Poppies Escape Marjah Offensive

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Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world's supply of opium poppies, the plant used to make heroin. About half of that supply comes from the Helmand province. Earlier efforts by NATO forces to destroy the poppy crops were unsuccessful; when the Taliban came back, so did the farmer's poppies. In the most recent offensive, NATO took a mostly hands-off approach, leaving the farmers and their crops alone. Guest host Audie Cornish speaks with author and journalist Gretchen Peters about the effects of the NATO offensive around Marjah on the poppy trade in Afghanistan.


Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world's supply of opium poppies, the plant used to make heroin, and much of it comes from Helmand province, where Marjah is located. Earlier efforts by NATO forces to destroy the poppy crops and get farmers to grow weed in the province were less than unsuccessful. When the Taliban came back, so did the farmers poppies. So in the most recent offensive, NATO took a mostly hands-off approach, leaving the farmers and their crops alone.

Now with us to explain this shift in strategy and its outcome is Gretchen Peters. She's the author of "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda." And she joins us from Denver, Colorado.

Gretchen Peters, good morning.

Ms. GRETCHEN PETERS (Author, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda"): Good morning.

CORNISH: Now, start by giving us some examples of how the U.S. and NATO forces are changing their tactics when it comes to poppy, in the most recent offensive.

Ms. PETERS: Well, the biggest shift in strategy in the last year has been to refocus the effort on interdiction of drug traffickers, as opposed to eradication of poppy fields.

The U.S. government, which used to fund eradication, got out of the business of doing so entirely once the Obama administration came into the White House. And now instead there is a much greater focus. We're seeing special forces teams from the Navy and from the Army and the Marines, all operating to try and interdict major traffickers, working alongside paramilitary teams from the DEA.

CORNISH: So you're saying instead of burning poppy fields or sending tractors through poppy fields, it's about intercepting the drug smugglers or the drug lords in the area.

Ms. PETERS: Exactly. And this is, I think, a step in the right direction. The farmers in many ways are as much the victims of the drug trade as anybody else. In some areas, they were forced to grow poppy by the traffickers. In other areas, lack of infrastructure, security problems mean they really dont have many choices but to grow poppy.

And what we're seeing now is a focus on trying to get rid of the individuals and the organizations which are perpetuating this market, to focus on the bad guys. There are much fewer of them than there are farmers, and to try and help the farmers instead of victimize them and penalize them.

CORNISH: Especially since the Taliban is often encouraging and subsidizing some of this farming activity, right?

Ms. PETERS: Yes, the Taliban has always taxed and protected the opium trade. And what is very, very interesting to watch, although by no means unusual to Afghanistan, is what we're seeing in the poppy-growing areas, is the Taliban becoming increasingly involved in the poppy trade, and essentially moving itself up the value-added chain of the drug market.

I assess now that the Taliban is becoming much more like a traditional drug cartel than a political movement. And now you hear stories of Taliban commanders running their own heroin laboratories. This is something we never used to hear about years ago. And most recently, we're starting to hear stories about Taliban commanders using their fighters to protect drug shipments as they leave Afghanistan. This is an incredibly significant change.

Previously, all of the actors within Afghanistan only worked with the drugs up until Afghanistan's borders, at which point more international traffickers took over. To the extent that the Taliban is now getting involved with trafficking drugs outside of Afghanistan, even though at this point it's just in Pakistan and Iran, that is a very, very significant change and development.

CORNISH: So, Gretchen, as they U.S. and NATO forces put more emphasis on searching out the drugs, what are they finding in Taliban hideouts and labs?

Ms. PETERS: One of the most interesting developments over the last year has been dramatic increase in the number of seizures of crystal heroin, the most refined and potent version of the drug. Previously in Afghanistan, farmers generally would harvest the raw opium and the traffickers would process it as far as morphine base, a much less potent and a simpler version of the drug.

Now there has been - in the last year or so, there has been an explosion of the number of labs that are capable of processing opium into crystal heroin. And one of the most interesting sidebars to this story is there seems to be an increasing number of Taliban commanders who are actually running those labs. That means there's a lot more potential for them to be making larger profits off of the drug trade than they were even just a few years ago.

CORNISH: Can you tell us what military officials are seeing on the ground in Marjah and the surrounding area, about the kind of reaction they're getting to this shift in strategy?

Ms. PETERS: Well, they do seem to be reporting an increased number of tip-offs from the local community about insurgent activity. Thats one of the new metrics that General Stanley McChrystal has tried to implement, that instead of counting, for example, the number of militants killed in battle, they look for other measurements of progress. And one of them is often referred to by law enforcement officials as the snitch rate: how many people are coming in to snitch on insurgent and drug traffickers that are operating in their area. In some areas theyve seen those numbers go up rather dramatically.

So I think thats a positive sign. There's a long way to go before we're going to start seeing real results in Afghanistan. And I think thats something that the American public really needs to be prepared for. If you look at past examples of countries that have really fully eradicated their drug problem, it takes about a decade, minimum. And we're really just at the very early, early stages of this in Afghanistan.

CORNISH: Gretchen Peters is the author of "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda." She joins us from Denver, Colorado. Thanks so much.

Ms. PETERS: Thank you for having me.

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