New tactics to combat Afghanistan's drug trade

America departs from Bush strategy in attempt to stem drug production without affecting civilians

The U.S. will deploy dozens of drug enforcement agents to Afghanistan to target Taliban-affiliated drug labs and trafficking rings. This is a departure from an eight-year, Bush-era counter-narcotics strategy.

The number of drug enforcement agents stationed in Afghanistan will increase six-fold, from 13 to 81, by next year. These agents will cultivate informants, target labs and distributors and organize sting operations to combat the production and trafficking of heroin, cannabis, and morphine.

"Destroy the facility . . . and you take big money out of the pocket of traffickers," General John Craddock said earlier this month.

The traffickers are Taliban-affiliated drug lords who make a huge profit after opium poppies and other crops are refined into marketable drugs.

In the past, the U.S. has attempted to suppress opium production in Afghanistan by eradicating the region's expansive poppy fields. This costs $45 million annually, but Afghanistan still harvests 93 per cent of the opium poppy used to produce the global supply of heroin.

The drug is mostly grown in the country's southern provinces, where the Taliban is most active. The militant insurgency group earned hundreds of millions of dollars last year from protecting the fields where the crops are grown, trafficking the drugs and overseeing the labs that refine them, according to U.S. and U.N. intelligence reports.

Thomas Harrigan, deputy administrator and chief of operations for the DEA, said: "We see their involvement through just about every stage of drug trafficking, and in each of the four corners of Afghanistan.

"They use the money to sustain their operations, feed their fighters, to assist Al Qaeda."

Fire-blowing fields of cash crops has left local farmers without a means to make a living. Penniless and angry, some have allied with the Taliban, according to the White House. Counter-narcotics officials also reported that they observe local drug traffickers and insurgents working together more often.

The government's new counter-narcotics strategy is focused on hampering drug production without making enemies of the civilian population.

The U.S. will send agriculture specialists to the region and increase its financial aid - from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars per year - to help affected Afghan farmers harvest alternative crops.