September 9th, 2009
09:00 PM ET

Helmand: Bombs, Drugs and the Taliban

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/08/art.afghan.soldier.patrol.jpg caption="A U.S. Marine sweeps for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's) along the pathways around their base at Camp Jaker."]

Peter Bergen | Bio
CNN National Security Analyst
Nawa District, Helmand, Afghanistan

If the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand were a country it would be the world’s leading producer of opium and its derivative, heroin. More than half the world’s heroin originates here – much of it destined for the veins of junkies living in Europe.

In June 2005, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials and Afghan police raided the office of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand, and found nine tons of opium in his office. He is no longer the governor.

According to an unpublished threat assessment by the Afghan army of the security situation as it was this April in Afghanistan which was obtained by CNN, Helmand province had the highest percentage of territory controlled by the Taliban of any of the country’s 34 provinces.

Nearly 60 percent of Helmand in April was fully Taliban-controlled, and the remainder was classified as “high risk” for Taliban attacks.

According to a senior Marine officer 20 percent of the Taliban in Helmand are “ideologues’ who are not from the local area and are influenced by the Pakistan-based central command of the Taliban – such as its leader Mullah Omar. The other 80 percent are local “opportunists” who are making money being paid by the Taliban to do jobs such as planting roadside bombs known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

U.S. intelligence officials estimate that the Taliban can pay approximately $300 a month to its rank-and-file soldiers. An Afghan policeman is lucky if he makes $100 a month.

Since early July, some 4,500 American U.S. Marines and hundreds of Afghans soldiers have launc hed offensives against the Taliban in Helmand and, according to a senior US Marine officer, as a result the Taliban “are on their arse, literally.”

The officer said that of the 13 districts in Helmand, only one is now fully controlled by the Taliban. However, they continue to maintain a persistent presence in the province and are capable of launching IED attacks at will throughout Helmand.

In Dawa District, in central Helmand, Marines at a dusty, spartan base with no electricity or running water venture out on several-hour foot patrols. They move through canal-fed corn fields armed with metal detectors and a bomb-sniffing dog looking to discover and disable IEDs.

The IEDs range from simple victim- operated bombs, typically pressure plate devices made from wood and springs, to more complex devices that are remotely detonated using a command wire. The corn rows that stand 10-feet high provide an ideal environment in which the IED triggermen can hide.

During World War II, 3 percent of American combat deaths were caused by mines or booby traps. By 1967 during the Vietnam War the figure rose to 9 percent. In Iraq during the latter half of 2005, IEDs were the leading cause of American combat deaths, responsible for 65 percent of all fatalities and half of all nonfatal injuries.

According to Brigadier General Laurence Nicholson, who is in charge of the Marine brigade in Helmand, an astonishing 80 percent of the casualties of the Marines under his command are now caused by IEDs.

Just one more statistic that helps explain why Helmand remains one of the more dangerous places on the planet.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Afghanistan • Peter Bergen
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Mike Armstrong TX.

    The bad guys information is better then ours now NANCY THOUGHT SHE COULD DO A BETTER JOB THEN THE CIA ARNT WE JUST SO LUCKY TO HAVE NANCY.

    September 9, 2009 at 7:02 pm |
  2. crazy horse

    I am more than disappointed that Marines are not able to do their job as needed. The unfortunate reality of war is that civilians do get caught in the mix. It troubles me that we are going inot Afghanistan with gloves on. Being a combat Marine from Desert Storm we eliminated the threat in front of us and made it home. I would rather have a Spartan come home alive than in a body bag because of a lack of intel or because of worry over unecessary casualities. The enemy knows that when Marines come they already have tried peace and next comes aggression and professionalism. As far as the air support, I can only speculate that air was quite a ways out possibly. At any rate, Marines make do the best they can. I pray for the men going inot harm's way. Every hound lost is like losing a brother. Semper Fi.

    September 9, 2009 at 6:49 pm |
  3. Fredrick Ruckett

    Wow U.S. Drug officials raid where? Ahfganistan. Do they use the new no Knock policy, search warrant, do they follow the same procedures they would in the U.S. You see its these types of liberties we take on foreign soil that lead to America looking like well America. Its this type of thinking that Dick Cheney took on. The people want to see a better example for the use of power and force. To go in with guns blazing and tanks rolling are not endearing to the people of that region, its just more of the same.

    September 9, 2009 at 6:26 pm |
  4. Jordan (Idaho and Camp Pendleton, CA)

    I too am a 1/5 wife, my husband Sgt Hancock is serving with 1/5 Alpha, I am hoping to catch a glimpse of him but even if I don't, its good to see where he is and what he is doing. I am very proud of all the guys in 1/5, they are family! So be safe, stay strong and come home soon! Ooorah 1/5, Ooorah!

    September 9, 2009 at 5:40 pm |
  5. Keith Novak

    My son who is in the Marines 2/2 is soon to be deployed to this hell hole. I find it hard to feel good about my son putting himself "in harms way" when the rules of engagement are so much of a handcuff. To loose so many of our loved ones to a cowardly instrument of death as the IED's is rediculous. There has to be a safer way to identify, disarm, destroy these things before anymore of our children come back maimed or not at all. Kathleen Cook said it best at 1:52 today. Get in, do our business swiftly and completely and come home! Miss Cook, I wish the best for your son and thank him from another Marine's Dad.

