NAD-I-ALI, Afghanistan -- As the golden sun sets over the rich fields outside this village of mud houses and turbaned men, farmers tend to their crops, weeding, fertilizing and bringing precious water to the sprouting plants.
It is the kind of scene American planners had in mind in the 1950s when they began transforming the deserts of southern Afghanistan into lucrative cropland.
In one of the most expensive U.S. foreign-aid projects of the time, dams were built along the Helmand River, canals were dug, highways were laid, and new cities grew.
That huge American investment has paid off. The Helmand River Valley is producing a world-class crop that earns huge sums of cash. Farmers all along the valley say they have just planted their biggest crop ever.
But there is a problem: That crop is opium poppies.
Seldom have American good intentions abroad gone so spectacularly wrong.
By United Nations estimates, Afghanistan is now the world's largest supplier of opium -- producing more than 2,200 tons in 1996.
U.S. estimates are somewhat lower, showing Afghanistan as the world's No. 2 producer but coming up fast.
U.S. officials are painfully aware that Afghan land made fertile thanks to several hundred millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers now produces narcotics for American and European addicts.
Narcotics experts estimate that heroin made from refined Afghan opium accounts for almost one-fifth of the heroin coming into the United States. In Europe, the percentage from Afghanistan is much higher.
Afghan poppy cultivation is centered along the American-irrigated, flood-controlled plains of the Helmand River.
State Department statistics show that more than half the Afghan poppy crop now grows in Helmand province.
Given the chaotic conditions in Afghanistan today -- war still rages in the north, and poor farmers in the south are rebuilding slowly -- there is little Americans can do about it.
The only formal U.S.anti-opium program in Afghanistan is a $250,000 annual crop-substitution effort for the Helmand River Valley.
The opium business is centered in Sangin, on the Helmand River, a one-road market town where plastic sacks of the drug are sold like so much wheat or dried apricots. These main Afghan poppy fields are in areas controlled by the Islamic fundamentalists of the Taliban.
Given the strong prohibitions in Islam against drug use and the entirely public nature of the opium business, it seems logical that the Taliban would have quickly shut it all down.
Instead, the already substantial poppy crop expanded after the Taliban arrived.
"We cannot banish the poppy until our people have other crops to grow and work to do," says Mullah Abdul Hamid Akhundaza, director of the Foreign Ministry's office in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city where the Taliban originated.
"How can we tell farmers to stop growing poppies and have no food for their children?" he asks.
Others suggest the Taliban has a different motive for its apparently hands-off policy on opium: It is still fighting an expensive war in the north and needs cash to feed and supply its army.
In war-ravaged Afghanistan, there are few other products for a government to tax.
Poppy merchants and farmers say (and narcotics experts confirm) that there are three main smuggling paths for opium coming from the Helmand Valley.
Some go through Pakistan and some north through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, but much of the Afghan opium takes a ride through Iran to heroin factories in Turkey.
Afghans report (and the State Department confirms) a history of pitched battles with Iranian authorities as the drug caravans fight their way through Iran. The drug traffickers are well-armed, officials say, often traveling with heavy weapons and anti-aircraft guns.
So even if the Taliban wanted to stop the opium trafficking, there is no certainty that it could.
But there is one more reason the poppy crops are flourishing: jTC Many Afghans in positions of power are unhappy with current U.S. policy.
During the Cold War, the United States spent lavishly on Afghan aid programs and, later, to arm the Afghan "mujahedeen" fighting Soviet troops.
Since the Russians left in 1989 and the Afghan Communist government fell in 1992, U.S. support for Afghanistan has virtually ended.
Taliban officials say they are not pleased with the change. They are also unhappy that the United States has not taken the lead in recognizing their government, which remains internationally isolated.
Sometimes by inference but often quite directly, they make clear that their eagerness to attack the poppy problem will depend on whether formal recognition comes and on what sort of aid projects the United States is willing to sponsor for Afghanistan.
One frequently heard request is that Americans come back to the Helmand River Valley to repair the canals and dams and roads they built, all of which now serve fields filled with miles and miles of opium poppy seedlings.