Afghanistan After America: A Surge in Troops, and Poppy Production, in Helmand

Afghanistan After America: A Surge in Troops, and Poppy Production, in Helmand

Editor’s note: This is the sixth of a seven-part series examining conditions in Afghanistan in the last year of U.S. military operations there. The series runs every Wednesday and will examine each of the country’s regional commands to get a sense of the country, and the war, America is leaving behind. You can find the Series Introduction here, Part I here, Part II here, Part III here and Part IV here.

In 2009, President Barack Obama vowed to narrow the U.S. mission in Afghanistan while expanding the resources for it, announcing a goal to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and prevent their return” to the country. According to the new U.S. strategy, the latter goal—preventing al-Qaida’s return—would require an Afghan government that could control its territory and command the loyalty of its citizens. Building such a government would in turn require a troop-intensive counterinsurgency effort, predicated on protecting the population to build support for the government, similar to the campaign that had appeared to make gains in Iraq in 2007.

Helmand province, which beginning in 2009 received the highest number of the subsequent surge troops of any province, was an odd focus for either the counterterrorism or the counterinsurgency component of the new strategy. There were no al-Qaida strongholds there, as the group’s remaining contingent in Afghanistan was mostly in the east. And while by 2006 the Taliban had taken over large parts of the province, which is Afghanistan’s most violent and the site of nearly half of the country’s poppy fields, Helmand was home to only 4 percent of Afghanistan’s population.

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