The great poppyseed caper

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.

“The main goal is to counter the insurgency, which happens to be funded and fueled by the drug trade,” Julian said. “Where the insurgency and drug nexus exists — it is a legitimate military target.”

The troubled southern province of Helmand is Afghanistan’s prime example of the drug-insurgency nexus, serving as a center for Taliban as well as the undisputed world capital of poppy. Helmand alone produces 60 percent of the planet’s raw material for heroin, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

But the Marja offensive was aimed directly at the narcotics trade, according to the U.S. official quoted above. “We were sending a message to drug traffickers, that they can no longer operate with no control,” he said.

No attempt was made to clear and hold the area, and the combined U.S.-Afghan force withdrew after four days.

The issue of troops employed in counter-narcotics operations is a controversial one, and has caused tensions between the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Gen. John Craddock, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, sparked a major row over his assertion that NATO should target drug traffickers in Afghanistan whether or not it could be demonstrated that they had links to the insurgency.

Some of the allies balked, with German Gen. Egon Ramms going so far as to question the legality of Craddock’s initiative.

But the U.S. military has fewer qualms, and fewer restrictions, about using its soldiers to punish drug traffickers.

The justification has always been that the drug trade fuels the insurgency. Figures are notoriously slippery, but experts gauge that between $100 million and $300 million of drug money per year ends up in Taliban coffers.

“I look at poppy fields and I see fields of Kalashnikovs,” said Gen. Dan McNeill, former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

But even this sacred cow is being called into question, by none other than the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

Addressing the media in Islamabad in early June, Holbrooke dismissed the notion that drug money supplied the major portion of Taliban funding.

“Even if the drug trade stops it won’t have any significant impact,” he said.

Despite the mixed messages, Marja was hailed as an unalloyed victory by both the U.S. and Afghan military establishments.

"The commandos thoroughly demolished a vital operational, logistical and financial hub for the enemy and completed this mission victorious as the militants and criminals crawled away defeated and operationally neutered," said Ministry of Defense spokesperson Maj. Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.

But the story on the ground was quite different. Within hours of the combined forces’ withdrawal, the Taliban were back, busily organizing their government, counting tax revenues and bragging that they had kicked the most powerful army in the world out of their little enclave.

“The Taliban have set up their government in Marja the same as it was,” said Hajji Salem Wardak, Marja’s representative to the Provincial Council. “They are collecting zakat (taxes), they have a court, a district governor, and they are boasting that nobody can get them out of Marja. They are proud that they defeated the government and the Americans with a much smaller force.”

The Marja operation left residents bewildered and angry. After four days of bombardment, the destruction of the local bazaar, and significant damage to houses and wheat fields, they were back where they started — face-to-face with the Taliban.

“This operation will have no positive effect,” complained Marja native Salim. “The foreigners go in and come out again. They just destabilize the situation, without taking control of the area. This makes the Taliban strong, and takes away any hope that the internationals can bring security.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Ilyas Dayee contributed to this report.

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