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Poppies fuel Taliban’s return in Afghanistan

Last year's record harvest — with a street value of more than $3 billion — is barely a start.

It's harvest time in Nangahar, and rich green poppies blanket the province. This is opium country, and some U.S. commanders fear these fields could ultimately defeat their efforts here.

Today, America's new “drug czar” here, Lt. Col. Rick Kaiser, pointed out the problem: an illegal raw opium market. Taking on the drug traffickers is critical. It's their money financing the resurgent Taliban fighters.

So now, the U.S. Army — long distracted by the war in Iraq — is shifting attention to counter-narcotics, but is it too late to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a narco-terrorist state?

"Afghanistan is a narco-state," says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News analyst. "It's the biggest one in the history of the world — it's a $3 billion-a-year crop."

The Afghan government's attempts to eradicate poppies so far have been inefficient. It is slow, labor-intensive work, and even the local governor admits he'll need to find more aggressive ways to just put a dent in this year's poppy harvest.

"Corruption is the biggest problem, Gul Aga Sherrzai, governor of Nangahar, says. "I dismissed 20 officials because they were taking bribes."

The temptation is huge. Raw opium earns farmers $100 a pound — that's 100 times more than for the same size bag of wheat.

One farmer says he has no choice.

"People can do what they want with opium in the West — for us the poppy means survival," the farmer says.

Recently, angry farmers threw stones at eradication police, who fired back, killing one villager. So the U.S. military is experimenting with job programs like building cobblestone roads. But the wages can't compete with the poppies. Already, U.S. commanders are predicting that this year's harvest will be bigger yet, making victory in Afghanistan even more questionable.