Poppy fields guarded by British soldiers

by Anthony C Heaford  - Updated 7th June 2017 

narrow opium view copy

·      On Afghan Government Land     ·      From Poppies Irrigated by NATO

·      Fields Patrolled by US Forces     ·      Guarded by British Soldiers

·      Whilst British Soldiers Destroyed Poppies In a Neighbouring District 

April 2012  - British guards provided an overwatch and active protection for opium harvesting within 200 metres of Camp Bastion Airfield Fence.  At exactly the same time British soldiers were engaged in a mission to destroy poppy crops in Nadi-Ali, 15km south of Bastion.

British Area of Responsibility Poppy Map

The poppy eradication effort, called "Operation Shafuq”, was intended to be the Flag Ship Mission of our six month tour. What it became was a box ticking media event that involved British soldiers patrolling through minefields for no other reason than political expediency. 

Op Shafuq was a combined NATO and Afghan Army mission, running from 18th to 23rd April, to clear insurgents from Nadi-Ali and then destroy the poppies in the area. Its intention was to show the embedded journalists our commitment to opium eradication, and to demonstrate the ability of the local and occupying forces to work together. This didn’t go according to plan.

The Afghan Command started their part in Op Shafuk 24 hours early, on April 17th, which enabled the insurgents time to escape or hide their weapons before the British security cordon was in place. And by all accounts the poppy eradication was a very half-hearted affair too, as described by Quentin Summerville in his brutally honest five minute 'From Our Own Correspondent' report for the BBC World Service.

General Capewell

The self-serving duplicity of the Senior British Military Command is illustrated by the honours subsequently bestowed on those British Officers in charge. General Capewell was the Chief of Joint Operations on 14th September 2012, the night of the Camp Bastion Airfield attack. Whilst giving evidence to the Defence Select Committee's Accountability Review  the General characterized the decision to allow poppy cultivation close to the perimeter fence as 

 “a minor tactical error which
contributed to the enemy's success

But it was not just poppy cultivation that was been allowed on the edge of Camp Bastion’s airfield. By the Summer of 2012 a busy population centre was allowed to develop on what was once barren desert. During the US military inquiry Major General Sturdevant of the US Command stated:

"We literally had poppy growing right up against the perimeter fence. That was another thing that Maj. Gen. Gurganus tried to take action on, but he wasn't able to accomplish that. It was because the Afghans had to do it. We weren't allowed to. The biggest external threat to the base came from there"

 Just two weeks after giving his less than forthright evidence to the government committee British General Capewell was awarded the title 'Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath' in the New Year Honours list of 2014, whilst the US Generals were forced to retire immediately for their perceived failings.

Opium Fields copy

Opium Field

My personal involvement in protecting opium harvesting was on 21-22 April 2012, during a twenty-four hour guard duty on the south east corner of Bastion’s Airfield. My exact orders were that the Afghan Security Forces were harassing the farmers in the adjacent valley. If we saw any Afghan Forces entering the valley we were told to report it to the Guard Commander who in turn would alert the NATO Quick Reaction Force so they could intervene. Whilst the opium harvesting in the valley was never acknowledged in the Tower Briefing, it was implicit in our orders that we were protecting opium harvesting from Afghan security forces interference.

Opium Slim copy

The senior British command’s complicity in this matter was reinforced to me when two British Officers, a Major and Captain, visited my guard tower. I repeated our standing orders to them before pointing towards the opium harvesting and asking if they could see what was going on. Their reaction was to laugh, both claiming “We can’t see anything” before exiting the observation platform within a matter of seconds. 

What I'd been trying to highlight were my security concerns; there were literally dozens of migrant labourers camping within sight of NATO’s Main Operating Base and airfield. We'd learnt from experience that many of these migrant labourers would pick up a weapon and become the enemy as soon as the opium harvest was over.

Opium Zoom copy

Because of the two visiting Officers' reaction to my identifying the opium harvest, and the fact they visited the guard tower at all, I believe they already knew of the opium harvest and were actually ‘ ightseeing’ (like tourists) when they came to look for themselves. They also knew that British soldiers were walking through mine fields 15km south of Bastion in Nadi-Ali on a poppy eradication mission on exactly the same day.

It's also my belief that British complacency over security policy as described in this report lead directly to the success of the Taliban’s audacious airfield raid just a few months later, a security failing that cost two US Marines their lives and destroyed $400 million worth of aircraft and equipment. More information on these monumental failings are detailed in a second report, Camp Bastion Attack, linked here.

Photographer & Report Author: 
Anthony C Heaford, Craftsman in British Territorial Army 2009 to 2013, No.30088729. 
Six month tour of Afghanistan, April to October 2012. Based in Camp Bastion.

This report is an update to an article published by Global Research in August 2015

Truly, for some of us nothing is written, unless we write it 
© Anthony C Heaford - The Quiet Mancunian