US to fight Taliban in the poppy fields

NY Times:

American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.

The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number of troops already here, who are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

...

Only 10 minutes inside the tiny village of Zangabad, 20 miles southwest of Kandahar, a platoon of American soldiers stepped into a poppy field in full bloom on Monday. Taliban fighters opened fire from three sides.

“From the north!” one of the soldiers yelled, spinning and firing.

“West!” another screamed, turning and firing, too.

An hour passed and a thousand bullets whipped through the air. Ammunition was running low. The Taliban were circling.

Then the gunships arrived, swooping in, their bullet casings showering the ground beneath them, their rockets streaking and destroying. Behind a barrage of artillery, the soldiers shot their way out of Zangabad and moved into the cover of the vineyards.

“When are you going drop the bomb?” Capt. Chris Brawley said into his radio over the clatter of machine-gun fire. “I’m in a grape field.”

The bomb came, and after a time the shooting stopped.

...

Like the guerrillas they are, Taliban fighters often fade away when confronted by a conventional army. But in Afghanistan, as they did in Zangabad, the Taliban will probably stand and fight.

Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain.

Indeed, Taliban fighters have begun to fight any efforts by the Americans or the British to move into areas where poppy grows and opium is produced. Last month, a force of British marines moved into a district called Nad Ali in Helmand Province, the center of the country’s poppy cultivation. The Taliban were waiting. In a five-day battle, the British killed 120 Taliban fighters and wounded 150. Only one British soldier was wounded.

...
Most battles with the Taliban end with the dropping of precision guided bombs. That usually accounts for the lopsided casualty totals.

The Marines provoked conflict with the Taliban last year by getting "on their money" in the Poppy fields. If the Taliban continue to try to defend the crops then it will make finding and destroying them easier. The Taliban have never been very good at the fade away game of insurgents. They typically spring ambushes that backfire on them as US and allied forces call in the A-10s or other close air support planes.

There has never really been a policy to stop the poppy trade, at least one that has been implemented. This one also appears to dance around that issue. We should at least drive up the cost of producing and delivering the opium.

I think the increased force to space will cause the Taliban problems in this area and if they make the mistake of offering battle. it will give us a chance to destroy their hold on the people in the poppy business.

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