Marines offer cash in fight against Afghan opium

COMBAT OUTPOST REILLY, Afghanistan Sun Mar 21, 2010 10:35am EDT

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COMBAT OUTPOST REILLY, Afghanistan (Reuters) - After weeks of intense fighting over the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, U.S. Marines are now taking cautious aim at the drugs trade, with a program designed to pay opium farmers to destroy their own crops without a fight.

The goal of the new program is to tackle the drugs trade that fuels the insurgency -- without alienating farmers whose livelihoods depend on a crop they planted last year.

Last month, thousands of Marines fought to drive the Taliban out of Marjah, a major hub for the trafficking and trade of opium in southern Helmand, the province that produces most of the world's raw material for heroin.

Now, with opium poppies blooming and at waist height, some of those forces are pushing into surrounding areas of Marjah where the Taliban's footprint is still scattered across poor farming communities that depend on modest incomes from the drug crop.

"I spent a lot of money on these poppy fields, until now we haven't made enough money. We just make money to buy bread from the profits," 70-year-old Mohammad Hanif, who lives in a village about 11 km (7 miles) from Marjah, said.

When a team of Marines paid him a visit on Saturday, Hanif was afraid they would destroy his crop -- a past strategy employed by NATO forces and the Afghan government which has sown resentment among farmers and increased support for the Taliban.

The new strategy, the Marines wanted to inform Hanif, involves paying farmers the value of their next harvest in return for them destroying their poppies themselves and growing legal alternatives using seeds provided by the Afghan government.

"For this program I am happy, as they gave me money for the damage," Hanif said.

"They are positive and open to the new Afghanistan rules as far as burning the poppy fields and giving them money for that. They are ready to burn their poppy fields because they have not had anything like that before," said Corporal Junior Joseph of Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines.

Hanif's neighbor Mohammad Gul also welcomed the program after cautiously greeting the Marines and initially denying he was growing opium poppy at all. After a Marine interpreter assured him that his trade was an open secret, he agreed to the scheme.

"We think it's a good program, we are homeless and must support our children. If the government destroys everything there's nothing left for us. So it's a good program," Gul said.

The meeting between the farmers and Marines from Kilo Company marks the unit's first foray into tackling drug cultivation in Nad Ali since landing in Marjah, a key plank of NATO's strategy in the district which ultimately seeks to establish full Afghan government control in the area.

Corporal Joseph was hopeful that the poppy scheme would pay-off and took comfort in the initial positive response from Hanif and Gul.

"Before it was the Taliban, pretty much taking over and doing whatever. So with the government willing to buy it, they are pretty open to the new rules," he said.

The Marines stir mixed feelings among residents. One young man complained to the Marines that they never leave his family alone and asked why they kept bothering them. He declined to give his name.

At a shura -- or council meeting -- earlier this week, other villagers complained about Marines entering their homes when women were present, failing to show enough cultural sensitivity in a devoutly Islamic and rural place, and failing to adhere to their own rules on searching civilian homes.

(Writing by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Peter Graff)