Image: Security guard in Afghanistan
Rafiq Maqbool  /  AP
A security guard of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah tries to control the crowd during his campaign in Parwan province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday.
updated 7/26/2009 2:05:09 PM ET 2009-07-26T18:05:09

U.S. Marines and Afghan forces have found and destroyed hundreds of tons of poppy seeds, opium and heroin in southern Afghanistan this month in raids that a top American official said show the new U.S. counter narcotics strategy in Afghanistan is working.

U.S. and NATO troops are attacking drug warehouses in Afghanistan for the first time this year, a new strategy to counter the country's booming opium poppy and heroin trade. NATO defense ministers approved the targeted drug raids late last year, saying the link between Taliban insurgents and drug barons was clear.

U.N. officials say Taliban fighters reap hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade each year, profits used to fund the insurgency.

The U.S. announced last month it would no longer support the destruction of individual farmers' poppy plants, and instead would increase attacks on drug warehouses controlled by powerful drug lords — a wholesale change in strategy.

Drug warehouses being targeted
U.S. Marines, British troops and Afghan forces supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have increasingly targeted drug warehouses in Helmand and Kandahar provinces — the largest opium poppy growing region in the world.

Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said early evidence indicated the new strategy was working.

"This administration set out to reverse the counter narcotics program by de-emphasizing crop eradication and emphasizing interdiction," Holbrooke told The Associated Press on Saturday. "The forces in the south are actually making that a reality. It's a historic change if it's successful, and the first indications were very, very promising."

Seizures made this summer illustrate the huge quantities of drugs the military can destroy.

Marines in Helmand working alongside DEA-mentored Afghan police seized 297 tons of poppy seeds, 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of heroin and 300 pounds (135 kilograms) of opium in raids in mid-July. Some 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) of hashish and 4,225 gallons (16,000 liters) of chemicals used to convert opium to heroin were also seized.

"This wasn't an accident. This was planned interdiction," Holbrooke said.

Bomb-making materials, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s were also seized, underscoring what the U.S. Embassy said was "the connection between drug trafficking and the insurgency."

"We consider the link between narcotics trafficking and the insurgency to be a security and force protection threat, and therefore a legitimate target," said U.S. military spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker. "The narcotics industry has a corrosive influence across all aspects of Afghan society and inhibits our work to provide a secure environment."

New strategy a departure from past
For years the U.S. strategy has centered on training Afghan forces to eradicate farmers' poppy fields by hand. But such efforts never destroyed a significant portion of the crops. Farmers complained that the program targeted small, helpless poppy growers and passed over more powerful land owners. And the forces came under constant attack by militants.

Holbrooke said the U.S. efforts cost about $44,000 to eradicate 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of poppies. Overall the U.S. spent about $45 million a year on eradication, he said. Holbrooke has called eradication efforts a waste of money.

Mohammad Ibrahimi Azhar, deputy minister of Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Ministry, said he was "very happy" with the new U.S. strategy but that his ministry would continue eradication efforts. He said farmers needed to be fearful their crops might be cut down.

"Many years we have done this activity. If we stop, all 34 provinces would cultivate" poppies," Azhar said.

Program partly funded by Britain
Governors across Afghanistan, particularly in the more peaceful regions, lead poppy eradication efforts. The governors are paid $135 for each hectare, or about 2.5 acres, destroyed, a program funded in part by Britain.

Azhar said 98 percent of Afghanistan's poppy crop is grown in five southern insurgency-plagued provinces, where the government has little or no control. That is where U.S., Afghan and British forces have been destroying drug warehouses.

On July 14, U.S. coalition and Afghan forces searched compounds in Kandahar and found bomb-making materials, mortar rounds, AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of opium.

In early June, British forces destroyed 12,125 pounds (5,500 kilograms) of opium paste during two helicopter-borne assaults. The operation destroyed 10 narcotic manufacturing facilities, 485 pounds (220 kilograms) of morphine and 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of heroin.

The operation was backed by British and Canadian helicopters and U.S. jets that flew in from the Persian Gulf.

Service member dies Saturday
In the latest Afghan violence, a U.S. service member died Saturday during a clash with insurgents in the south, the U.S. military said Sunday, bringing to at least 39 the number of U.S. troops killed this month.

July has been the deadliest month for U.S. and NATO forces in the Afghan war. Some 60,000 U.S. forces now operate in Afghanistan — a record number.

Also Sunday, one of President Hamid Karzai's vice presidential running mates in next month's election escaped injury when his convoy came under fire in northern Afghanistan.

Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the former commander of the Northern Alliance that helped oust the Taliban in 2001, was traveling from Kunduz to Takhar province when militants opened fire on his 30-vehicle convoy, said Kunduz Gov. Mohammad Omar.

A Karzai aide, Abdul Jalal, said one cameraman working for the campaign was wounded and Fahim's armored car was struck by bullets but the candidate was not hurt.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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