Prospects for stability in Musa Qala: challenges and possible solutions


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.

The enemy

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.'”

Pushing forward

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.”



  • Max says:

    Opium is legal in the United States, by prescription, for pain killing of various kinds. I got some from the vet for my cat a few years ago, so it’s not like opium is not being used in the legal market.
    Why not buy Afghanistan’s opium and funnel it into the legal market? It would take the Taliban’s income away from them, and keep the farmers in Afghanistan happy, and tamp down the insurgency, too.
    Am I the only one who has thought about this?

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    i don’t believe the UN. More $$ farming onions? Thats a real stretch, i will say this, let them grow and sell, but I would target ALL the middlemen, caravans transporting raw opium, and even the labs. Boom! Gone. I don’t think we are going to stop it, but it will make one think “when they coming for me?”

  • David says:

    “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,”

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    @David – it is not simply economics, rather, in many cases, quick cash + glory. Think of domestic youth choosing to deal drugs rather than work an honest job, with an added religious/political element. An issue becomes in what form do you get them the money? This is partially why the awakening movement in Iraq was successful – they were hired as security personnel – fighters protecting their communities – and the glory of jihad was no longer more appealing or better paid.

  • Render says:

    Max: In a word, nope, you’re not the first to think of that. The problem with that plan is that the worlds pharmaceutical companies already buy all they need to meet the legal civil demands worldwide. Everything else is highly profitable surplus.
    I4L: I think that’s where we are at the moment, and it hasn’t worked out so well so far.
    David: What Mr. Ardolino said. Down at the grunt level one day’s work guarding or shipping the poppy product can be equal to a winning lottery ticket or a very short lifetimes hard labor in subsistence farming. One profitable season and the entire family unit can retire to what passes for middle class in Quetta, or at least Chagi.
    There is a reason why the supposedly anti-drug Talib monopolized the internal poppy markets when they were in power and continue to use that black market as a major funding source. There is a reason why the Talib are fighting so hard, for so long, to hold on to the otherwise almost worthless Helmand province.
    There is a local cash crop that could provide a (slightly less then poppy) profitable replacement. Unfortunately, it’s just as illegal as the poppy crops are. Marijuana and its derivative, hashish.
    The DoD increased mandatory drug testing for all troops stationed in CENTCOM in 2004. The DoD also orders massive open air burns of confiscated drug shipments and caches on a regular basis. The DoD stated in 2004 that there was very little drug use in the military, and that those “very few”

  • tjg says:

    A fine post and series. Good work B.Ardolino and thank you. Details on the drug trade really hit home. It shows that the bad guys are may be more motivated by greed than religion. Reflecting back on Jari Lindholm’s post this past January:
    ….. the UNODC report on corruption in Afghanistan is out:
    “In the aggregate, Afghans paid out $2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months – that’s equivalent to almost one quarter (23%) of Afghanistan’s GDP. By coincidence, this is similar to the revenue accrued by the opium trade in 2009 (which we have estimated separately at $2.8 billion)”. In other words, and this is shocking, drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan: together they amount to about half the country’s (licit) GDP.
    The US aid to Israel in 2010 is $2.9 billion. Just saying, thats alot a cash. Also, note the ever rising meyham/death on the US southern border. New middle east bombs and 17 more gunned down in Juarez (across the river from El Paso texas. Only difference down here is, no one seems to care.
    Bomb suspect tied to airman’s slaying
    Greed is a powerful sin.
    Suggest USAID install an out door skate park in Musa Qala and Now Zad. This will have huge impact on largest segment of population for long term.

  • Hulkhogan'sthemesong says:

    You are not the only one, Max. The legal U.S market would not be enough [I can’t imagine my DR. calling my scrip “pure stuff” with a grin:P ]. As far as the price, I would not be surprised to learn that onions were of higher value. This wouldn’t be deemed by weight, of course, but by sq ft./water needed/season of growth/man hours/and the definite decrease in transportation costs etc etc. It’s a great idea but I think the biggest reason to want farmers to get an alt. crop is that they could be on our side and if the taliban had a problem with it we just might get an armed ally out of the deal or a buffer zone of sorts perhaps. The propaganda” win would be,potentially,enormous.

  • Max says:

    Well, we wouldn’t have to sell it anywhere; just burn it! Buying it takes the profit away from the Taliban. Wouldn’t that be a much more effective way of neutralizing the opium problem? The farmers are happy and don’t support the Taliban; the Taliban are cash-poor; and so on.

  • hulkhogansthemesong says:

    The problem with buying it is ,mainly, that it’s a temporary solution. let’s assume that there are 100 poppy fields [not a real #, just something to work with]. We purchase all of them and burn the product in 95 and sell the the other 5 fields worth to medical suppliers. That’s fine, so far. What happens when field 101 pops up?or 107? Now they of course have less heroin [though the price per kilo/pound will be much, much higher]. Also, even if 101 never comes to pass, at which point do we stop paying for the fields? At the same point we make a ton of new enemies and ,perhaps, jihadists.

  • Marine Mom says:

    Just a simple thank you to the author. My son is with 1/2 C Co 2nd Plt, and this has given me a moment to picture, feel and imagine what he is living through each day until he comes home. I can hear the banter among them; in some ways it’s the closest I’ve felt to him since he left. Again, thank you for giving me a few moments with my son.

  • KnightHawk says:

    Nice work Bill thanks for this informative series.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram