KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S.-led offensive that's expected to start soon in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province will be a battle not only against the Taliban but also against an insurgent-backed narcotics trade that provides a livelihood for thousands of residents.
Helmand produces more than half the world's opium, and Marjah, the town targeted in the operation, is its thriving drug capital.
Marjah illustrates the link between the Islamist insurgency and the narcotics trade: According to residents, the Taliban promote and tax the opium business and ally with the druglords who organize the distribution and export.
"Most of the population are forced by the smugglers and the Taliban to grow poppy," said Juma Gul, a 44-year-old tribal chief from Marjah, speaking by phone from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where he and hundreds of other residents have taken refuge ahead of the widely publicized offensive. "The Taliban pressure people to grow only poppy."
Although the operation is a military one, the greater test of the U.S.-led planning will be a civilian campaign to show the people of Marjah that there's an alternative to poppy cultivation, heroin production and smuggling. If the military and civilian side can coordinate, it could set an example for other parts of the country.
U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the international military force in Afghanistan, laid out the non-military goals Sunday. "When the government re-establishes security, they (the people of Marjah) will have choices . . . on the crops they grow, they'll have the ability to move that produce to appropriate markets, they won't be limited to narco-traffickers who can force them into" the narcotics trade, he told reporters. "We're trying to make this not a military operation only, but a civilian and military operation."
Marjah and the surrounding area are the last Taliban stronghold in the central Helmand river valley, with an estimated 2,000 insurgents prepared to fight. Thousands of coalition troops will mount the first big operation since President Barack Obama announced another 30,000 troops for Afghanistan, and newly trained Afghan forces have a high profile.
"I was growing (poppy) just to feed my family," said a farmer from Marjah, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals, speaking by phone from Lashkar Gah. "In the past seven or eight years, the government has not helped us. Farmers earn more from poppy than any other crop in Afghanistan. If the government still does not help us, we'll be forced to grow (poppy) again."
As with the military operation, Afghans for the first time will lead the civilian effort in Marjah, which has a population of about 80,000. The Afghans' ability to provide security and governance is the key to allowing foreign forces to leave the country, U.S. officials say.
Taliban leaders in Marjah are trying to convince people that the operation is an anti-poppy drive, not an anti-insurgent offensive, said Wali Jan Sabari, the member of parliament for the town. Sabari hasn't been able to visit his constituency for a year-and-a-half due to the takeover by the Islamic extremists, but he's able to stay in touch with his constituents.
The Taliban administers the local drug business and have registered 187 processing factories, which turn the paste within the bulb into heroin and other opiates, Sabari told McClatchy. Each factory pays a tax to the Taliban of 100,000 Pakistani rupees per month, or about $1,200. The insurgents also tax the farmers and smugglers. Sabari said there are 150,000 jerib, a traditional Afghan unit of measure, under poppy cultivation in the Marjah area, equivalent to 75,000 acres, nearly half the poppy cultivation in the province.
"The Taliban have a committee to collect the tax. They also have a district governor, judges and a town mayor, every department is replicated," said Sabari, who added that people come from afar to work as laborers in the drugs business. "The factory owners are happy with the Taliban. Paying 100,000 rupees (tax) is nothing for them. The poor farmers can't make much money because they have to sell the seed cheap."
U.S.-built irrigation canals in the Marjah area, which date back to the 1950s, make the region fertile and a prolific producer of opium. But wheat, not poppy, is the traditional crop for the area.
In preparation for the offensive, wheat seed already has been distributed to 3,200 farmers in Marjah, said Peter Hawkins, a senior British official with the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team.
With each farmer representing a household of about 10, a good portion of the population of Marjah has been covered. Each farmer traveled out of Marjah to collect the wheat seed and paid 10 percent of the cost. After the operation, more seed will be distributed, including for vegetables and fruit, providing the farmers with a second crop for summer.
"It's about trying to support people to be part of a licit economy, agriculturally based, build Helmand up into the food basket, rather than today (existing) inside an illegal trade . . . And everything is in place to allow that transition to be as easy and seamless as possible," said Hawkins, speaking by phone from Helmand. "The objective to help people to sustain their current level of livelihood or increase it."
The plan is to bring in the services of the Afghan government rapidly and also to reconnect the people of Marjah and the surrounding countryside with the provincial and national markets for their legal produce, rather than the international drug market.
Last year, 79 percent of world poppy cultivation was in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. Helmand had about 270 square miles under poppy cultivation and produced 59 percent of the country's opium. Last year was the third consecutive bumper crop in Helmand, though a sharp reduction from 2008. The export value of the opiates produced in Afghanistan in 2009 was $2.8 billion, the U.N. estimates.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Nooruddin Bakhshi contributed to this article.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY