WASHINGTON – The 4,000 U.S. Marines now pushing deep into Taliban-controlled tracts as part of an expanded war in southern Afghanistan are setting up fire bases amid some of the most productive poppy fields in the world's opium-producing capital.
It's not harvest time in Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan's thriving opium poppy industry. But even if the flowers were blooming, it's doubtful the Marines would do much about it.
Convinced that razing the cash crop grown by dirt-poor Afghan farmers is costing badly needed friends along the front lines of the fight against Taliban-led insurgents, U.S. authorities say they are all but abandoning the Bush-era policy of destroying drug crops.
"Eradication is a waste of money," U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke told The Associated Press last month.
On a small scale, the new live-and-let-live policy on poppy farming neatly illustrates the redrawn goals for a nearly eight-year war that all the military might of the United States and its allies has failed to win.
Heroin may be a deadly scourge, but there are more pressing concerns, U.S. officials say, and ways to fight drug production without driving Afghan farmers into the hands of the Taliban.
"You're able to put a hurt on the Taliban without necessarily putting the hurt on the people who happen to live there," said William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counter-narcotics and global threats.
The United States has spent about $45 million annually in recent years to support poppy eradication in Afghanistan, and the policy has also been a cornerstone of the United Nations anti-drug program.
Afghanistan is the world's leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world's heroin-producing crop. While opium cultivation dropped 19 percent last year, it remains concentrated in Afghanistan's southern provinces where the Taliban is strongest. The U.N. estimates that opium poppies earned insurgents an estimated $50 million to $70 million last year.
U.S. officials said they will now "greatly de-emphasize" eradication, which has been carried out by Afghan forces with U.S. backing. The U.S. military stays at arms' length, and NATO forces fighting alongside the U.S. do not participate.
The shift away from eradication is still more plan than policy, and it has little practical effect right now. The announcement came after the largest harvest was in for the season.
"The real difference as we move from how we were focusing on Afghanistan in the past (to) the president's new focus on counterinsurgency is this is a policy that defines the strategic interest, that defines winning over the population," as the primary goal, Wechsler said.
As a forthcoming mission statement from the new American commander in Afghanistan is expected to conclude, the Obama administration will measure success in Afghanistan not by the number of insurgents killed but by the number of civilians protected.
Earning or buying civilian support is a central tenet of the counterinsurgency strategy U.S. leaders are trying to apply in Afghanistan, after the encouraging example of tribal leaders in Iraq who rejected al-Qaida.
The U.S.-backed government in Kabul was never enthusiastic about eradication, arguing in private that it punished small-scale farmers and endangered Afghan forces. The Bush administration pushed the policy in part out of the conviction that a similar policy had worked in Colombia.
"Our experience with illicit crop reduction programs worldwide has shown that a credible threat of forced eradication remains critical to the success of a comprehensive counternarcotics strategy," Nancy J. Powell, the State Department's acting anti-drug chief testified to Congress in 2005.
The policy also resonated with Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have so far said little about the shift.
It is not clear whether money requested for eradication this year would be spent elsewhere, but U.S. officials have told allies that Washington will increase funding for alternative agriculture from tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Obama administration is sending dozens of agronomists and irrigation specialists to Afghanistan this summer as part of what it says is the new, less militarized look of the Afghan mission. President Barack Obama approved 21,000 additional forces for Afghanistan this spring, of which the Marines moving through Helmand province are the vanguard.
The military is increasingly targeting drug labs and distribution networks used by traffickers, often in partnership with insurgents. In theory, that approach allows the sharecropper farmers to get paid but cuts profits for their Taliban-affiliated masters.
"You hurt them when you take out where the value is added," at the lab or warehouse, said Gen. John Craddock, who until this month was the U.S. general in charge of the NATO operation in Afghanistan.
Paste made from poppies is worth about $250 a kilogram, but the value jumps to $2,500 a kilogram or more once the material is refined at a processing lab, Craddock said. A kilogram is about 2.2 pounds.
"Destroy the facility ... and you take big money out of the pocket of traffickers," Craddock said. "That's where I think we can make the difference."
Craddock said he agreed with Holbrooke's assessment that eradication has been a wasteful failure and should be scrapped.
"It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar," Holbrooke told the AP. "It just helped the Taliban."