Poppies and Petraeus

I assume General Petraeus wouldn’t be saying these things if he didn’t have the backing from his boss. In Armed Forces Press Services, the USCOM commander sketched out a little more on what he wants to see in Afghanistan:

Petraeus cited the downward spiral the country has taken, with an expanded and stronger insurgency and markedly increased levels of violence.

Also, the Afghan government has been slow to develop, is wracked with corruption, and its legitimacy in the eyes of the locals has suffered.

Petraeus embraced President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, saying that progress there is tied to a “robust, sustained and comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.”

“Our fundamental objective in Afghanistan remains … to ensure that transnational terrorists are not able to establish the sanctuaries they enjoyed there prior to 9/11,” Petraeus said. “Accomplishing this aim, though, requires not just killing or capturing terrorists, but also developing Afghan security forces, reducing the drug trade that finances the insurgency, fostering the growth of Afghan governance …, creating basic economic opportunity for Afghan citizens, and so forth.”

But while the challenges in Afghanistan parallel those in Iraq, the fight is not the same, he said. In fact, Petraeus called it “daunting,” and said that, while the principles of counterinsurgency are the same, they must be adapted to work in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is larger and more rural than Iraq with more rugged terrain and harsher climate. Fewer in Afghanistan are literate and there are fewer natural resources.

The total revenue generation in Afghanistan was under $1 billion last year, compared to $60 billion generated in oil revenue alone last year in Iraq. Also, Afghanistan has very little infrastructure, all but stopping the government’s attempt to deliver basic services.

“In Afghanistan, we are building; not rebuilding,” Petraeus said.

More forces are needed in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, which will allow troops to secure areas that have been already cleared. Just as in Iraq, many times enemy fighters simply hide out in the mountains until the U.S. troops have gone, and then return to the villages and towns.

“The increase in forces and focus on securing the people are needed, to help create the breathing space that will allow Afghanistan to stand up for themselves and that will also allow the government to begin working for its people and providing essential services, instead of simply struggling to survive,” Petraeus said.

Even now, the U.S. military is mirroring the strategy of moving troops out of bases and into the communities. In the small combat outposts they partner with the Afghan forces to keep watch over the villages so that the insurgents cannot return. They are also funding the rebuilding of schools, clinics and other projects that provide basic services, in an effort to gain the locals’ trust.

Another program that mirrors efforts in Iraq is the Afghan public protection program, similar in concept to the Sons of Iraq. More trainers are needed to help grow the Afghan forces, Petraeus said.

But, just as in Iraq, more U.S. or NATO forces alone are not the lone answer to solving the problems there.

“Operating in a country known as the ‘graveyard of empires,’ our forces must partner with their [Afghan] counterparts to show the Afghan people that they are not would-be conquerors but are instead there to secure and serve Afghan communities,” Petraeus said. “Doing so will require being good neighbors.”

Reconciliation efforts must be embraced – a much debated topic within both the U.S. and Afghan governments because most believe that senior Taliban leaders would never agree to necessary preconditions. But Petraeus said it should start at the local level where those who are simply fighting to support their families are given an economic alternative.

Petraeus also echoed recent remarks by senior U.S. officials that the way ahead in Afghanistan will require a much more coordinated civil-military approach.

“As always, military action is necessary, but not sufficient,” Petraeus said. “Additional civilian resources will be essential to building on the progress that our troopers and their Afghan partners can achieve on the ground.”

A tall order, and perhaps one way to accomplish is to go Dutch. That is, if Hillary can strong-arm enough civilians to go there.

One of the fronts in this battle has a decidedly economic angle.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

The Taliban’s got their mind on their money and their money on their mind, which is why it won’t be an easy fight. But it will be a necessary one. More from Pulitzer-worthy Filkins:

Like the guerrillas they are, Taliban fighters often fade away when confronted by a conventional army. But in Afghanistan, as they did in Zangabad, the Taliban will probably stand and fight.

Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain.

Indeed, Taliban fighters have begun to fight any efforts by the Americans or the British to move into areas where poppy grows and opium is produced. Last month, a force of British marines moved into a district called Nad Ali in Helmand Province, the center of the country’s poppy cultivation. The Taliban were waiting. In a five-day battle, the British killed 120 Taliban fighters and wounded 150. Only one British soldier was wounded.

Many of the new American soldiers will fan out along southern Afghanistan’s largely unguarded 550-mile-long border with Pakistan. Among them will be soldiers deployed in the Stryker, a relatively quick, nimble armored vehicle that can roam across the vast areas that span the frontier.

A factor that could reverse any advances is the attempt to wean poppy farmers away from poppy farming. It’s too lucrative.

Then there is the problem of weaning poppy farmers from poppy farming — a task that has proved intractable in many countries, like Colombia, where the American government has tried to curtail poppy production. It is by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm. The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, American officials say. The country’s opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan’s roads.

“The people don’t like to cultivate poppy, but they are desperate,” Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, the governor of Zabul Province, told a group of visitors this month.

To offer an alternative to poppy farming, the American military is setting aside $250 million for agriculture projects like irrigation improvements and wheat cultivation. General Nicholson said that a $200 million plan for infrastructure improvements, much of it for roads to help get crops to market, was also being prepared. The vision, General Nicholson said, is to try to restore the agricultural economy that flourished in Afghanistan in the 1970s. That, more than military force, will defeat the Taliban, he said.

“There is a significant portion of the enemy that we believe we can peel off with incentives,” the general said. “We can hire away many of these young men.”

Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban’s profits.

If it were me in charge, I wouldn’t be too hardline on cutting poppy production. It could easily backfire.