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The New Surge By: Stephen Brown
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Can the surge strategy that has proven so successful in defeating the Iraqi insurgency work in Afghanistan? Early evidence from the frontlines of the war against the Taliban suggests the answer is yes.


The American offensive in southern Afghanistan, modeled on the Iraqi surge, got off to a favorable start last week when 4,000 Marine troops stormed deep into Taliban territory along the Helmand River Valley, where they met little resistance. The main goal of the first large-scale operation launched by President Obama is to shut down Helmand province’s illicit drug production, a major source of the Taliban’s funding. Call it the new surge.

To be sure, Afghanistan has long been on the president’s radar. Last February, he promised to send an additional 17,000 combat troops to the Afghan theater and 4,000 more to train the Afghan army, and he is now making good on these promises. With this latest surge, American forces will number 68,000 by the end of 2009, as compared to 32,000 in 2008, bringing the overall NATO troop strength in Afghanistan to 90,000.

The decision to target Helmand province is no accident. Helmand has long been a cash cow for the Taliban. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, 90 percent of the world’s illicit heroin is produced in southern Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. A ton of refined heroin is worth about $ 3.5 million and probably millions more by the time it hits the streets of Western cities. In 2006, some 610 tons of hashish were produced in southern Afghanistan, selling for about $1 million a ton.


That money ultimately flows into the Taliban’s coffers and fuels the terrorist insurgency in Afghanistan. In particular, the Taliban makes its money by taxing the drug lords and farmers who grow the opium poppies used to produce heroin. It is this lucrative source of income that allows the Taliban to buy weapons, hire the fighters that kill American and allied troops, terrorize the population, and keep the insurgency going. The more than $100 million in revenue the Taliban is reported to take in annually from the drug trade makes places like Helmand the obvious focus of the U.S. troop surge.

With the fate of their “jihad” at stake, the Taliban will likely wage an all-out guerrilla war in the coming months to protect its primary source of revenue. Taliban leaders know that many of their fighters joined their cause only because they pay well and jobs are non-existent in impoverished Afghanistan. If the funds disappear, so will the fighters.

Although casualties are expected to rise in the early stages of the surge, the Marines on the ground have several advantages as they attempt to root out the thriving drug trade. First, they will have good intelligence. Eighty Drug Enforcement Agency agents were sent to Afghanistan earlier this year to help the military “to most effectively cripple or destroy” heroin production. Moreover, after eight years in Afghanistan, American and NATO intelligence agents already know a lot about southern Afghanistan’s drug operations and the Taliban leaders behind them.

Just as important, the troops will not be acting in isolation. The strategy to starve the Taliban of its drug money is also being implemented outside of Afghanistan. For instance, there is now an international ban in place on shipping those chemicals, like acetic anhydride, which are used in the processing of heroin in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These chemicals still may be smuggled into the country, but at greater cost to the drug dealers. Security agencies are also on the lookout for any Afghan drug money going through their countries’ banks.

Besides destroying the Taliban’s finances, the Helmand offensive is expected to produce other benefits. It will extend the Afghan government’s writ to areas of the country where it had little representation and make these areas secure for the upcoming elections in August. Government corruption is also expected to decrease, since the drug lords will have less money to bribe officials, a major problem in Afghanistan. In addition, the Taliban will no longer be able to buy the loyalty of various tribes whose support for the Taliban is conditional on such subsidies. That may help advance the political reconciliation that continues to elude the war-ravaged country.  


While the Taliban is the direct target of the new offensive, the surge may also have a broader aim: to force the jihadist forces in the Afghan-Pakistan theater to fight a two-front war. The Pakistani army recently launched its own offensive into the Swat Valley and Waziristan, the sanctuary of the Afghan Taliban and headquarters of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. The effect was immediately noticeable in Afghanistan. Hundreds of Pakistani Taliban and foreign al Qaeda fighters were reported to have crossed the border back into Pakistan to confront the danger there.

One irony of the “new” surge is that it is not very new at all. Both the Afghanistan surge and the decision to target the heroin industry are products of the Bush era. Called the “quiet surge,” the surge was initially announced by former President George Bush more than a year ago when he ordered 7,500 to 10,000 additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan in 2009. Base camp and infrastructure plans for 17,000 to 30,000 more soldiers were already being mapped out in Afghanistan last July. By late 2008, according to The Times of London, the troop increase was “already so detailed that the Pentagon has plans down to the last latrine and bullet.”


As for the decision to destroy the drug trade in southern Afghanistan, it was taken at a NATO conference in Hungary last October. British troops were the first to act on the new strategy, launching a raid last February that netted $100 million in heroin and destroyed four drug factories. International forces captured a further 17 tons of heroin in another raid in March.

While President Obama devised neither the surge strategy nor the decision to destroy the Afghan drug trade, he does deserve credit for recognizing the value of these Bush-era policies and for executing them. Obama has previously described the Afghan conflict as “winnable.” The new surge is a welcome sign that, whatever his disagreements with his predecessor, he still intends to win it.

Stephen Brown is a contributing editor at Frontpagemag.com. He has a graduate degree in Russian and Eastern European history. Email him at alsolzh@hotmail.com.

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