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03 July 2009

shifting strategies, new major US offensive in Helmand and opium-growing provinces of Afghanistan

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Associated Press (newswire USA)
Thursday 2 July 2009

U.S. Marines exchange fire
with Taliban in searing heat

by Jason Straziuso, Associated Press Writer

NAWA, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. Marines hiked through searing heat and took fire from small pockets of militants Thursday after landing in this Taliban-controlled southern region of tree-lined fields, mud homes and crisscrossing waterways in the first major operation under President Barack Obama's strategy to stabilize Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced that insurgents were believed to have captured an American soldier missing in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. The missing soldier was not involved in Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," under way in southern Afghanistan.

The southern offensive was launched shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday (4:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 2030 GMT), as thousands of Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into Taliban-controlled villages along roughly 20 miles of the Helmand River in Helmand province, the world's largest opium poppy-producing area. The goal is to clear insurgents from the hotly contested region before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election.

The Marines have not suffered any serious casualties and have seen only a sporadic resistance, said Lt. Abe Sipe, a spokesman for the unit.

"The enemy has chosen to withdraw rather than engage for the most part," Sipe said. "We had a couple of heat casualties, but not deemed serious in nature at this time."

Officials described the offensive as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase and the biggest Marine assault since the one in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. It involves nearly 4,000 newly arrived Marines plus 650 Afghan forces. British forces last week led similar, but smaller, missions to clear out insurgents in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province.

"Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said in a statement.

Pakistan's army said it had moved troops from elsewhere on its side of the Afghan border to the stretch opposite Helmand to try to stop any militants from fleeing the offensive. It gave no more details, but U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed concern that stepped-up operations in southern Afghanistan could push the insurgents across the border.

Transport helicopters carried hundreds of Marines into the village of Nawa, some 20 miles south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, in a region where no U.S. or other NATO troops have operated in large numbers.

The troops took many insurgents by surprise, dropping behind Taliban lines, said Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, from Greene, N.Y.

"We are kind of forging new ground here. We are going to a place nobody has been before," said Schoenmaker, 31, who commands Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Several hundred Marines took positions in a freshly plowed dirt field at 3 a.m. The soft, deep dirt proved challenging for troops weighed down with days' worth of water, food and gear, and many frequently stumbled.

At daybreak the Marines walked along tree lines, and at 6:15 a.m. the company took its first incoming fire, likely from an AK-47 along a tree-line. The next three hours brought repeated bursts of gunfire and volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, sending deep booms across the countryside.

A small force of Afghan soldiers accompanying the Camp Pendleton-based Marines got into several scraps with an insurgent force of about 20 fighters. The fire came from a mud-brick compound, and the Marines, the Afghan soldiers and their British advisers surrounded the compound on the east and the south.

Before the mission, Schoenmaker, the company commander, said he would practice "tactical patience" as a way to avoid civilian casualties -- ” an issue newly arrived Gen. Stanley McChrystal has underscored in recent weeks. Though troops in many similar circumstances have called in airstrikes on such a militant-controlled compound, Schoenmaker did not.

"We made the decision to isolate the compound and not destroy it because we couldn't confirm if civilians were inside," he said. The militants were believed to have escaped out the back.

A Cobra helicopter circling overhead for most of the day fired rockets at a tree line nearby. Other troops walked through fields of corn and past mud-wall homes. Only a handful of villagers dared to venture outside.

Helmand's deadly heat, well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, proved to be another enemy the Marines had to fight. Because soldiers were on foot, they had to carry all their own water and food. Forward observers and snipers spent the entire day under the cloudless sky.

"It's like when you open up the oven when you're cooking a pizza and you want to see if it's done. You get that blast of hot air. That's how it feels the whole time," said Lance Corp. Charlie Duggan Jr., 21, of Baldwinsville, N.Y.

The Marines trained for months in the heat of the Mojave desert for the deployment, and many appeared happy to be here.

At one point Thursday, some 50 Marines were relaxing in an abandoned and dilapidated mud brick compound, their dusty-brown uniforms stained with perspiration. Suddenly someone spotted an Afghan male who appeared to be watching them from a nearby road.

The Marines quickly threw on their flak jackets and Kevlar helmets.

"It sucks but it's what you've been training for your whole life," Lt. Chris Wilson, 25, of Ramsey, N.J., said with a smile as he held a radio with an eight-foot antenna. Thursday was Wilson's first mission into a combat zone.

Last summer, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit took the town of Garmser --€” about 15 miles south of Schoenmaker's company --€” and helped provide security for an area U.S. commanders say is now relatively secure.

The U.S. would like to replicate the success in Garmser to the north and south. The strategic setting can help the military slow the opium poppy and heroin trade and interdict fighters coming from Pakistan.

Of immediate need is security for the country's Aug. 20 election.

Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Without such a massive Marine assault in this southern section of Helmand, the Afghan government would likely not have been able to set up voting booths to which citizens could safely travel.

