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As Americans prepare for an offensive on Marjah, in Helmand, locals worry about their livelihoods.
“The heroin goes out through very secret, special ways,” said Khan. “The Taliban accompany the drugs, and use routes they know well. The rest of the roads are laid with mines.”
If anyone attempts to go solo, without asking for Taliban protection, the insurgents will confiscate the drugs, added Khan.
The immediate problem for the military will be to try to convince the people of Marjah that the operation is for their benefit. As commander of international forces in Afghanistan, McChrystal has said on more than one occasion that "we cannot win the war without winning hearts and minds.”
But winning over a community of committed drug smugglers, heroin processors and poppy farmers might be a tall order, given the precarious state of the Afghan economy in general and Helmand’s no-poppy economy in particular.
“The public is happy about the heroin labs,” said one resident of Marjah, who did not want to be named. “If the people cannot process heroin, they will start growing poppy again, but the price of poppy has declined. As opium decreases in value, the number of heroin labs increases.”
In 2007 Helmand’s yield was close to 6,000 metric tons, with more than 102,000 hectares (about 252,000 acres) planted in poppy. That figure declined to just under 70,000 hectares in 2009. Some attribute this to an aggressive wheat seed distribution policy by the provincial government, funded by the British and the Americans. Called the “Food Zone” project, it has a clear goal, according to PRT officials: to turn Helmand once again into Afghanistan’s breadbasket.
But others point to the sharp decrease in the price of opium as a result of rampant overproduction. While a kilogram of raw opium sold for nearly $140 in 2007, the same quantity would fetch only about $35 at the farm gate in 2009. This has discouraged some farmers from planting the crop. Some have switched to cereal crops, while others have diversified into heroin processing, which is cheap, fairly simple and yields a lighter product easier to transport.
“The price differentiation certainly helped,” said the PRT official. “But there is an element of choice here: Inside the Food Zone, poppy cultivation fell by 37 percent; outside, it rose by 7 percent. There are some farmers who still want to grow poppy.”
The trick will be to convince those in Marjah that poppy and heroin production are not in their best interests.