America's twin wars without end -- the war on drugs and the war on terror -- continue to play out in the heart of Southwest Asia as the Obama administration beefs up US troop levels, but tries new tactics in its battle against the opium poppy and the Taliban insurgency grown wealthy off the drug trade. Eradication is out -- at least for now -- and interdiction and going after Taliban-linked drug lords is in.
One of those is Helmand province in the south, producer of more than half of all the opium poppies in Afghanistan. If Helmand were an independent country, it would be the world's largest opium producer. Most of Helmand's opium is produced in the Helmand River valley, whose largest town, Marja (pop. 80,000), is a commercial hub for the opium and heroin trade. It is also the main Taliban stronghold in the province.
The Taliban generates anywhere from $100 million to $450 million a year in revenues with which it can buy lots of shiny new weapons and pay lots of impoverished Afghans to pick up arms against the foreigners and their "puppet regime" in Kabul. (With the total Afghan opium and heroin economy valued at $3 billion to $4 billion a year, clearly, a lot of people other than the Taliban are profiting from the trade as well.)
Because of the weakness of the Afghan state and the relatively small NATO and US military presence in Helmand up until now, the area has been largely under Taliban control for the past several years. Occasional Western military sweeps have driven the Taliban from different locales, but only temporarily. Once the troops pass through and once local inhabitants realize the government and the West have not come through on their promises of assistance and development, let alone a permanent presence, the Taliban reassert control.
The much ballyhooed Marja offensive now underway is designed to be different. This time, commanders say, the military occupation will be followed in short order by a "government in a box," a quick rolling out of Afghan police and officials accompanied by the provision of services and development and economic assistance. Once the military succeeds in driving the Taliban from Marja, the rapid-fire creation of a government presence will ensure that the local population switches loyalties from the insurgents to the national government.
Some 15,000 US, NATO, and Afghan Army forces are now one week into assault on Marja, a According to all accounts, the operation is going as expected, with Western and allied Afghan forces slowly occupying the town block by block. They raised the Afghan flag over Marja's central market Wednesday.
While the fighting is going as planned and the immediate result -- driving the Taliban from Marja -- is not in doubt, it hasn't been a cakewalk. While the local Taliban leadership and an unknown number of fighters fled before the fighting began, hundreds of fighters stayed behind to harass the incoming troops. NATO commanders report encountering a town laced with booby traps and bombs (IEDs), and soldiers have come under attack from machine gun and sniper fire. At least nine Western troops have been killed in the fighting so far, with Thursday being the bloodiest yet, with four killed.
And despite US commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal's repeated commitment to avoiding civilian casualties in order to squelch Afghans' anger at the death of their fellow citizens at the hands of foreign invaders, civilian casualties have occurred. At least 15 civilians have been killed, including 12 -- five children, five women, and two men -- were killed early on in a NATO missile strike. Three more died after being shot by NATO forces during an engagement with the Taliban.
Not everyone is buying Western assurances that this time will be any different than before. In an interview with the London newspaper The Independent, Afghanistan's "most famous woman," parliament member Malalai Joya, voiced deep skepticism about the operations aims and its impact on Afghan civilians.
"It is ridiculous," said Joya. "On the one hand they call on Mullah Omar to join the puppet regime. On another hand they launch this attack in which defenseless and poor people will be the prime victims. Like before, they will be killed in the NATO bombings and used as human shields by the Taliban. Helmand's people have suffered for years and thousands of innocent people have been killed so far."
Joya proved prescient on that count, with the NATO missile strike and shootings mentioned above and with repeated press accounts of the Taliban in fact using civilians as human shields. Reports have come of insurgent fighters shooting at troops from the second floor of a building while their family members stand on the third floor in a bid to either prevent retaliation against the shooter or to score propaganda points in the event Western forces kill or injure civilians.
She also scoffed at Allied claims that the West won't abandon Afghan civilians after the military surge. "They have launched such offensives a number of times in the past, but each time after clearing the area, they leave it and the Taliban retake it. This is just a military maneuver and removal of Taliban is not the prime objective."
Analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week provided a decidedly mixed assessment of the offensive and what comes next. "That this is going well tactically is important progress," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution and author of the just published [and soon to be reviewed here] "Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs." "You have to remember that there have been a number of operations in Helmand where even tactically, we were losing because they were so under-resourced. Whether it will be a strategic success remains to be seen."
