MARJAH, Afghanistan – Even by Afghan standards, it was a startling find: An opium packaging workshop, buried under donkey dung and old hay in a stable that U.S. Marines turned into a patrol base in southern Afghanistan.
Two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration employees nosing around the base found more than 4.4 pounds of opium, five large bags of poppy seeds, some 50 sickles, jugs and a large scale for measuring opium.
When the Marines leave the compound this week, though, they won't detain the old, bearded Afghan man suspected of owning the hidden cache. Instead, they'll hand him $600 in rent for using his place as a base.
It's a story that illustrates the shift in strategy to stall the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan. The more than 2-week-old military offensive on the town of Marjah — NATO's largest ever combined Afghan offensive — is a war on the Taliban, not drugs.
The opium workshop, on a compound near the entrance to the former Taliban-controlled town of Marjah, was found mostly out of luck and idleness.
"I just decided to start poking around," said Joe, who like his colleague, Jack, only went by his first name because they work for a DEA special intervention unit stationed in Afghanistan. "I've had plenty of time on my hands."
The two DEA agents, both bearded and wearing military fatigues, had been stuck on the compound in Helmand province for the past several days because every Marine convoy heading in and out of the area had struck a roadside bomb, knocking out armored vehicles and considerably delaying travel plans.
Their find went far beyond the staple signs of Marjah's booming opium business. In nearly every farmer's compound, Marines and the DEA have seen piles of dried poppy hay stacks, small doses of opium for local consumption and spent syringes.
"This cache shows that processing was taking place here on a pretty large scale," said Jack, pointing at the number of plastic spoons and ladles, indicating that up to 50 people could have been working here. Though quantities are uncertain, the makeshift assembly plant was geared to process several hundred pounds of opium at any given time.
For years, the Afghan government and its U.S. backer tried to eradicate crops, only to swell insurgent ranks across Afghanistan with impoverished and infuriated poppy farmers. Now, farmers are left alone, even though Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the heroin worldwide, with Helmand province alone responsible for nearly half of this.
"There sure is a lot of it," said Jack last week, somewhat dismayed as he and the Marines plodded four days in a row through field after field of poppy. The local tribal overlord owns nearly 3,000 acres of the crop, but U.S. forces aren't going after him. In fact, they're wooing him at meetings, trying to win him over to the government's side.
The official U.S. policy is now to go after the traffickers and the heroin labs, not producers.
Word of this shift apparently hadn't reached the Haji Murad, owner of the cache on the Marines' compound. He'd kept 250 kilograms of poppy seeds — enough to replant numerous acres of drugs in case U.S. forces did destroy his fields.
Murad could face arrest and prosecution. "But then the whole 'hearts and minds' thing kicks in," Joe said, referring to the U.S. military's policy of doing its best not to antagonize local Afghan civilians.
Anyhow, the cache wasn't substantial enough to go through the wobbly legal system in Kabul. "It doesn't meet the threshold," said Jack, stating the best bet for prosecution would be at the local level in Marjah, with the council of elders.
But Murad, as it turns out, heads the local council, making him an unlikely target for prosecution.
"I'd like his case to be investigated," said Lt. Scott Holub, of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, who negotiated renting the compound with Murad. "But the squeeze isn't worth the juice."
Soon afterward, they piled up all the evidence and set in on fire.