Marines try unorthodox tactics to disrupt Afghan opium harvest

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; A09

CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. Marines are mounting an intensive effort to disrupt the opium harvest in the former Taliban enclave of Marja by confiscating tools from migrant workers, compensating poppy farmers who plow under their fields and collaborating with Drug Enforcement Administration personnel to raid collection sites.

The steps amount to one of the most novel U.S. attempts to crack down on a key part of Afghanistan's drug trade while seeking to minimize the impact on individual farmers, many of them poor sharecroppers who face economic peril if they cannot harvest or sell their crops.

The plan to pay farmers, who will receive $120 for each acre of tilled fields, prompted a tense debate among Marine officials and civilian reconstruction personnel, some of whom argued that it provides preferential treatment to those in Marja who planted an illegal crop.

But the Marines' program eventually won the approval of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a March 30 cable to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, she called the effort "the best decision in the face of an array of less-than-perfect options."

The Obama administration ended a program to eradicate poppy fields, saying it would drive farmers into the hands of the insurgency. Instead, the military and DEA operations here have been directed toward catching traffickers and drug kingpins and toward interdicting shipments of opium and processed heroin.

"When we went into Marja, we didn't declare war on the poppy farmer," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

But the Marines were left with a dilemma: The poppy crop they think is providing significant income to the Taliban again began to increase after a significant drop last year.

Marja, a 155-square-mile area in Helmand province, remains home to the country's largest concentration of poppy fields. Leaving them alone did not make sense to the Marines.

Even if the Marines had done nothing, the farmers would probably have faced serious difficulties. In the past, an estimated 60,000 migrant workers descended upon Marja to help with the harvest, but many might not come this year because more than 3,000 U.S. and Afghan forces are in the area. Also, the opium bazaars, where farmers sell their crops, have been shuttered.

The Marines have said they will block main roads and turn back migrant workers arriving for the harvest, due to begin within a matter of weeks.

To avoid discriminating against those who did not plant poppies, the new program is open to all farmers in Marja. But poppy farmers do not have to prove they did not harvest their opium, only that their fields have been plowed under. Marine officials believe cash-strapped poppy farmers will be the program's principal beneficiaries.

Those are people the Marines need to win over if Marja is to become stable. "If we hadn't done anything, we'd be fighting farmers at a time when we need to establish governance," said John Kael Weston, the State Department political adviser to the Marine brigade.

Weston, who helped to develop the program, said the payments are designed to provide farmers some of what they would have made from selling their crops had the Marines not entered the area. The funds are also intended to help farmers transition to planting other crops.

"We've disrupted the economic cycle of Marja," he said. "If the farmers don't have money, it will affect the shopkeepers and everyone else."

Some officials at the Helmand provincial reconstruction team, which is run by Britain and the United States, argued that the Taliban would levy taxes on farmers who accept the payments. They also said the payments would create "a disequilibrium" with other parts of the province.

Marine officials insisted the payments are a one-time program because of the unique circumstances associated with the military operation. "If you don't do something special, we would have lost a very small window of opportunity," said Col. Michael Killion, the brigade's operations officer.

The Marines expect to spend about $12 million on the initiative, which will be paid for with funds from the Defense Department's Commander's Emergency Response Program.

As of Sunday, 730 farmers had signed up, Marine official said. Payments will be made only after U.S. or Afghan security forces verify that the land has been plowed.

Afghan soldiers and police, backed up by Marines, have begun setting up checkpoints on access roads to Marja to dissuade migrant harvesters from entering the area. The security forces intend to confiscate any harvesting tools, Marine officials said.

The DEA, which has steadily increased its presence in Afghanistan over the past year, intends to work with Afghan counternarcotics forces to identify and target buyers and traffickers seeking to smuggle opium out of Marja. That effort, which will involve extensive aerial surveillance, will be the agency's largest-ever operation in the country.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company