set back behind a tree line at least half a kilometre from a busy highway that connects Kandahar city with an even wider swath of parched farmland in the Panjwaii and Zhari districts to the west.

Still, the poppy field was hiding in plain sight.

"Somebody must be paying off someone if this is still here," one of our group observed as we hopped a drainage ditch.

"Of course," replied our fixer, who had arranged for a couple of Canadian journalists to witness the poppy harvest, which is drawing to close throughout much of southern Afghanistan.

His matter-of-fact tone seemed somewhat surprising, although it shouldn't have been given how in-your-face corruption appears to be in this desperate corner of the world.

Despite its proximity to the provincial capital, this field had been spared the Afghan government's high-profile eradication program. By all accounts, it is one of many. Only 8,000 hectares out of a potential 193,000 hectares of opium-producing poppy were eliminated by forced eradication in 2007, according the country's opium survey.

We skirted the edge of a grain field near the highway, crossed a dirt road and slipped into the poppy field along a small path that ran between two trees.

There spread before us - over at least two hectares - was but a tiny vein in the lifeblood of the Taliban insurgency.

The export value of the opium and heroin produced by fields such as this was $3.1 billion in 2007 - or about one-third of Afghanistan's entire gross domestic product. The Taliban, in co-operation with local drug lords, convert the cash into weapons and explosives, which they then turned on Afghan security forces and NATO troops.

Being here was somewhat risky, but we were received warmly by three farm workers with smiles, rough handshakes and the traditional 'peace be with you' greeting of "Salem Alaikum."

The trio of sun-baked Afghans stood around a new steel tub that contained a sticky, dark resin - their version of black gold.

In the field directly in front of us, half a dozen other stooping harvesters slowly stood up, more curious than alarmed by our presence. Our fixer - an Afghan who speaks the local language and can arrange safe passage for foreigners - told them we were simply there to observe and wouldn't interfere.

Happily, our hosts urged us into the field, as though we were witnessing something as natural as a tobacco or corn harvest back home.

I was surprised not to see any AK-47 rifles laying about - a further sign that these farmers knew they had nothing to fear, from either local authorities or the eventual stories written by a couple of western journalists.

By the time we reached the poppy pickers, hopping over and almost falling into another irrigation ditch, they had resumed their tedious task.

Hour upon hour, day upon day, they cut open and pinch the bulbs of the poppy, squeezing the resin into thin plastic cups, much like the ones we would buy for backyard barbecues.

It takes about half an hour of gently pinching a number of different plants to fill one cup. And the resin gets everywhere and on everything, under their nails, up their forearms; it stains their clothes.

At least one of the workers sings, his voice carrying all across the field, to entertain his fellow poppy pickers. Our fixer says his tune is one of the popular ones on Kandahar radio these days, but the refrain was so serious it could have easily been mistaken for the hymns that come from the loudspeaker of a mosque.

One of the pickers stops to talk to us.

Sha Wali, his fingers and white, full-length shirt stained with gooey resin, gets paid about C$10 a day to harvest poppies.

"It's a good business," he says, but it lasts only a throughout the spring and he must find other work in Kandahar city to fill up the rest of his time.

It is men like Sha Wali whom the Taliban target in their recruiting. Once the poppy harvest is done, thousands of young men of fighting age - 18 to 25 - are available for hire.

Around this time of year, Taliban recruiters comb the slums of Loya Wyala, in the northern section of Kandahar looking for these men, many of whom show a yearning to fight NATO troops, including Canadians.

It is a matter of indifference to Sha Wali that the resin he squeezes from the poppies ends up as a potent narcotic in the veins of addicts all over the world and funds the guns and bombs used to kill to kill other Afghans and Canadians.

"We are just trying to fill these (cups) and earn money," he said, through our translator.

"Each day it's hard to find work and I don't care what's going on (elsewhere)."

Nearby, a small boy about five-years-old played with a broken poppy stem, using it as a rake in the mud, laughing and showing off.

Another boy, this one older - maybe about 10 - carries away a heavy load of cut and harvested stems. Unlike some of the other children playing on the edge of the field, this child doesn't look up or smile. His face is burdened with the weight on his back.

He is not old enough or tall enough to do the harvesting work, but soon he will be, graduating into the same life as Sha Wali.

Across the field, on the other side of the trees, we notice a car has blocked ours in the driveway. It turns out that the owner of the land only wanted to get into his compound.

Still, we leave quickly afterward.

As we roll back into the confines of the city, the fixer lets out a long exhale. It appears he was a little more nervous than he let on.

On the road back to Kandahar Airfield, we pass what seems like hundreds of flat-bed pickup trucks overloaded with exhausted, muddy men.

They are unemployed poppy harvesters on their way back to their homes in the city and now looking for something to do, our fixer explained.

 
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