How US Is Tackling Opium Trade in Afghanistan Poppy Heartland

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A key plank of the US strategy in Afghanistan is breaking up the opium trade in Helmand Province, as underscored by US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's visit to the region Monday.

Standing next to his cow and a squad of Marines on patrol, Afghan farmer Fathie Mohammad says the troops have upended the local opium economy. Outsiders once flocked to Khan Neshin to work the fields, process the poppy, and smuggle it to nearby Iran and Pakistan.

Most of those outside middlemen fled when the Marines arrived last July. But still the locals are growing some poppy, says Mr. Mohammad.

"It will be difficult for us to sell it," says Mohammad, who nevertheless appears pleased with the presence of the Marines and return of local government. "The people of Khan Neshin can grow it and hold on to it. Maybe some smugglers can come [back] and they can sell it."

The Marines' goal is to cut off even that last strand of expectation for poppy farmers in a province that provides nearly half the world's opium - but without alienating the local population. Breaking up the trade, which helps fund the Taliban, is critical for the US, as underscored US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's visit to the province this week.

Coalition forces are benefiting from external factors that have made poppy farming less popular but in the meantime are working to build up other parts of the economy.

Keeping away the smugglersThe first task - to keep farmers from smugglers without antagonizing them - seems to be working here. Two weeks ago, coalition forces around Khan Neshin seized more than 13,200 pounds of processed opium and 175 pounds of refined heroin after chasing a fleeing vehicle. But most farmers don't mind such interdictions because they see traffickers, who sometimes demand high prices for their services, as fair targets of law enforcement (as long as a few slip through come harvest time to bring their poppy to market).

"There's a sense of equity in law enforcement when people pursue the traffickers [so] the likelihood of a reaction against the government of Afghanistan and international forces is low," says David Mansfield, a top expert on Afghan drugs policy and fellow at the Harvard University's Carr Center.

Other factors hurting poppy In its effort to discourage poppy farming, the US may have some economic factors on its side. Poppy is growing less attractive to farmers for reasons beyond interdiction, he says. September data from the United Nations showed opium cultivation down 22 percent in 2009 and the number of people involved in growing it had dropped by one third.

Two reasons for those declines, according to Mr. Mansfield, are lower poppy prices due to previous overproduction in Helmand and jitters about the supply of wheat from wartorn Pakistan. …