Switch “Afghan” with “Vietnamese” and you experience a chilling sense of deja vu while reading Opium Season.
The real-life story offers a perfect example of the old saying: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It’s a lesson author Joel Hafvenstein relearns as a condition of employment in perhaps the “dirtiest job” in foreign service—as a contractor in the Taliban/Khan-ruled poppy fields of Afghanistan.
It’s a region “they used to call Little America” in the 1950s, where American engineers built whole cities, Hafvenstein writes. Many Afghans remember a homeland lush with grapevines and fruit trees. Not anymore. In 2004, employees of the Chemonics company huddle together like hunted birds, trying to rebuild the Afghan infrastructure while holed up in sandbagged “safe” rooms. During his tour of duty, Hafvenstein will see many of his co-workers murdered.
Among the natives, political affiliations change direction like poppies swaying in the breeze, and true loyalties lie with centuries-old blood ties and warlord fealties. Add memories of hated colonialism and the ancient lure of opium profits, and you have a morass as impenetrable as fog in an Afghan mountain range.
Into this brutal setting step Hafvenstein and his co-workers, under contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development. They are there to help poor Afghan farmers quit cultivating poppies and find new ways to make a living. The Americans have high hopes and good intentions. They don’t want to “lose our chance to make a difference.” Hafvenstein writes of their plans with a heart-wrenching naivete.
But this is a land ripped by religious violence, where children’s math books teach kids how to calculate how many seconds it would take for a speeding bullet to pierce an enemy’s head. Soon it is the Chemonics staff members who are in the natives’ rifle sights.
The Americans attempt the normal stuff of business. Local employment applicants fill out forms requesting that they be given jobs “where I won’t be killed.” Hafvenstein tries to figure out a field payroll system where he won’t constantly be robbed, stuffing packets of currency inside his clothing. Choosing the wrong word, or even the wrong food, during a social visit can lead to death.
The Americans adrift in early 21st-century Afghanistan face the same nightmare as in 1960s Southeast Asian killing fields. What have we learned since then? Alarmingly, there’s little in Opium Season to show that we’ve learned much of anything. The book details episode after episode of cultural misunderstandings, artlessness and credulity on the part of the Americans.
But what Hafvenstein’s book offers is the chance to wise up quick. It contains important histories of the region with background on everything from colonialism to past poppy wars and Russian interventions. His prose, detailed and robust, cuts a clear path through the dizzying Afghan political minefield. We can read the book and discover new directions, learning where we should be and shouldn’t be in this time of war.