The Taliban will reap "windfall" profits from a bumper poppy harvest in Afghanistan this spring to fund coming offensives, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul said Thursday.
"The poppy crop is really the engine that provides all the money that fuels the Taliban," and the insurgents were expected to benefit from "this very good poppy crop that they had this year," said Army Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland.
"As a result, we do expect an uptick in Taliban efforts to attack" when the harvest is completed later this month, with offensives focused on southwestern Helmand province, the center of the Afghan narcotics trade, Cleveland, the deputy chief for communications of the Resolute Support mission, said in a video briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon.
Taliban fighters in recent weeks essentially dropped the fight to assist in the harvest, giving respite to the struggling 215th Division of the Afghan National Security Forces in Helmand province, Cleveland said.
"A lot of the Taliban fighters have been out harvesting the poppy," he said. Once the harvest is complete later this month, "We think that will be the next big Taliban push," he said. "We think it will come in Helmand."
The poppy trade in in Afghanistan supplies about 90 percent of the world’s heroin and is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to be worth about $3 billion annually to the Afghan economy.
Narcotics trafficking goes virtually unimpeded in Afghanistan. The U.S. has dropped its eradication and crop substitution efforts. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still has an office in Kabul but no longer conducts field operations.
The United Nations estimated that the poppy crop fell by about 19 percent last year mostly due to poor weather, but plentiful rain this year was expected to produce a bumper crop.
"We are happy that we had a good harvest this year compared with previous years," Abdul Rahim Mutmain, a farmer in Helmand, told The New York Times.
"There is no security concern for a single laborer being checked or robbed by the police," he said. "The entire district is under Taliban control and the bulk of the harvesters are Taliban."
A typical Afghan farmer can get $200 for a kilogram of opium produced from poppy, according to the United Nations. The same amount of green beans will fetch $1.
Cleveland said the U.S. has 700 to 800 troops in Helmand now to advise and assist the 215th Division in preparing for the expected Taliban offensive. The troops, including Special Forces and Army 10th Mountain Division troops, mostly work out of the grounds of the old Camp Leatherneck, the former headquarters for the U.S. Marine presence in Afghanistan, Cleveland said.
The Taliban’s strength and funding will be factors in the recommendations to higher command and President Barack Obama of Army Gen. John Nicholson, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, on whether to continue with the planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Cleveland said Nicholson was expected to complete his assessment later this month. The U.S. currently has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan and the current plan calls for that number to be reduced to about 5,500 by the end of this year.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.