Handling Marjeh’s Poppy & Other Concerns

by Joshua Foust on 3/17/2010 · 3 comments

Two weeks ago, I wrote in the New York Times:

Good government will matter little, though, if the local economy is in a shambles. Marja’s agricultural base relies primarily on opium, and any new counternarcotics policies will wreak havoc; arresting or killing the drug traffickers will ultimately be the same as attacking local farmers. The timing of the offensive could not be more damaging: opium is planted in the winter and harvested in the spring, which means those who planted last year cannot recoup their investment.

In Helmand, opium is the only way farmers can acquire credit: they take out small loans, called salaam, from narcotics smugglers or Taliban officials, often in units of poppy seed, and pay back that loan in opium paste after harvest. If they cannot harvest their opium, they are in danger of defaulting on their loan — a very dangerous proposition.

Western aid groups distributed wheat seeds last fall, but there was little follow-up and it seems few farmers used them. This year, the aid workers should be prepared to pay farmers compensation for any opium crops they are unable to harvest as a result of the fighting, and the Western coalition should help the groups develop a microcredit system.


The swift American-led military offensive that drove the Taliban from power in this southern Afghan farm belt came at an inopportune time for the area’s poppy farmers. That’s created a quandary for Marjah’s new, U.S.-backed leaders and for the American military as they try to transform this sweltering river valley, whose biggest cash crop is opium poppy, into a tranquil breadbasket.

“The helicopters are landing in my field,” the weathered farmer told Fennell as they sat in the dirt outside the Marines’ newest forward operating base in Marjah. “You have to stop landing there. Next time, the Taliban will put an IED in the field,” an improvised explosive device, the military’s term for a homemade bomb.

Unfortunately, the Marines are refusing to compensate farmers for any damage they cause to their poppy fields. This is counterproductive—as the farmer himself strongly hinted, there remain strong ties to the Taliban in the area (more on that below): the Taliban, in fact, rescued Marjeh from predatory government officials some time ago and had set up a relatively stable set of economic and judicial institutions. If the Marines are going to destroy those, and there are many reasons why they should, they have to immediately provide alternatives or risk brutalizing the very people they need to win over.

Unfortunately, the Marines in Marjah seem determined to stamp out opium—a far cry from the clear thinking that accompanied their first deployment to Helmand in 2008, when they vowed to resolutely ignore the opium and focus on more important things (seriously: focusing on opium instead of almost anything else badly misses the point).

There’s no time to waste. In that same NYT article, I wrote:

Last, progress on these other fronts will do nothing if the Taliban return, which means a significant number of troops must stay for at least a year. Gen. David Petraeus, head of the Central Command, has said that Marja was merely an “initial salvo” in an 18-month campaign to also retake neighboring Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban. Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second-largest city, so it is reasonable to assume that many troops will be pulled out of Marja for that campaign…

At a minimum, at least two battalions should stay in Marja permanently, to undergird the new government. They shouldn’t build a new base outside the town for this, or “commute” to the area from strongholds in Helmand like Camp Leatherneck. They should live right inside the town, providing security and guidance from within. You can’t have a “population-centric” counterinsurgency unless you take care of the people.

There are reports emerging from Marjeh that the Taliban is already reasserting itself. While the military ferries Haji Zahir, the new “governor,” to and fro in a helicopter—quite the vote of confidence, considering Marjeh is an area of only a few dozen miles on a side—the Taliban have already begun posting night letters, and beating and even beheading people who cooperate too closely with the U.S. Even so, the barriers to the new government succeeding are basic enough to make me question whether ISAF was lying about having a government in a box ready to go.

“How may of us are from Marjah?” U.S. Marine Col. Randy Newman asked the two-dozen men taking part in the meeting. “None. The Taliban are from Marjah. They have earned some amount of trust of the people. The people trusted the Taliban justice. If we continue in this manner, we will not earn their trust.”

During Sunday’s meeting, the U.S. Army adviser working with Afghan forces told Zahir that the security forces were being constrained because there was no judicial system in place to jail suspected Taliban insurgents turned in by local residents.

We need to sit down and have a very strong discussion about how we’re going to deal with Afghan justice for these men we know are hurting people,” said Matt, who’s advising Afghan police in one section of Marjah. They look at me and smile because they know they’re going to be released within 24 to 48 hours.

“The people of southern Marjah are not going to be confident in our ability to bring security until we can permanently take those men off the battlefield,” he said. “That’s where we earn the population’s trust.”

Again: we destroyed a functioning government and replaced it with borderline-chaos. If the Marines cannot get this under control very quickly, it will turn against them in a very bloody way.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dafydd March 17, 2010 at 10:56 am

Given that one of the more plausible reasons for the Marjah campaign was to show a victory to home populations in the west in order to sore up support, this looks particularly bad.

If Marjah doesn’t get bolted down before they move on Kandahar, it could prove a significant turning point. Just not in the direction Obama wanted.

AJK March 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm

This is exactly what Maria Costa mentioned (and I wrote) yesterday: Policemen, Kabul, ISAF, all can’t touch the Taliban through a justice system. They can’t get Kabul’s brand in place. They can’t build up institutions to even make up for the ones they took down.

It’s real ugly, and in a real predictable way.

Farhad March 17, 2010 at 4:26 pm

When will NATO wake up and smell the coffee that the current Afghan civil service can’t even tie its shoes?

Place non-corrupt, young Afghans that have recently graduated from high education institutions aboard or within the country to start working in places like Marjah.

Yes, place a bearded, turban wearing man as the “head”, but the real administration has to be dealt with the emerging young, professional Afghans that need to gain experience in the field and to take care of their country. And you can then tack on two Western advisers to this group for further guidance, and you may just have success.

if NATO wants to leave quickly, then they need to stop investing in these old corrupt officials and work with the younger Afghan generation.

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