RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The new offensive by U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan is slicing through the heart of the country's poppy fields. Opium harvested from those poppies supplies much of the world with heroin and helps fund the insurgency throughout Afghanistan.
Journalist Gretchen Peters has written about the heroin trade in her new book "Seeds of Terror." In it, she calls the growing partnership between drug traffickers, terror groups and the Taliban the new axis of evil.
Ms. GRETCHEN PETERS (Author, "Seeds of Terror"): They're making hundreds of millions of dollars. Increasingly, they behave more like a modern-day mafia than a traditional military force that the U.S. military and NATO might find itself fighting against, at the same time that they behave like criminals.
I'm not suggesting they've put aside their intentions to drive Western forces out of Afghanistan and I'm not suggesting al-Qaida has put aside its intentions to launch further attacks on the West. Rather, I think their involvement in criminality has made them richer and more ruthless.
MONTAGNE: The farmers, though, who grow the poppy, it's often said - and they say it themselves - that they do it to survive. And poppy is just so much more lucrative than traditional crops. Is that the only reason that it's been so hard to divert farmers to legal crops and away from poppy?
Ms. PETERS: Well, there are a whole range of reasons that farmers will decide to grow poppy. One of them is that in some areas they're forced to. The Taliban and the traffickers will threaten them with dire consequences if they don't grow poppy. In other places farmers will grow it because it does earn so much more than other crops. That is changing. Because the poppy cultivation is so widespread in Afghanistan, the price is actually dropping.
The other issue that comes into this is that in the areas where there's the most insecurity - and I group Helmand province, where the Marines are now deploying - most of the eight groups have left. And that means that micro-credit programs that existed for the farmers no longer exist. The poppy traffickers, on the other hand, send in agents that will pre-purchase the farmers' crops in the fall, and that gives the poor farmers the money they need to get through the winter.
So there really are a range of reasons why people will choose to grow poppy. I also want to add that there are some large landowners, there are some very wealthy poppy farmers out there, and I would say they are doing it for reasons of greed.
MONTAGNE: And there is the concern that the drug trade goes as high as the central government in Afghanistan.
Ms. PETERS: Absolutely. There are widespread reports that Hamid Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is one of the central facilitators of the opium trade in Afghanistan. But President Karzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai himself have both repeatedly denied any involvement in the drug trade. However, there has been no formal investigation, either by the Afghan government or by the international community, to investigate these claims.
And I do believe that as the Obama administration overhauls its strategy towards the region - and primarily so far we've seen an overhaul militarily -there's also going to have to be some sort of change in how Washington deals with these issues and these constant allegations of corruption that are pouring out of Afghanistan.
MONTAGNE: Which brings us back around to what is happening on the ground. The Obama administration has changed its policy towards those farmers growing poppy. Richard Holbrook, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, just this month said eradication efforts have been a failure, that they result not in damage to the Taliban but they put farmers out of work - in his words.
So the new policy is to go after bigger fish - dealers, processors, refineries, controlled or facilitated by, protected by the Taliban. How successful do you think that will be in, in fact, hurting the Taliban?
Ms. PETERS: Well, it's quite clear from my research that the Taliban and the drug traffickers earned the vast majority of their money protecting drug shipments that are leaving the region, protecting drug refineries, heroin refineries located along the border, running drug refineries. And I think that by going after the relatively smaller number of people who are at the higher end of the drug trade, at the trafficking end, that will be relatively easier to do.
I'm not suggesting it's going to be a simple affair. Trafficking organizations, these cartels, are usually family-run organizations, they're hard to penetrate. Many of them operate from Pakistan or even further away. Some of the money laundering takes place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, places like that.
But sustained efforts to disrupt these trafficking organizations is going to make a difference, I think, in reducing the amount of money that is reaching the Taliban and other extremist groups that are profiting off of the drug trade.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. PETERS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: Gretchen Peters is the author of "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al-Qaida." And there's an excerpt from "Seeds of Terror" on our Web site, NPR.org.
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