The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.

The Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan in 1996 and were ousted from power following a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, have made a violent comeback, wreaking havoc in much of the country's south and east.

Thousands of British forces, fighting under NATO command, have been in Helmand since 2006 with broadly the same strategy, but security has deteriorated. They have encountered stronger resistance than had been expected from Taliban fighters bankrolled by the vast opium and heroin trade.

Reversing the insurgency's momentum has been a key component of the new U.S. strategy, and thousands of additional troops allow commanders to push into and stay in areas where international and Afghan troops had no permanent presence.

In March, Obama unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan, seeking to defeat al-Qaida terrorists there and in Pakistan with a bigger force and a new commander. Taliban and other extremists, including those allied with al-Qaida, routinely cross the two nations' border.

Obama told The Associated Press on Thursday that he will reassess the possible need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the August elections.

The president said the main U.S. goal is to keep al-Qaida from acquiring a haven from which it can train fighters and launch attacks on the United States or its allies. He said the U.S. and its allies also must build up the Afghan national army and police and enable Pakistan to secure its borders against terrorist movements.

Last year, NATO and Pakistani forces cooperated in a series of complementary operations on the border, but the overall commitment of Islamabad to Washington's aims in Afghanistan has long been questioned. Pakistan has frequently been accused in the past of failing to stop — and sometimes aiding — the movement of insurgents into Afghanistan from its side of the border.

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Associated Press writers Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Nahal Toosi in Islamabad and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.


Reuters (newswire UK)
Friday 3 July 2009

Opium and Afghanistan's insurgency

by Jonathon Burch

KABUL (Reuters) -- Controlling the opium trade in Afghanistan, the world's leading producer of the drug, is a key element in the fight against Taliban militants.

With thousands of U.S. Marines launching a major new offensive against the Taliban-led insurgency in southern Helmand province, the epicenter of world opium production, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, has also foreshadowed a new approach to controlling the trade.

Following are questions and answers about Afghanistan's poppy production, its role in the insurgency and efforts to combat it.


Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world's opium, a thick paste made from the poppies that is processed to make heroin, according to United Nations figures.

In 2008, 157,000 hectares of opium were cultivated, down 19 percent from 193,000 hectares in 2007. Opium production only declined 6 percent to 7,700 tonnes because of record high yields.

Helmand cultivated 103,000 hectares in 2008.

In the same period, prices fell by about 20 percent, meaning the value of the opium to Afghan farmers fell by about a quarter from roughly $1 billion to about $730 million.

The export value of opium, morphine and heroin at border prices in neighboring countries fell to $3.4 billion in 2008 from $4 billion in 2007, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2008 Afghan Opium Survey.


The Taliban are mainly funded by the opium trade.

Despite the drop in cultivation, production and prices, the UNODC says the Taliban and other "anti-government forces" still make "massive amounts of money from the drug business." Their take, mainly from levies on processing and trafficking, has been put at between $200 million and $400 million, with up to $70 million more from "ushr," or charges on economic activity.

UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa has also pointed to the danger of opium stocks held by the Taliban. "For a number of years, Afghan opium production has exceeded world demand. The bottom should have fallen out of the opium market, but it hasn't," he said in the UNODC's 2008 Afghan Opium Survey.

"So where is the missing opium? Lack of price response in the opium market can only be the result of stock build-ups, and all evidence points to the Taliban."


Addressing the opium problem will no doubt form a big part of General Stanley McChrystal's new counter-insurgency strategy, part of Washington's wider effort to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.

McChrystal and other commanders say their new strategy is designed to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, "to talk more and shoot less."

But the amount of money farmers can make from opium instead of other crops like wheat is a big problem. Destroying farmers' livelihoods by eradicating opium crops would make it very difficult to win them over to the fight against the Taliban.

In 2007, the gross income ratio for farmers from opium to wheat was 10:1. In 2008 that narrowed to 3:1, although that was partly due to drought. The United Nations has called for greater international development to consolidate on gains, along with "more honest government" and more security, it says.


Holbrooke told a G8 conference this week that Washington is to phase out poppy eradication in a dramatic overhaul of its anti-drug strategy.

"The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work," Holbrooke said.

Haroun Mir, political analyst and co-founder of Kabul's Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, agreed.

"I'm sure this new (Holbrooke) decision to shift the counter-narcotics policy has something to do with the new General McChrystal," he said.

In total, only 5,480 hectares -- less than 4 percent of all cultivation -- were eradicated in 2008 compared with 19,047 hectares in 2007, a 71 percent drop.

Eradication is also costly and dangerous. At least 78 people involved in eradication, most of them policemen, were killed in 2008, a 75 percent increase on 2007, according to the UNODC.

Supporters of poppy eradication say it is only a small part of a wider counter-narcotics policy and is only carried out on targeted areas where farmers have access to alternative crops.

Holbrooke says Washington will now concentrate on intercepting drugs and chemicals and going after drug lords.

(Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson)

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