U.S. SETS FIGHT IN THE POPPIES TO STOP TALIBAN
By DEXTER FILKINS
(SUBS to add last sentence in graf 2 and other refinements to story.)
(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times.)
c.2009 New York Times News Service
ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.
The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number of troops already here, who are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.
Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.
"Opium is their financial engine," said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. "That is why we think he will fight for these areas."
The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.
But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.
No one here thinks that is going to be easy.
The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, American officials say.
Many of the new American soldiers will fan out along southern Afghanistan’s largely unguarded 550-mile-long border with Pakistan. Among them will be soldiers deployed in the Stryker, a relatively quick, nimble armored vehicle that can roam across the vast areas that span the frontier.
All of the new troops are supposed to be in place by Aug. 20, in order to provide security for Afghanistan’s presidential election.