On a windblown field, 300 leathery men listened Saturday to speeches praising their past bravery in battle and their current contribution to peace. Behind them, standing in soldierly rows, were rocket launchers, artillery and machine guns the former fighters were reluctantly surrendering to international peacekeepers.
Ten miles away, two dozen farmers watched sullenly from the edge of a neatly planted plot as a squad of government eradicators, wielding hoes and scythes, chopped down their carefully tended opium poppy shoots. On all sides, Afghan police and security guards hired by the U.S. Embassy stood watch against attack.
"The government has taken away our guns, and now it is destroying our livelihoods," protested Nasir Ahmad, 45, a sunburned farmer in the village of Kote Ashro. "We have agreed to turn in our weapons in the name of peace, but we don't have enough water to grow any other crops but poppy. Why are they bringing this cruelty on us now?"
By most standards, Wardak province should be a model for the rest of Afghanistan. It is the only place in the country where militia disarmament, poppy eradication and voter registration -- three efforts backed by the United Nations and Western governments -- are taking place simultaneously.
But some residents say they feel this ruggedly beautiful, impoverished province is less a showcase than a victim. They complain that it has been singled out for unpopular projects demanded by international powers because it is close to Kabul, economically vulnerable and without a dominant leader to resist the pressure.
An ideal place
Some local officials and U.N. officers said the simultaneous launching of the anti-poppy and disarmament programs could sharpen anti-government sentiment. It also could undermine provincial support for national elections in September, they said, which to succeed will require accelerated voter registration in rural areas by July.
"We are getting increasingly concerned about Wardak, because everything is taking place there at once, and it's putting a lot of pressure on people," said one U.N. officer in the capital. "People see the international process as one thing, whether it's disarmament, poppy eradication or voter registration. If they get upset enough to boycott the elections, it could hurt everything."
Wardak, just southwest of Kabul, might seem an ideal place to make a multi-pronged push for progress. It has enormous agricultural potential and strategically straddles the newly reconstructed north-south highway. It is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan but have felt neglected by the current government.
The province has been largely free of Islamic terrorism, and its small armed factions have been far more willing to disarm than more powerful militia bosses elsewhere. Mohammed Musa Hotak, a local commander and Islamic cleric, volunteered to turn in his weapons and demobilize 100 fighters last month, earning high-level official praise.
Voter registration, a danger-fraught undertaking in many remote areas, has proceeded relative smoothly in Wardak since the government began opening rural registration sites May 1. Turnout among women has been low because of cultural taboos against their leaving home, but mobile voter registration teams are being trained so they can sign up women in their own villages.
Poppy is a relatively new crop in Wardak, and thus the region was deemed a relatively painless spot to initiate the government's new program to forcibly eradicate opium poppies. The sap collected from Afghan poppies is estimated to produce 75 percent of the world's heroin, and cultivation has skyrocketed since the collapse of Islamic Taliban rule in late 2001.
"We are happy the government is putting its programs into action in our province," said Mohammed Basir, the deputy governor. "We were the closest bunker to Kabul during jihad, so we are proud to be the first in disarming and contributing to national reconstruction." Jihad, or holy war, is the term Afghans use for the armed resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
'We want to choose our leaders'
Nevertheless, the simultaneous start of the disarmament and anti-poppy programs has aroused resentment in a region where poor farmers and ex-militia fighters are often one and the same, and where ethnic Pashtuns are suspicious of being abused by ethnic Tajik factions in the transitional government set up by the United Nations in 2001.
Many residents said they favored disbanding all militias and collecting their weapons and that they understood that poppy is used to create addictive drugs and is outlawed in Islam. But they questioned why Wardak, whose farmers grow far less poppy than those in many other provinces, was the first to be targeted after two years of official indulgence.
Such anger could undermine regional enthusiasm for the September elections. Voter registration, which has reached only 2.3 million of about 9.5 million eligible voters, must accelerate fast in rural provinces to guarantee a successful election, the highest national priority for Afghan, U.S. and U.N. officials.
In the village of Charaka, where no poppy has yet been destroyed, farmers took precious hours from their fields last week to trudge to a schoolhouse registration site. Sher Shah, 26, said his potatoes and apples needed watering, but that the first election in Afghanistan's history needed his vote.
"The time for fighting and chaos is over. We hope this election will bring us a good government, bring us peace and jobs," he said. "We want to choose our leaders. Everyone in my village wants this. Everyone in Afghanistan wants this."
But the mood was different Saturday in Zaibudah, a village where a guarded eradication team swept through the fields, hacking at poppy shoots that quickly turned from emerald to sickly yellow.
"We want the era of cruelty and guns to end, but we are very disappointed in the government, because it is condemning us to hunger," said Hajji Jalil, 64, a village elder. "How can they expect people to vote when they are hungry?"
Replanting with a vengeance
The government originally announced it would spare 25 percent of local poppy crops, but the eradication teams have been instructed to destroy every plant they find. Because of delays in training, the program did not begin until after poppies had been harvested in other provinces, making Wardak appear to be a scapegoat.
During the past two years, farmers in traditional poppy areas such as Nangahar and Helmand provinces began replanting with a vengeance. Afghan officials could do little to stop them, and Western military officials, preoccupied with their anti-terrorist mission and in some cases reliant on Afghan militia leaders who grew poppy, looked the other way.
Now, with poppy harvests said to account for nearly half the gross domestic product and drug traffic burgeoning as well, Afghan and international authorities have awakened to the overlapping scourges of violence and drugs, and officials warn that Afghanistan could become a narco-terror state. But it is the small farmers of Wardak, newcomers to the poppy boom, who are the first to be punished.
"Our orders are to destroy whatever we see," said Gen. Sher Agha, an Interior Ministry official who is overseeing the Wardak eradication project and living in a guarded tent compound with his force of 300 poppy choppers. "There is no compensation."
The disarming of Wardak's militias has been handled with more diplomacy and compassion. At the ceremony Saturday outside the 42nd army division barracks in Maidan Shahr, the provincial capital, officials praised the militiamen for their bravery in defending the country and promised to provide them with job training and opportunities to join the newly formed national army and police.
In addition, provincial officials said U.S. diplomats had offered to finance the repair of an important hydroelectric dam in southern Wardak, damaged in fighting years ago, and to bring other development projects to the impoverished province.
Still, the weather-beaten fighters seemed skeptical and a bit sad as they caressed their heavy weapons before reluctantly lugging them into a wire cage, where U.N. and Afghan army officials received them for storage.
"This was my father's rocket launcher in the jihad against the Russians, and now it is mine. I know we have peace and freedom, so I will give it up," said Syed Rahman, 24, who plans to become a truck driver. "The government has promised us many things, but if they don't follow through, we can always take our guns back and begin the fight again."
In the coming weeks, the pace of both poppy destruction and voter registration in Wardak is due to pick up, while the effects of militia disarmament will begin to sink in. Perhaps the failure or success of the first two projects will mirror the fate of Mia Jan, 55, a militiaman who leaned Saturday on an enormous black machine gun. Once, he used it to mow down Russian soldiers; now he is surrendering it to history.
"We have our freedom, so I won't miss this gun," he said, patting the steel barrel. "They said the army will protect us now. They said the government will find us jobs, but we'll see. I have some land, but there's no water, and now they're cutting down all the poppy. What will happen to men like me, I really don't know."