American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.
The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.
Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.
“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”
The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.
No easy task
But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.
No one here thinks that is going to be easy.
Only 10 minutes inside the tiny village of Zangabad, 20 miles southwest of Kandahar, a platoon of American soldiers stepped into a poppy field in full bloom on Monday. Taliban fighters opened fire from three sides.
“From the north!” one of the soldiers yelled, spinning and firing.
“West!” another screamed, turning and firing, too.
An hour passed and a thousand bullets whipped through the air. Ammunition was running low. The Taliban were circling.
Then the gunships arrived, swooping in, their bullet casings showering the ground beneath them, their rockets streaking and destroying. Behind a barrage of artillery, the soldiers shot their way out of Zangabad and moved into the cover of the vineyards.
“When are you going drop the bomb?” Capt. Chris Brawley said into his radio over the clatter of machine-gun fire. “I’m in a grape field.”
The bomb came, and after a time the shooting stopped.
The firefight offered a preview of the Americans’ summer in southern Afghanistan. By all accounts, it is going to be bloody.
Like the guerrillas they are, Taliban fighters often fade away when confronted by a conventional army. But in Afghanistan, as they did in Zangabad, the Taliban will probably stand and fight.
Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain.
Indeed, Taliban fighters have begun to fight any efforts by the Americans or the British to move into areas where poppy grows and opium is produced. Last month, a force of British marines moved into a district called Nad Ali in Helmand Province, the center of the country’s poppy cultivation. The Taliban were waiting. In a five-day battle, the British killed 120 Taliban fighters and wounded 150. Only one British soldier was wounded.
Many of the new American soldiers will fan out along southern Afghanistan’s largely unguarded 550-mile-long border with Pakistan. Among them will be soldiers deployed in the Stryker, a relatively quick, nimble armored vehicle that can roam across the vast areas that span the frontier.
All of the new troops are supposed to be in place by Aug. 20, in order to provide security for Afghanistan’s presidential election.
The presence of poppy and opium here has injected a huge measure of uncertainty into the war. Under NATO rules of engagement, American or other forces are prohibited from attacking targets or people related only to narcotics production. Those people are not considered combatants.
But American and other forces are allowed to attack drug smugglers or facilities that are assisting the Taliban. In an interview, General Nicholson said that opium production and the Taliban are so often intertwined that the rules do not usually inhibit American operations.
“We often come across a compound that has opium and I.E.D. materials side by side, and opium and explosive materials and weapons,” General Nicholson said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “It’s very common — more common than not.”
But the prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population. In the firefight in Zangabad, the Americans covered their exit with a barrage of 20 155 millimeter high-explosive artillery shells — necessary to shield them from the Taliban, but also enough to inflict serious damage on people and property. A local Afghan interviewed by telephone after the firefight said that four homes had been damaged by the artillery strikes.
Then there is the problem of weaning poppy farmers from poppy farming — a task that has proved intractable in many countries, like Colombia, where the American government has tried to curtail poppy production. It is by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm. The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, American officials say. The country’s opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan’s roads.
“The people don’t like to cultivate poppy, but they are desperate,” Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, the governor of Zabul Province, told a group of visitors this month.
To offer an alternative to poppy farming, the American military is setting aside $250 million for agriculture projects like irrigation improvements and wheat cultivation. General Nicholson said that a $200 million plan for infrastructure improvements, much of it for roads to help get crops to market, was also being prepared. The vision, General Nicholson said, is to try to restore the agricultural economy that flourished in Afghanistan in the 1970s. That, more than military force, will defeat the Taliban, he said.
“There is a significant portion of the enemy that we believe we can peel off with incentives,” the general said. “We can hire away many of these young men.”
Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban’s profits.
The foray into Zangabad suggested the difficulties that lie ahead. The terrain is a guerrilla’s dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense.
But the trickiest thing will be winning over the Afghans themselves. The Taliban are entrenched in the villages and river valleys of southern Afghanistan. The locals, caught between the foes, seem, at best, to be waiting to see who prevails.
On their way to Zangabad, the soldiers stopped in a wheat field to talk to a local farmer. His name was Ahmetullah. The Americans spoke through a Pashto interpreter.
“I’m very happy to see you,” the farmer told the Americans.
“Really?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Yes,” the farmer said.
The interpreter sighed, and spoke in English.
“He’s a liar.”
This article, "," in The New York Times.