The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has taken over command of international troops in southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition. It will now lead the fight against a re-emerging Taleban insurgency, which NATO commanders say is increasingly fueled by opium poppy cultivation.
The rugged terrain is Taleban country. Taleban rebels were never rooted out of these hills, despite the U.S.-led military action in 2001. Five years later, the insurgents have regrouped, better armed and organized than ever.
And according to military and narcotics experts, what is fueling the Taleban insurgency is opium.
Senior U.S. National Drug Control Policy official Patrick Ward says Taleban rebels often force farmers to grow poppy. "They are coercing farmers and sharecroppers to grow. They are holding them accountable to grow. They are providing credit to farmers and putting farmers and sharecroppers into debt over time. So they can hold that over their heads as well as threatening their lives."
Ward says cultivation of opium poppies brings tens of millions of dollars to the Taleban coffers. Afghan poppies produce an estimated 90 percent of the world's heroin.
The Afghan government is fighting back. It has hired private American security contractors to destroy any known poppy fields. For some farmers, it is a painful step.
"Why don't you just kill me," one farmer cries.
Kabul is developing new programs to train farmers to do other jobs, such as road building and carpentry. Ward says the real solution is to rebuild an economy that has been destroyed by decades of war.
"Those types of cash for work programs are meant for short-term effort,” says Mr. Ward, “while a more comprehensive type of development comes in and plants, for example, fruit-bearing orchards, which are going to take three to four years to start bearing fruit."
But not all farmers want to stop growing poppy. Poppy cultivation is too profitable.
More poppies mean more violence, according to NATO commanders who have taken control of southern Afghanistan from a U.S.-led coalition. The mission now facing NATO is one of the most difficult in the organization's 57-year history: it will try to stabilize a region wracked with Taleban-led violence and a growing drug trade.
U.S. Major General Benjamin Freakley says, "We are going into the valleys, into areas where the enemy has operated with impunity before. And we are putting pressure on them. The local elders say, ‘Where have you been?’ "
Military officials say Taleban rebels have adopted some of the tactics used by Iraqi insurgents, such as roadside bombs and suicide bombers. Forty roadside bombs exploded in the last month. The Taleban are getting help from Al-Qaida bomb makers and Arab fighters abroad. But they are supported by Afghans at home as well.
A routine visit to this village by a British unit recently turned into a six-hour firefight with its residents. As soon as the soldiers left, the Taleban returned.
"Holy war is right here in front of our homes, even if we are too poor to fight in Americas" said the Taleban commander.
More and more NATO patrols are venturing into poppy-growing regions in search of the enemy, and they are confident that -- with persistence -- they will succeed.