It isn't all up to the West, she noted. "What complicates things is that a lot of the outcomes aren't necessarily in the hands of NATO or the West, but will instead depend on the quality of the Afghan government," said Felbab-Brown. "This government-in-a-box plan has its drawbacks and flaws, but it is better than nothing. At least now there is some effort."
Watching the offensive unfold, Sanho Tree, international drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, was reduced to quoting the ultimate realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger, on Vietnam. "As early as 1969, Kissinger wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed as psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win,'" Tree recited.
"This was a well-publicized invasion," Tree pointed out. "The leadership disappeared, but they'll be back to fight when the odds are better."
The Taliban weren't the only ones to take advantage of the warnings of a coming attack, said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghan Studies. "The drug lords are very efficient," he said. "I'm sure they are all in safe havens now. NATO talked about the attack for so long that they've had time to take care of their commodities and themselves. The war on drugs part of this has not been very successful so far because of these warnings -- and these people are smart."
The offensive could cause some temporary disruptions of the drug trade in the area, Tree said, but was unlikely to make a major dent. "The lesson from the rest of the world is that these things don't really make much difference. Last year, it was a different 'opium capital,' next year, there will be another one."
The drug trade keeps shifting," agreed Yaseer. "When one place comes under attack, they go elsewhere. They buy the people, they buy the police; they will be the last to be affected."
"This won't have a great impact on the drug trade," said Felbab-Brown. "Marja doesn't determine what happens in Afghanistan -- that depends on interdiction and rural development, which is hard and takes a lot of time."
The ability of Western and Afghan government forces to conquer Marja was never in doubt. But the big question is whether they can build on the military success to turn the region into a bastion of support for the government, eliminate the insurgent threat once and for all, and continue to wage war on the opium poppy.
"Time will tell," said Tree. "Sequencing is key to a lot of this, and in terms of the drug stuff, sequencing is everything. That was the big argument with the advocates of eradication. They said eradicate first, then talk, but that was completely backwards. Now, with the hands-off policy for opium cultivation, you need to just let the prices fall, and people will switch to other crops, but that will only work until opium supplies shrink and prices go up again. So there is probably a one- or two-year window of opportunity to roll in infrastructure and install clean governance. You have to thread a lot of needles in a very short time, and the history of US involvement in Afghanistan doesn't suggest the odds are good."
"There will be a real temptation on the part of the West to define good government as suppressing poppies, but that could be just the opposite of how Afghans see it -- they will want to see economic development to replace their losses first," she said. "There will be a temptation for us to go for planting bans and suppression, but I don't think that's a model we should really be after. If a few months from now we decide it has stabilized and we try to prevent the harvest, people will be quite unhappy."
It's not a coincidence that the population is being somewhat receptive to the foreign troops, she said. "The troops are walking through poppy fields, not destroying them. The message is that the US is focusing on interdiction and development. If we eradicate later, that will result in great political destabilization.
"The Taliban have a lot of sympathizers there," said Yaseer. "The people are disillusioned with the government because for so long it couldn't do anything. And a lot of families have people on the payroll of the Quetta Shura [the now Pakistan-based Taliban led by Mullah Omar]. By some accounts, they were paying each household $700 a month. But now the pressure is on them to quit the Taliban."
Rapid economic and security development is key, said the Afghan scholar. "Destroying the poppy fields will help, but then you have to have an alternative ready," he said. "You can distribute food, help them grow wheat, provide fertilizer, things like that."
Taliban hard-liners will leave the area voluntarily to live to fight another day, Yaseer said, but unless an effective state presence is in place, they will come back. "The promises have to be kept and the aid has to move in immediately," he said. "They have to move in humanitarian assistance, reconstruction projects, sustenance for the people. And it has to be isolated from neighboring provinces where the Taliban will infiltrate back in from if those routes are not protected."
The military battle of Marja is winding toward its inevitable conclusion. Now, the battle for the hearts and minds of its residents is about to get underway. Meanwhile, the opium trade hiccups with minor disruptions, but lives on largely untouched, and the West remains mired in a land war in Asia fighting the twin ephemera of a war on an abstraction (terrorism) and a war on an inert substance (opium).