Dangers Up Ahead

How druglords and insurgents are making the war in Afghanistan deadlier than ever

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The police attribute the breakdown in security to a plague familiar to law-enforcement officials around the world: drugs. Helmand's police oversee a sizable and dangerous jurisdiction--mountains to the north, desert and a long border with Pakistan to the south--in which opium traffickers and Taliban militants have struck up a marriage of mutual convenience. The province is the biggest opium-growing region in Afghanistan, which produces close to 90% of the world's heroin. While the U.S. and Afghan governments have announced measures to curb poppy cultivation, a visit to Helmand reveals how challenging such a campaign would be. Just outside Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, lies a vast expanse of poppy farms. A glut has driven down the market price, but the flower is still the country's most profitable crop, according to farmers. Officials predict this year's yield in Helmand will be double last year's.

That poses a major problem for the police. Drug money, which accounts for perhaps one-third to one-half of Afghanistan's gross national product, creates its own loyalty. Druglords, some of whom have government connections or even hold official posts, "give the Taliban money and weapons" to keep the security forces occupied, says Haji Mirwais, the deputy police commander in Gereshk. "If we go somewhere, someone tips them off, and we get ambushed." In return, the Taliban safeguards heroin factories and provides armed escorts for drug convoys. U.S. military officers say the confluence of drugs and militancy has left parts of southern Afghanistan virtually ungovernable. Says Captain Allen Dollison, a civil-affairs officer based in Lashkar Gah: "They're absolutely linked, absolutely interconnected, and it has to be addressed to solve the security situation."

It may be too late. Afghan officials say Taliban commanders are using money from druglords to finance a guerrilla force that could sustain an insurgency for years. A continued source of irritation for military officials is the infiltration of militants from Pakistan; many Afghan officials believe that elements in Pakistan's intelligence agency, which midwifed the Taliban in its early years, are conspiring with the religious parties that govern Pakistan's border regions to create a safe haven for Taliban commanders and a launching pad for attacks--including around 25 suicide bombings in the past six months--throughout Afghanistan. Helmand Governor Mohammed Daud told TIME he believes that Mullah Osmani, a Taliban leader, is recruiting and training fighters at the Girdi Jungle refugee camp in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, which abuts Helmand.

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