US Marines from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and Afghan policemen move up the ridge outside the town of Karamanda in Musa Qala. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.
Part 3 in a three-part series on Musa Qala. For Part 1, see The checkered history of Musa Qala; for Part 2, see US Marines battle the Taliban for control of Musa Qala.
Poppy cultivation and processing into opium is a way of life throughout Helmand, and Musa Qala is no exception. The drug is illegal in Afghanistan, and therefore its lucrative trade is irrevocably tied to government instability and corruption. According to the United Nations, opium cultivation has increased 663% in Musa Qala from 2005 to 2008, making it one of the fastest growing areas in the country.
Despite the risk of incarceration for locals who possess large amounts of the drug, opium cultivation remains a core element of Helmand’s cultural and economic fabric. Poppy is relatively inexpensive to grow, in terms of the cost of seed and average crop yields per unit of water and land, and its cultivation has a guaranteed and well-understood net return. In addition, poppy is labor-intensive to harvest, employing large segments of the population; bricks of opium paste can be stored underground for up to five years without spoiling; and it can be used as cash in the local economy. Most crucially, opium farmers gain access to credit.
Because of the entrenched financing and trade infrastructure that has grown up around poppy cultivation, small farmers and sharecroppers can easily obtain credit and supplies from merchants, shop owners, and other businessmen, a debt paid back upon successful harvesting and delivery of the yield. This credit can be extended in the form of cash or services and goods, including basic necessities, like food. To an impoverished population often focused on immediate survival, small poppy farming to make ends meet makes sense, despite the illegality, taxation by the Taliban or corrupt government officials, and risk.
The UN has projected that other crops could offer greater profit margins: onions, pomegranates, and almonds are among the alternatives that could promise a higher net income. But despite Afghan government and ISAF programs to jumpstart these crops, the financing options are much more limited, storage and distribution networks are in their infancy or nonexistent, and farmers are skeptical about taking the risk into an unknown market. Many have demanded a guaranteed price for the alternate crops, which is generally considered a non-starter because it will create unsustainable dependencies.
The ties between the insurgency and the opium trade are simple: to the extent the government is unstable, drug lords and the illegal drug trade thrive. And to the extent the local population considers opium cultivation its best or only option, it will hesitate to support any force that threatens its livelihood. Farmers are considered amenable to alternate crops, but some civilian and military experts find that restructuring the local economy away from the drug trade is an intensive, generational aid project. These experts see it as requiring international assistance, especially through the expansion of microloans, the creation of local processing facilities, and widening regional trade with a focus on Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan and Iran.
In the meantime, US and Afghan government forces are maintaining pressure on some aspects of the drug trade. This year’s crop was allowed to go forward, but anti-poppy efforts are supposedly slated to increase next year: local farmers who grow poppy will be subject to asset seizure, as well as the destruction of their crop. In addition, ISAF and ANSF forces naturally interdict processing and distribution as they wage war with insurgents.
“This is a huge opium production area, all of these valleys,” said Regimental Combat Team 2 Commander Colonel Paul Kennedy, “What the enemy does is they harvest the poppy, they process it up in Bar Now Zad, they process it in Sangin. So it’s all linked, everything is a circulatory system. You cut down all the arteries, and it’s not that they can’t move it, but the transaction cost doubles, triples, quadruples, to get that stuff to market. So what we’re doing is slowly cutting that off.”
And as the Americans make the opium trade more difficult, they naturally draw the attention of additional enemies.
American attempts to define the insurgency are more complex than a default narrative of fighting ideologically motivated members of the Taliban. Some American military officers lean toward the belief that a majority of insurgents planting bombs and otherwise attacking ISAF forces are religious and political ideologues, others believe that narco-terrorists interested in destabilizing the government for business purposes are largely to blame, with all admitting a significant overlap between the two.
Major Erik McDowell, the lead Intelligence Officer for Regimental Combat Team 2, encapsulates the divide with an imaginary north-south line straddling the regiment’s wider area of operations.
“To the west, there are more ‘little-t Taliban,’ mostly in it for the money and drug smuggling,” explains McDowell. “The farther east of the line you go, the more you see ‘capital-T Taliban,’ the ideologues who are affiliated with the Qetta Shura.”
For his part, Colonel Kennedy acknowledges that there are a handful of foreign terrorists in wider Helmand province, primarily in the east – Chechens, Pakistanis, and Arabs – but sees the majority of insurgent activity tied to the “narcotrade,” which is irrevocably tied to the Taliban, as well as to many businessmen and even corrupt government officials, via taxation, processing, and distribution of opium.
The area’s economic destitution and massive unemployment also swell the ranks of the casual, or ‘little t’ Taliban with exploited youth recruited to plant bombs for the promise of a new motorcycle and a handful of cash.
