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The great poppyseed caper

The US military proudly announced it had "busted" Afghanis in possession of 82.5 tons of bagel topping.

An Afghan boy harvests opium in a poppy field as U.S. Marines patrol a village in the Golestan district of Farah province, May 5, 2009. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

KABUL — Fans of poppyseed bagels may want to start glancing furtively around for undercover narcs before taking a bite of their black-speckled breakfast rolls. According to the U.S. military, poppyseeds are narcotics, in the same league as opium or heroin.

This, at least, is the message conveyed by a recent raid in Marja district of Helmand Province, where U.S. forces, after a four-day military offensive, proudly announced the biggest-ever drug bust in Afghanistan: more than 101 tons of “narcotics,” whose seizure “severely disrupted one of the key militant and criminal operations and narcotics hubs in southern Afghanistan,” according to U.S. military spokesperson Col. Greg Julian.

What he failed to highlight was that more than 80 percent of it — 82.5 tons — was bagel topping, although most of this cache was probably destined for planting, rather than eating.

“We cannot really say that poppyseeds are narcotics,” acknowledged a U.S. official, speaking on background. “They are potential narcotics.”

Smaller amounts of actual drugs were seized — 18.5 tons of opium, 0.04 tons of morphine, 0.22 tons of heroin and 0.2 tons of hashish. To put the numbers in perspective, the opium represents three-tenths of 1 percent of the nearly 6,000 tons that Helmand produced in 2008.

“It was not hugely substantial,” admitted the U.S. official.

But the significance of the Marja operation goes beyond the hype surrounding the seizure of drugs. It represents a new emphasis in the use of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — from counter-insurgency to counter-narcotics.

The Marja raid included 14 agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), whose Forward Advisory Support Team (FAST) is trained to interface with U.S. Special Forces.

“You cannot tell the difference between them and Special Forces,” the U.S. official said.

The FAST agents are not allowed to participate in strictly counterinsurgency offensives — their mission is counter-narcotics. In Marja, they were assisting U.S. Special Forces and Afghan commandos from the 205th Atal Corps.

The troops went into Marja, a small community approximately 30 kilometers from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, on May 19. The announced aim was to clean out what is, admittedly, a hotbed of drug and Taliban activity.