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.

“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.

“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.

The military is now committed to a “clear, hold, build” strategy — getting rid of the insurgents, keeping them out and starting to construct a peaceful, prosperous, productive society in the post-battle phase.

“When moving from 'hold' to 'build' there are three main points,” said the official from the PRT, “security, justice and livelihood.”

All of these are challenges: The government must assure farmers, erstwhile smugglers and heroin processors that they will not face reprisals from their former business partners. It must also bring some form of fairness and justice to the legal system, something that has so far eluded both the Afghan government and the international community. And it must try and replace lost income from the drug trade.

But it will not be easy. Alternative crops will require a two- or three-crop cycle to generate enough income to replace poppy, say experts, and so-called “Cash for Work” programs, which give laborers the equivalent of $5 a day to dig ditches and other manual labor, have not had wide appeal.

“Cash for Work programs have not been as much in demand as one might have thought,” acknowledged the official.

But the heroin lab workers seem content.

“Why would I work anywhere else?” said one young man. “I get 800 Pakistani rupees (about $10) per day, in cash. Nobody else pays this much. I know that I am running a risk. I could be bombed, attacked, or something. But I have no choice. And now that I am experienced, the lab owner does not want me to go.”

His friend, who gave his name as Sobhan, was similarly upbeat.

“Even if the foreigners come, we will fight them,” he said. “The Taliban has told us to shoot anyone who comes here while we are working. The foreigners cannot catch us. We have made very good hideouts, they will never find us.”

Of course the U.S. Marines, assisted by their British colleagues and the Afghan National Security Forces, will outmatch the Taliban and their civilian supporters. But a major offensive, causing civilian deaths ad significant property damage, could fly in the face of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

“There has been some work done on messaging the population,” said a PRT. “ We are trying to tell them what this operation is about.”

It still remains to be seen whether the local population will buy the message.


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