US Forces Allow Afghan Opium Industry to Thrive

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Coalition troops in Afghanistan are trying to stop the cultivation of opium in the deadly southern province of Helmand. But, opium prices have reached record levels. The Taliban is using the opium trade to buy more explosives and weapons.

Our Afghanistan correspondent Sally Sara reports from the Helmand province.

SALLY SARA: Helmand province is at the crossroads of the drug war and the war against insurgents in Afghanistan. Opium poppy crops are a big part of the economy here. They also help to fund the Taliban. That’s why Helmand is so dangerous and important for the US-led coalition.

Cultivating opium poppies is illegal. But, US marines are reluctant to shut the industry down with force.

Major Jason West explains the approach.

JASON WEST: Right now, security is very, very fragile. So, you don’t want to push too hard in one certain area, their livelihood, has been poppy, so you don’t want to just come in and just completely yank the rug out from under them, you want to kind of ease into it if you can keep kinetic activity low.

SALLY SARA: In Australia or the United States, people can go to jail for trading even a few grams of heroin. But, here, opium is grown in field after field. The poppies are harvested and openly stored in family compounds.

The US marines are trying to encourage, rather than force farmers to abandon growing opium poppies. The marines have invited locals to attend classes on how to grow alternative crops. But, opium prices are 300 per cent higher than last year.

Sayeed Mohammad is one of the local elders brave enough to support the change. He teaches the classes.

(Sayeed Mohammad speaking)

SALLY SARA: But, he says if the Taliban catch him, they will punish or even kill him.

Dozens of locals turn up to the classes, lured by the promise of free shovels. But, there’s a risk these could be used by insurgents to bury homemade landmines, known as improvised explosive devices.

US marines’ Major Jason West says it’s a risk that must be taken.

JASON WEST: It’s one of those things, you got to take some risks in order to move things forward for the economy and for the society.

SALLY SARA: Security has improved in Helmand, under the guidance of the marines. But, it remains a flashpoint of the insurgency and the drug trade.



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