“This surpasses any recruiting tool we have in our arsenal,” commented one American official who declined to be named.
A third, nebulous category of enemy also exists: violence is often tied to inscrutable local business interests, politics, and simple crime, especially in cases of Afghan-on-Afghan violence.
“Here in the District Center it’s really strange, it’s hard to characterize what is happening,” explains H&S Company Commander First Lieutenant Joshua Hartley, who regularly leads patrols through Musa Qala. “When there is an attack is it Taliban against Coalition Forces? Taliban information operations to undermine security? Taliban against workers to show their presence? Drug lords? Or is it just a criminal act taking place between different factions, two business camps?”
Hartley cites a recent example in which two IEDs were placed outside of a local hospital.
“Is it Taliban? That’s an assumption we are quick to make,” he explains. “But there are two hospitals, a clinic, and an x-ray center (in Musa Qala). It could be that someone is just trying to drive business away from one of them.”
Government, tribes, and shuras
Musa Qala and Helmand province as a whole comprise a fairly strong tribal society, with an intricate structure of interrelated and competing tribes and subtribes. Almost all of the inhabitants of Musa Qala belong to the Alizai tribal subconfederation of the massive Durani tribal confederation. The two Alizai subtribes in the district are the Pirzai – a minority who have traditionally held influential positions – and the Hasanzai – a majority of the population historically comprised of farmers and laypeople.
Tribal politics and rivalries can complicate relationships, but Americans and Afghans here assert that such competition is not an intractable obstacle to governance and social leadership. Their evidence for this is the regular convention of many shuras, or councils, during which appointed elders from a village gather to discuss and execute solutions to local problems.
A variety of shuras tackle different projects, from security to infrastructure, and can be made up of anywhere from about 20 to 80 elders from a given village. Because each village contains citizens who belong to different subtribes and families, the factions are inevitably forced to work together when they convene and arrive at a solution to a problem. Thus, while tribal interests remain, they lack the rigid compartmentalization by community seen in some tribal societies.
Colonel Kennedy also sees a “potential” for mixed tribal security forces or militias akin to the Awakening in Iraq as part of the security solution in the wider area of operations of northern Helmand, but the 1/2 Marines commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Manning, does not believe such citizen security forces would be tenable specifically within Musa Qala. This is partially due to the relative strength and competence of the government security forces, as well as Manning’s belief that the introduction of any such tribal militias “would smell too much like warlordism.”
An additional check on the tribes is their waning influence with the younger generation, who more easily put self-interest and basic economic needs above traditional loyalty to their tribe, according to anthropological researchers.
“Around here it’s a matter of what have you done for me lately,” explains one official. “In the case of the tribes, the answer is often, ‘nothing.'”
Ultimately, stability will come to Musa Qala District when the population achieves confidence in the government, local security forces can sustain themselves against challenges by insurgents, and developmental aid reforms the opium economy.
Positive factors at present include the existence of reasonably effective, respected police and soldiers, a competent Deputy District Governor and an incoming District Governor, and an active security and reconstruction partnership with the US Marines. The challenges are significant: in addition to the complications caused by the drug economy, locals are jaded by government promises, especially after their experience with the recently ousted District Governor Mullah Salaam, and do not yet believe that momentum is with the Afghan security forces prior to the looming ISAF withdrawal.
Most citizens are open to promises of American and Afghan government reconstruction, but still hedge their bets in the face of continued Taliban intimidation. And opium and its close nexus with instability cast a pall over the effort. Until the Afghan government and the international community devise an effective solution to reengineer the local economy away from drugs, by creating widespread access to processing, distribution, and credit for alternate crops – in an insecure environment – poppy will remain king. And as long as poppy remains king, narcoterrorists and criminals will have a vested interest in destabilizing or corrupting the national government presence in Helmand and Musa Qala.
A possible solution to this challenge would be a massive and protracted economic development effort that would necessarily extend well beyond the projected 2011 deadline for withdrawal. In addition, it remains to be seen whether Afghan police and soldiers can assume responsibility for the district and wider Helmand province from ISAF forces as soon as next year. Thus, only time and the temperature of the political will among America and her allies can determine whether the US Marines can be successful at holistic counterinsurgency in the region.
“There is concern, since we’ve been given a timeline, and it’s out there and well-known,” said RCT-2 Executive Officer Lieutenant Colonel Steve Grass. “Speaking for RCT-2, what we hope to achieve here is to push forward and get peoples’ buy-in to support their district government, so that we can reach that tipping point. We may see it in some districts. We are already seeing it in Now Zad and Musa Qala. Does the timeline cause concern? Yes. But we cannot change the methodical way forward. There is no pixie dust. Just keep pushing forward and maybe it will tip.”