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Afghans in Marjah have a drug trade to defend

As Americans prepare for an offensive on Marjah, in Helmand, locals worry about their livelihoods.

An Afghan boy works in a poppy field in Musa Qala, Helmand province, March 28, 2009. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

MARJAH, Afghanistan — It is the worst-kept secret in Afghanistan: The “major offensive” set to begin within days, if not hours, will be for Marjah, a district just 15 miles from Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. The military has been scattering leaflets in Marjah itself and broad hints everywhere else, seemingly hoping that the insurgents will follow recent patterns and melt away.

But Marjah may prove to be the decisive battleground of the war. Over the past two years, it has turned into Helmand’s chief drug center. Marjah not only houses Helmand’s largest distribution markets for the province’s major crop, raw opium, it now hosts hundreds of heroin-processing laboratories.

The drug industry involves the bulk of the civilian population in Marjah, according to drug workers, which makes it unlikely that they will welcome their “liberators” with open arms. Much more likely, they will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Taliban to defend their livelihood.

“The Americans are coming to Marjah,” sighed a 28-year-old man who makes his living in a heroin laboratory. “We are moving the labs into the mountains, but it is a long way to go. We are afraid. If the Americans come, it will be very difficult for us to feed our families. The Taliban say they will fight.”

Helmand Province alone produces over half the world’s opium; poppy is grown in virtually every district of the province, providing a rich livelihood for thousands of farmers.

Marjah has become the heroin capital of Helmand. It has also turned into one of the province’s chief Taliban strongholds. The nexus is not accidental: The insurgents provide protection for traders and smugglers, ensuring that the crop reaches markets both within Afghanistan and outside its borders. In return, they reap healthy benefits in the form of tax and tribute.

According to one smuggler, who would not give his name, each heroin laboratory pays the local Taliban between $500 and $1,000 per month in protection money. It is nearly impossible to estimate the total number of heroin labs in Marjah. In December 2007, when British, American and Afghan forces stormed Musa Qala, in northern Helmand, they discovered and destroyed more than 300 heroin processing centers, according to government sources.

But one narcotics worker in the district says that Marjah is much bigger than Musa Qala ever was.