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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.

“There are hundreds of heroin labs here,” said the worker. “Some have been moved to the mountains, where they are hidden away. Marjah is a bigger danger to the government than Musa Qala was before.”

Last summer, the newly arrived U.S. forces mounted an operation to clear Marjah, yielding the “largest-ever narcotics bust” according to military sources. Much of the 101-ton cache was in the form of poppy seeds, but a significant amount of processed heroin — more than 220 pounds — was also destroyed. The forces left Marjah after just four days. No attempt was made to clear and hold the area.

The 2009 operation gave rise to a lot of hype. Col. Greg Julian, then spokesperson for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said that the operation “severely disrupted one of the key militant and criminal operations and narcotics hubs in southern Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan Ministry of Defense spokesman Zahir Azimi was even more categorical: “Our commandoes thoroughly demolished a vital operational, logistical and financial hub for the enemy. The militants and criminals crawled away defeated and operationally neutered.”

But within days the smugglers and insurgents were back in business, and now, seven months later, Marjah is once again the major focus of operations.

But in the meantime several thousand additional U.S. troops have arrived in the area. Military personnel will not give details of troop numbers deployed for the Marjah operation, but it is expected to be a much larger offensive than last summer’s.

“Marjah is the last population center in Helmand still under the Taliban,” said an official from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Helmand.

But the population may prove resistant to the “hearts and minds” campaign that has become a central component of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

“Most of the people of Marjah are involved in the heroin industry,” said the owner of a heroin lab, who did not want to give his name. “Marjah is where most of the heroin is produced.”

It has also become a focal point for smugglers. Heroin processing does not demand a lot of sophisticated equipment — all that is needed is a fire source, large enamel or aluminum kettles and a lot of time.

But turning opium into heroin does require chemicals, the chief one of which, acetic anhydride, is not available on the open market in Afghanistan. So smuggling now goes in two directions — getting the acetic anhydride in, and getting the heroin out.

“We smuggle the acid just like the heroin,” said Sher Khan, a young man from Nangarhar province who has come to Helmand to work in the heroin labs. “It comes from Pakistan through Jalalabad, then through Kabul. If the police stop us, we say it is common acid. They don’t know the difference.”

According to other drugs workers, some of the acetic anhydride also comes from Iran, through Nimroz province.

Processed heroin travels out of Afghanistan by different routes.