When U.S. marines raided the notorious Lachoya opium bazaar in the southwestern Afghan region of Marjah at the start of their massive military offensive there last month, they found 700 kg of raw opium and 25 kilos of heroin. Anywhere else in the world, that would have been a major drug bust, but for Marjah, it was mere crumbs. After all, when Afghan and U.S. counternarcotics agents raided the same market nearly a year ago, the haul was measured in tons, not kilos. But the Marines lacked the element of surprise; to minimize civilian casualties, U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal had warned of the offensive weeks in advance. The drug traffickers and many of their Taliban protectors had cleared out long before Operation Moshtarak (Dari for together) began.
Marjah is just a scattering of dusty villages set amid 17,000 hectares of poppy fields. But its backwater appearance is deceptive: until last month, it was the hub of a dozen international drug syndicates reaching across borders as far away as Europe, Russia and the Far East. The U.N. reckons Marjah has the world's highest concentration of opium production. So Operation Moshtarak is more than a military offensive; it is also the biggest counternarcotics operation ever attempted. It marks a new emphasis by the White House and the Pentagon on choking off the Taliban from their drug funds and ending their support among the Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan.
The crackdown is a big change from the Bush Administration's counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan, which never got beyond occasional attempts to raze poppy fields. Once the war in Iraq began, U.S. officials said they lacked the resources to fight both the drug syndicates and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Also, many of the Afghan warlords whom the U.S. relied on to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda were involved in the drug trade. Now, officials say, the Obama Administration is taking a tough approach to drugs in Afghanistan, sparing no one, not even friends and associates of President Hamid Karzai. "Everyone's fair game," says a Western counternarcotics official in Kabul. "If someone comes within reach of our investigation, nothing is going to stop us from making a case."
But Marjah is showing why separating the Taliban from their narcodollars is so difficult. Not only did the drug syndicates get away with much of their stash and their heroin labs, but also there's no consensus among NATO commanders, counternarcotics experts and Afghan Cabinet officials on what to do next. The opium trade is woven into the fabric of the economy of southern Afghanistan. In Marjah, as elsewhere, the Taliban protected the drug syndicates for a price, reaping millions of dollars from the opium bounty. But ordinary residents benefited from the drug trade too; it provided a lucrative crop for 70,000 farmers and their families, work for laborers and a source of graft for officials. Even the tribal council played a role in the trade, adjudicating disputes between drug lords.
How to break that dependency? Many Western and Afghan counternarcotics experts recommend the cold-turkey approach: just destroy the poppy crop and make the farmers plant something else. Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, which includes Marjah, favors this plan. But according to Afghan officials, McChrystal and his military commanders have warned that destroying the crop would enrage the population. Mohammed Rahim Khan, who fled the invasion and has just returned to his poppy fields, tells TIME, "I spent lots of money on my field, and so did my neighbors. If the government destroys the fields, nearly all the people will rise against them."