Afghanistan shift signals new goals

U.S. moving focus to people, not poppies

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. 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 arm’s 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.

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