- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010

The U.S. military assault under way in southern Afghanistan seeks to oust Taliban forces but has the secondary mission of disrupting insurgent drug trafficking in a region notorious for large-scale opium production, U.S. and Afghan officials said Sunday.

A main goal of the military operation involving about 15,000 Marines, British troops and some Afghan soldiers that began Friday in Helmand province is to try to win support of local Afghans.

The secondary mission of the operation, in what is seen as a shift in the military’s strategy, is disrupting the Taliban’s drug trade — the key source of funding for weapons and explosives used in the insurgency.

Troops, transported by helicopters and ground vehicles, advanced toward the farming town of Marjah. They encountered tough resistance, mainly from insurgents, Taliban-placed mines and snipers. The operation is the largest military drive in the country since 2001.

NATO rockets on Sunday hit a residence, mistakenly killing 12 Afghan civilians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement expressing sadness and saying the collateral damage would be investigated.

Two NATO forces also have been killed, one by an improvised explosive device and the other by small-arms fire, according to reports from the region.

The military had long separated itself from fighting the drug trade in Afghanistan. In recent years, however, U.S. and NATO military officials have concluded that breaking up the Taliban insurgency would have to include cutting off their source of funding, said a U.S. official with knowledge of drug operations in the region.

“We can’t do one without the other,” the official said. “It’s vital to break up their ability to fund themselves. The military has become more aware of that and works closely with the drug enforcement operations in the region.”

U.S. military officials estimate that the Taliban and al Qaeda receive up to 40 percent of their funding from the drug trade. The United Nations estimates that it is closer to 60 percent of all money garnered by the insurgents and terrorists.

“The farming region of Marjah used to grow wheat, other types of legal agriculture,” said an Afghan official with knowledge of the NATO operation and the region around Marjah.

“When the Taliban gained control of the area, the farmers shifted to poppy crops, and the Taliban used the region to fill their pockets. They use the money to purchase training [and] weapons and [to] recruit,” the official said.

“Taking Marjah will be a huge blow to the Taliban — [but] only if the U.S. and Afghan forces can hold it,” the Afghan official said.

In the past 24 hours since U.S., Afghan and NATO forces entered Marjah under Operation Mohawk — meaning “Together” in Dari — as much as 70 percent of the region’s main city has been seized, according to statements by the Afghan army and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The region, which used to be known for wheat and fruit cultivation, is now known for large poppy crops that “get refined in the northern regions into heroin, where few U.S. or NATO forces have a presence,” a military official with knowledge of the operation said. The officials spoke on the condition that they not be named because of the nature of their work.

“It doesn’t make sense not to break down the drug trade when we know the Taliban is supplying their fighters with the money they make from their opium sales,” the military official said. “It’s only one of several reasons we’re in Marjah.”

The nexus between the Taliban insurgency and the Afghan drug trade has made drug eradication central to the war in Afghanistan, especially to the strategy of curtailing the Taliban’s ability to raise funding. The joint forces operations against poppy cultivation involve the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the CIA, in addition to the military.

A U.S. counternarcotics official, whose agency works closely with the military, told The Washington Times in an earlier interview that “traffickers are responsible for the movement of millions of dollars of drugs, much of which goes right into the Taliban’s coffers,” and ongoing operations show direct links to other terrorist organizations in the region.

Marjah, with a population of about 75,000, is thought to be the stronghold of 400 to 1,000 Taliban fighters, ISAF officials said.

Approximately 15,000 Afghan and foreign forces are part of the Marjah operation. The Marine Corps is leading the offensive along with the Army. British and Canadian troops are also involved in the operation.

Success, however, has been met with problems for ISAF commanders, who after weeks of announcing the offensive still had to contend with a number of civilian casualties Sunday, when a rocket used in the offensive went astray and killed 12 people.

Ten of the victims were from the same family, according to news reports from the region. The missiles missed an insurgent compound discovered by U.S. forces.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, ISAF commander, ordered the withdrawal of the rocket launcher, a high-mobility artillery rocket system, from operations “until a thorough review of this incident has been conducted,” a statement from ISAF headquarters in Kabul said.

Gen. McChrystal apologized to Mr. Karzai for the deaths, according to a statement and reports from the region.

“We deeply regret this tragic loss of life,” Gen. McChrystal said.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the assault on Marjah had gotten “off to a good start.”

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