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American officials say Karzai knows he must deliver good government to Marjah something he has failed to do in Kabul and quickly, or the drug syndicates will be back. Much of the burden will fall to dozens of Afghan officials who arrived on the back of the military offensive to set up a new local administration McChrystal's so-called government in a box. It has not gotten off to a promising start, though. Abdul Zahir Aryan, the man picked to be the district chief of the new Marjah administration, has a far-from-stellar record. He left for Germany in 1989 and bounced between odd jobs in hotels and laundries; according to U.S. and German press reports, he served four years in prison for the attempted murder of his stepson. (Zahir told TIME this was a "personal issue" that had been resolved.) Some Helmand officials complain he was chosen because of his friendship with the provincial governor rather than for any leadership abilities, but NATO officials say Zahir, despite his long absence from Helmand, is a well-respected tribal elder.
Zahir claims that Marjah is "70% under control," but he adds that at night, masked Taliban fighters appear at houses and threaten to behead people if they work with the government. The insurgents need the farmers to stick with the poppy. According to U.N. experts, last year the Taliban reaped nearly $300 million from the drug trade; Afghan officials put the figure far lower, from $80 million to $100 million. Even at the low estimate, says a Western counternarcotics agent, "that's still enough to fuel the insurgency for a year." Nearly all of the Taliban's drug profits came from Helmand province, and a big chunk came from Marjah.
While NATO troops remain in the area, the drug traffickers will stay away. Some have fled south to Pakistan's empty Baluchistan desert; others are holed up in the nearby mountains of Musa Qala, while the rest have decamped to Nimruz province, a major smuggler's crossing into Iran. Says Gretchen Peters, an author and expert on Taliban drug ties with traffickers: "Counternarcotics, just like counterinsurgency, is like playing whack-a-mole. You knock it out in one place, and it pops up somewhere else."
And the drug lords will be looking for a chance to return to Marjah as soon as the NATO troops move on. That opportunity may present itself this summer. As McChrystal turns his attention to other Taliban strongholds in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province, he will depend on Afghan security forces to protect Marjah. In the past, the drug lords have exploited the absence of Western troops to strike alliances with Afghan officials, getting them to play the Taliban's role of protectors of the drug trade. Khan, the farmer, has seen it happen before. "When there is no Taliban, the government men take money from the smugglers to help them move drugs across the border," he says. NATO commanders say they will be on the lookout for bribe taking and will ensure that Kabul makes examples of corrupt officials. But given the prevalence of graft in the capital, it's hard to imagine Marjah will remain clean.
Eventually the Taliban will want to return as well. Marjah is too big a prize for its drug revenue and its propaganda value to give up. Unlike the drug traffickers, insurgent fighters didn't have to go very far to hide from McChrystal's troops. Abdul Rahman Jan, a tribal elder and former Helmand-province police chief, points out that "hardly a single gun was captured by the NATO forces." He believes that many of the Taliban fighters simply moved back from their quarters inside Marjah's mosques and madrasahs to stay with their families. Wherever they are, the insurgents will keep an eye on the poppy crop. Says Jan: "When the trees and fields get greener and bigger, the Taliban will show themselves again." The battle for Marjah is far from over.