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Pentagon Expects Lull in Afghan Fighting for Poppy Harvest

Afghan Poppy Field

The Afghan army's struggling 215th Corps in southwestern Helmand province is expected to get some respite in the coming weeks as the Taliban turns its attention to the lucrative poppy harvest, according to the U.S. military.

Army Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner said that the recent spike in attacks in which the 215th Corps has lost ground to the Taliban in Helmand is expected to drop off in the coming weeks as the insurgents focus on securing the harvest and moving it to the smuggling routes through Pakistan and Iran.

In Helmand, by far Afghanistan's major producer of opiates, the harvest moves "within the province from south to north as the weather allows, and we expect to see the same sort of pattern this year," said Shoffner, the main spokesman for NATO's Operation Resolute Support.

"And so we anticipate that spike in activity [by the Taliban] will continue until about the latter part of March and then there should be a lull as the harvest gets under way," Shoffner said in a briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon last week.

The U.S., NATO and the Afghan government do little to interfere with the harvest. A spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which once had teams conducting raids around Afghanistan, said Monday that "We still have a presence there" but "the footprint there has been substantially reduced."

Opiates have been and continue to be Afghanistan's largest exports, with an estimated annual value of nearly $3 billion, or about 13 percent of Afghanistan's Gross Domestic Product, according to the United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime, or UNODC.

A typical Afghan farmer can get $200 for a kilogram of opium produced from poppy, according to the UNODC. The same amount of green beans will fetch $1.

Shoffner estimated that the Taliban gets about half its funding from drug trafficking and taxing farmers to move the crop.

In a speech last year, John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said that the U.S. had spent a total of $8.4 billion on counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan since 2002 with little effect.

"The bottom line -- record opium cultivation and production -- clearly shows we are not winning the war on drugs in Afghanistan," Sopko said.

As in past years, the Taliban fighters won't be the only ones taking a break for the poppy harvest. Desertion rates in the Afghan army usually increase during the harvest as troops leave their posts and return home to help their families bring in the crop that is worth far more to them than any substitute.

Shoffner said that the harvest was a factor in the high attrition rates for the 215th Corps but not the main one.

"It is definitely not the driving factor in attrition. It's really failure of leadership to ensure that the soldiers are properly cared for, that they're properly led, although the poppy harvest will affect the entire country," Shoffner said.

To cut down on corruption, the U.S. was trying to assist the Afghans in reforming the way troops are paid.

"The method of payment had been a paymaster who would arrive at the unit with cash on hand. Obviously, that lends itself to corruption," Shoffner said. "So if you have leaders that are unscrupulous," he said, "that means the soldiers that need it are not getting it."

To stop that, the U.S. has recommended a $1.70 Afghan Security Forces identity card. "It's an ID card that has got a scannable strip on the back that has got all of the soldier's biometric data," Shoffner said.

"And then, for accountability, that ID card is scanned" to allow the soldier to get paid," he said. "The ID costs about a $1.70 each. It works very, very effectively. And that allows them to have this automated computer database that is auditable, that's searchable, and it makes it much, much, more efficient in accountability."

Last month, the commander of the 215th Corps was relieved because of corruption and replaced by Gen. Mohammad Moeen Faqir. About 100 troops from the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division – part of a regular rotation to Afghanistan – have been sent into Helmand to help with the retraining of the 215th Corps and also to provide force protection for U.S. Special Forces teams in Helmand.

The overhaul of the 215th Corps will take time, Shoffner said. Of the six "kandaks," or battalions of about 600 troops each, in the 215th, only two have completed retraining and the other four were not expected to be ready until mid-summer, he said.

"The thing that makes it challenging for Afghan security forces in Helmand is they're doing this rebuild as they're fighting, as they're conducting security operations," Shoffner said.

Because of its value to the Taliban as a poppy producer, and its location where the Taliban movement was born, Helmand province has been the scene of the worst fighting since U.S. ground forces entered Afghanistan in 2001.

Since 2001, more than 955 U.S. and coalition troops have been killed in Helmand, according to the website icasualties.org. The next highest total was in neighboring Kandahar province, where more than 550 U.S. and coalition forces have been killed.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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