The Estonians, British and US Marines have each in turn attempted to secure Helmand Province in Afghanistan, but without ultimate success. Now the USMC is trying again. What are they attempting to achieve? Helmand province is shaped like a narrow wedge running from the Pakistani border pointing north into the heart of Afghanistan. It is the single largest opium producing region in the world, “responsible for 42% of the world’s total production … more than the whole of Burma, which is the second largest producing nation after Afghanistan.”
The small British forces, the first to attempt to push their way down the Helmand, found themselves beseiged as Taliban forces, continuously reinforced from Pakistan, forced them into defensive positions. The arrival of US Marine reinforcements in April, 2008 allowed the British to go on a limited offensive. It was not enough. Now, additional USMC forces are engaged in physically driving the Taliban further down the Helmand River valley, which ultimately turns West to meet the crossroads at Zahedan; it is a chain of river towns leading from the heart of Afghanistan constituting an inner arc shadowing the Pakistani frontier anchored on the west by a major road. The ongoing USMC operations are the largest since Fallujah and are said to involve some of largest heliborne movements ever. The new mobility has allowed the USMC to attack from multiple directions at once. The stated goals of the operation are to secure more area in anticipation of the scheduled Afghan Presidential elections and to go on the offensive against the Taliban. But it’s likely that the current operation is aimed at the economic engine of the Taliban as much as anything else.
The fight is for dusty little towns whose major economic importance is probably their status as trading centers. Wikipedia says that “on August 12, 2009, U.S. Marines mounted a helicopter assault on the Taliban-held town of Dahaneh” as part of the over-all operation codenamed Strike of the Sword. “The assault began before dawn, with Marines entering the town as others battled militants in the surrounding mountains. The first wave of Marines was met with small arms, mortar and rocket propelled grenade fire. Marines said that they have killed 7-10 militants so far. U.S. Marine Harrier jets were also involved in the battle dropping flares in a show of force. After several hours fighting was still continuing and the Marines had by that point captured several militants and seized about 66 pounds of opium.” An AP article characterizes it as an attempt to control an opium route leading south into Pakistan, leaving no doubt that Strike of the Sword is meant not only to defy the Taliban’s boast that they would scuttle the elections, but to tie up the purse strings which sustain them.
A recent announcement that up to 50 “opium barons” have been cleared to be hit means that from one point of view, the campaign is an opium war. Taking these physical locations is probably less important than being able to control the trading network itself. There are estimated to be 1,500 small and 500 large opium traders in the Helmand. The ongoing USMC attack is taking place in the middle of the traditional trading season (from June to September) and may threaten, perhaps pointedly, to ruin it.
The seasonal dimension to opium trade must be emphasised. The key period of selling from the farmgate is during the months of production – from May to July in Helmand and July to September in Ghor. It was apparent from interviews with farmers and small traders that there are farmers in Helmand who retain small stocks of 2–10kgs as reserves that are slowly traded through the year according to need.
And the traders, if they are to trade, must come to terms with fact that the USMC is now astride their logistics channel just as the Predators are taking out the head office. In a previous post, I argued that the shift from attempting to outlaw opium cultivation to effectively vetoing who could control it, and perhaps who can ply it, might have the political consequence of forcing the Afghans at least in the Helmand to consider whether the continuation of their way of life was better served by allying with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or with the Strongest Tribe.