MARJAH, Afghanistan — Curbing the Taliban's multimillion dollar opium poppy business was a major goal of a military operation to seize this former insurgent stronghold. With the town in NATO hands, the Marines face a conundrum: If they destroy the crops and curb the trade, they lose the support of the population — a problem for which they have no easy solution.
U.S., Afghan and NATO forces that stormed Marjah in February were ordered to seize large opium stashes but leave farmers' poppy fields alone. Destroying crops and farmers' livelihood would undermine the broader goal of winning the support of a population that long embraced the Taliban over an ineffective Afghan government.
"We just let them grow it," said Capt. Carl Havens, the 38-year-old commander of Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "If we just went in and destroyed every poppy field, then they'd immediately turn against us."
Before the offensive, the military estimated Marjah's poppy crop was worth about $40 million, said Lt. Col. Jeff Rule, the head of Marine operations in Helmand province. Nationwide, the Taliban earn about $300 million a year from the opium trade, according to the United Nations.
Town is still volatile
Afghan government officials in Kabul say they'd like to start destroying crops immediately, but are holding back in Marjah because the town is still so volatile.
"Once they have no more fighting, then we can deal with the eradication," said Mohammad Zafar, the country's deputy counter-narcotics minister. He said the Marines and Afghan troops need to concentrate on establishing security, and adding poppy eradication to their tasks would be too much.
"We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income for people in the second poorest country in the world without providing an alternative source of income," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Wednesday in Brussels.
With the harvest season starting, the poppy crop will be the first real test of the military's control of the town of 80,000. Poppies give residents a reason to support the Taliban because the insurgents buy the crop.
Although Marines won't destroy the crop, they will make it difficult for farmers to sell their product anywhere in Marjah, whose economy rests entirely on poppies.
"They are not going to be able to sell in the bazaars, because we're going to be there," said Lt. Joseph Reney, a Marines spokesman.
Doing so without alienating the farmers is not going to be easy.
The plan is to compensate farmers to cover the cost of preparing their fields for next season. A number of strategies are being considered, most including a combination of cash along with seeds and fertilizer to encourage them to switch to a legal crop like wheat or soybeans.
Such formulas have had some success elsewhere in Helmand. Opium poppy cultivation dropped 33 percent last year in the province, according to the U.N.
But the reductions have all been in areas where the Afghan government has first established the security and control needed to combat the Taliban full-package deal of seeds, fertilizer, crop protection and guaranteed payment.
It's unclear if the 2,200 U.S. forces and their Afghan counterparts in Marjah have enough control to prevent black-market selling. A lull in fighting after the three-week offensive appears to be ending, with snipers reappearing to ambush troops. Taliban bomb-makers are adjusting their tactics to hit foot patrols rather than heavily armored vehicles.
The harvest coincides with the start of the traditional "fighting season" in Afghanistan. Taliban have historically regrouped over the cold winter months and then returned to launch offensives in the spring and summer.
NATO officials say it's slow but the troops in Marjah are making drug busts on patrols and whittling down the illegal business.
"We are making finds, we are making arrests and we are making progress," said Wing Commander Richard Connelly of the British Royal Air Force, who works on counter-narcotics policy for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
No real alternative
The farmers, meanwhile, say they're worried no one has offered a real alternative yet.
Abdul Ghani, a farmer in central Marjah, said he has 3 acres (1.2 hectares) — two of wheat and one of poppy. But it's the poppy crop that provides most of his money.
"Tilling the land, fertilizer, all this stuff costs a lot. Wheat would not be enough even to cover that cost," said Ghani, a bearded man with a sun-toughened face. Ghani says he knows that American and Afghan officials want them to stop farming poppy, but he's waiting to see what alternatives they offer.
"If I had other income, I wouldn't farm poppy," he said. "Maybe if I had a job working as a laborer or if I became a sharecropper for a rich man."
The administrative chief for the town of Marjah, Abdul Zahir, said he doesn't expect the legal crops to garner the same profit, but he hopes farmers will accept less money in exchange for better governance and security than the Taliban provided.
"I think they'll be happy with half the price because they'll have real government and safety, and they'll be working legally," Zahir said. He said his hope is to use the next few months to persuade the farmers to make the switch.
The Americans are trying to jump-start the process with jobs. They're employing hundreds of men to clean out irrigation canals, dig wells and build footbridges, said Maj. David Fennell, the 1st Battalion's chief civil affairs officer.
All this comes at a cost. Fennell's team has disbursed more than a quarter million dollars already in a combination of restitution payments and quick-impact projects such as canal-clearing. It's unclear how long the U.S. money will keep coming and how much of it the Afghan government will be able to continue.
U.S. officials have praised ministers in Kabul for getting quickly involved in the push to establish local government in Marjah. But remote towns often languish without funds or attention from the capital, Kabul. Marjah could easily drop on the priority list once the military refocuses its attention on neighboring Kandahar province, where another offensive is expected this summer.
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