The new American commander brought with him some changes in strategy. Troops are no longer going after the poppy farmers, but instead hitting the drug gangs themselves. This is what the new offensives in Helmand are all about. This province has long been the source of most of the heroin produced in Afghanistan (which accounts for over 70 percent of the world supply). Troops are going after the labs (for converting poppies into heroin), the industrial chemicals smuggled into the country for the labs, the storage sites for the harvested poppy sap (opium) and heroin, homes and compounds of drug lords, smugglers, and lab technicians, and the smuggling operations themselves (several hundred tons of heroin and opium leave Helmand by truck each month, and over a hundred tons of chemicals, mainly acetic anhydride, have to be smuggled in for the labs.). Less obvious, are attacks on drug gang finances. The enormous amounts of money involved requires use of traditional banking services. Increased American intelligence efforts in the region, and especially in Helmand (more UAVs and electronic monitoring aircraft), mean that more of what the drug gangs do is being monitored. Then it can be attacked or disrupted. This sort of thing does not make headlines, but it was the key to victory in Iraq.
The drug lords, and their Taliban security forces, are responding to the new attacks on their cash flow by frantically reorganizing operations, while being shot at. There's big money at stake. A ton of heroin is worth over $3 million to the drug gangs, while a ton of opium (mostly for local addicts) brings in more like $100,000 a ton. Even though many Afghan government officials take bribes from the drug gangs, the government is quite serious about disrupting the distribution of opium and heroin within Afghanistan. The number of addicts is increasing, especially among the families with money (like government bureaucrats). All of these elected and appointed officials know of a family (often their own) dealing with someone addicted to opium or heroin. Having an addict in the family is a disgrace, and embarrassing to the many government officials who are also tribal leaders (where they are constantly badgered by tribal elders to eliminate the drug distribution.)
The drug gangs know they are unpopular, but they do have a plan to secure their position in Afghanistan. First, they have to get rid of the foreign troops. The best hope for this is to play the foreign and local media to exploit the traditional Afghan hostility to foreigners. While most Afghans welcome, or tolerate, the foreign troops (especially in non-Pushtun areas), by buying or intimidating local media into playing up any civilian deaths or damage caused by the foreign troops (and playing down Taliban and drug gang crimes), the foreign media is induced to run with stories that hammer the foreign troops, and largely ignore the drug gang operations.
Playing the foreign media is something the Taliban learned, the hard way, while they ran the country in the late 90s. Al Qaeda has also honed their media manipulation skills. While local media can be bribed or bullied into cooperating, you have to manipulate the foreign journalists. This is not hard to do. The Western media largely consists of commercial operations that are very competitive in a crowded market place. A newsworthy story is one that attracts the most eyeballs, not the one that most accurately describes what is actually going on in Afghanistan. So the Taliban provides spectacular terrorist bombings. Great visuals, and tragic tales result from these operations. No one mentions that these tactics backfired in Iraq, and led to the defeat of the terrorists, and their Baath party supporters. This seemingly sudden turn of events was largely ignored by the Western media, who were busy hunting for the next hot headline.
Unlike Iraq, however, the drug gangs have steady cash flow, and a shot at buying enough government officials to get the foreign troops expelled. This story does not get reported, partly because it will not attract eyeballs, and partly because it will get reporters quickly expelled from Afghanistan (for some other improvised reason.) A lot, the majority, actually, of Afghans, do not want to live in a nation run by drug lords and religious zealots. But the drug gangs have cash, guns, and their zealot Taliban allies providing suicide bombers and Holy Warriors. The big edge the government has are the foreign troops, who are now trying to avoid the drug gang's media traps.
For some reason, American troops running the Bagram prison (where most Afghans captured by foreign troops end up) have not remembered the lessons learned (repeatedly, since World War II). Mainly it is this; you have to segregate the fanatics (be they Nazis, Communists or Islamic fanatics) from the general prisoner population. Not doing this means that the fanatics will control the prisoners, killing potential informers and radicalizing many others who entered the prison as non-fanatics.
The enemy (Taliban and drug gang gunmen) are relying more and more on roadside and suicide bombs. These now account for 70 percent of casualties among foreign troops (and over half for Afghan security forces). The enemy has given up on trying to defeat the foreign troops in direct battle, although the tribal warriors (who comprise nearly all Taliban and drug gang forces) will not always run away when confronted by foreign troops. But eventually, after many are killed by better marksmanship, tactics, plus the eventual use of smart bombs, the survivors do run. This is actually an ancient Afghan tradition. When defeat seems inevitable, either switch sides (if possible), or run.
The roadside and suicide bombs continue to kill mostly civilians, and each time that happens, public opinion further hardens against the Taliban and drug gangs. The drug lords see this as a cost of doing business. If they can mobilize enough support against operations in Afghanistan, in the homelands of the foreign troops, those pesky foreign fighters will go away.
Taliban and drug gang efforts to disrupt the national elections next month, are not succeeding. Only 11 of the 340 election districts have been disrupted by Taliban operations to the extent that voting appears unlikely. In another 124 districts, the Taliban are making varying degrees of efforts to disrupt the vote. In most cases, these efforts appear headed for failure.
July 21, 2009: In eastern Afghanistan, about fifteen terrorists, most of them disguised in women's clothing (burqas) attacked government compounds in two towns with rifles and explosive vests (both hidden under the burqas). The ensuing fight left a dozen dead and 22 wounded. Subsequent investigation indicated this attack was meant to draw forces away from Helmand province, where the Taliban and drug gangs are suffering serious damage. Afghan police and troops defeated both attacks.