    September 9, 2009 at 5:35 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    Poppies are grown because they are able to flourish in the hot dry environment there; require little maintenance; are easy to harvest; sell for a price high enough to give the farmers a good return on their investment; and maintain their core market. Given all that, if the US can find a similar product that pays as well ans grows as easily the farmers probably wouldn't be adverse to switching what they grow. If we can't find an alternative don't count on the farmers giving up growing poppies – they have family to feed too.

    I do find it astonishing that the former governor of Helmud had 9 tons of the stuff in his office – where did he keep it all? That is just amazing to think he had that much.

    September 9, 2009 at 4:58 pm |
  7. natalie vega

    My husband Jordy is a Sgt in the Marine Corps serving with 1/5 weapons company, in Helman where cooper is doing his reporting.... it just wanted to thank him very much for doing the special.... its gives us wives back in the states a hint of whats going on over there.... and with communications being so slim with this deployment i know my friends and i are glued to the tv when the special airs. So thank you Anderson Cooper!!! Cant wait to be glued to the tv for the next couple of night hoping to see our loved ones!!! 1/5 we miss yall.... be safe and come home to us soon!!!!

    1/5 wife
    Natalie Vega

    September 9, 2009 at 4:51 pm |
  8. Jessica H., WA

    The picture is of my Brother who's with 1/5!!!! They also showed a still shot of him and his IED dog, during the show, plus he was even interviewed!!!!

    September 9, 2009 at 4:35 pm |
  9. DawnL,CA

    @ Kathleen Cook 1:52pm
    Your post was so right. Our troops are not there to be social workers! Gen. McChrystal(sp?) made the comment that our troops should put themselves in harms way to protect the Afghans. How does he know who is the enemy & who is not. Burn the poppy fields & let the Afghan army take over the protection of their own people.
    I pray your son & all our troops come home safe.

    September 9, 2009 at 4:28 pm |
  10. Karen Parrish

    What about Bowe Bergdahl? Why isn't anyone reporting on this US soldier being held by the Taliban??????????

    September 9, 2009 at 4:15 pm |
  11. TruthSetsFree

    My appologies for giving Anderson the credit on my previous post. Thanks to you for your coverage. Say "hi" & "Thanks" to 1/5 H&S JUMP Platoon for me. See if you can get them on film. They have a way of ducking out when the cameras come out. If you need a " photo" I'm sure LtCol McCullough can reign them in for you. Sure glad they're on our side.


    September 9, 2009 at 3:52 pm |
  12. TruthSetsFree

    Thanks for you coverage – we can't do enough to inform the public what these genuine public servants, warriors & heroes endure to project the policies and provide security for all Americans. Please say hi to O'Brien, Black & Ski on video for us and get them on film too.

    Kathleen & Brandi,
    I salute your son & your husband. Their willingness to selflessly serve in spite of the dangers and even in spite of the leadership is both honorable and corageous. How about if you pray for our son in the 1/5 H&S Company while I pledge to pray for yours. Let's pray for their leaders, all the way up to the President, that they may have the wisdom to make the correct choices. It's always a terrible when you see political leaders making decisions affecting the safety of our loved ones based on political pressures instead of common sense leadership. Semper Fi 1/5! Say Hi to O'Brien, BlackJack & Ski. Please try to get them on film too.

    September 9, 2009 at 3:45 pm |
  13. Donna Wood

    Wow, Mr. Bergen, I ,admittedly, did not realize that! I mean, I know I've heard something in the past but I just did not realize to what extent and what impact! So that's what all the fuss comes down to, drugs? Am I reading your article right? Don't get me wrong, it's a great piece Mr. Bergen, I just did not realize is all I'm saying! But thanks to you I now have a better understanding of the situation. Please be safe over there everyone because that is just a horrible reason to risk your lives for. When I think of this reason being what our men and women are over there dying for, it makes my stomach churn! Everyone please be safe and come home whole and alive!

    Donna Wood
    Lexington, Tennessee

    September 9, 2009 at 3:35 pm |
  14. Brandi Donoghue

    I think that you are doing a great job covering the bigger picture over there. My husband is there right now along with so many others and it is nice to see what they are going through other than what we read about in our sparse letters and 5 minute monthly phone calls. I am so glad that you have chosen to give the American people eyes on what these young sons, fathers and husbands have to go through all in the name of Freedom! Thank you so much from the wives of Bravo Co. 1/5

    September 9, 2009 at 2:13 pm |
  15. Kathleen Cook

    My youngest son is with Echo Co Marines in Afghanistan, and I find it absolutely bizarre that he is placing his life on the line to defend this nation of ours, when the rules of engagement are putting the Afghan people first.. Were we able to tell who were terrorists, and who were Americans when they blew up the World Trade Center. How in the world can he establish who the enemy is over there, as well as keep himself safe????. My son joined the military to serve this country, NOT to act as a social worker for a people that are full of corruption and poverty, and whose main source of income is heroin. He is living in Hell, and the President can not even decide what he wants to do about the war????? He is too busy trying to get a health care objective established?? What is the matter with this picture? As a people, we need to establish our own perimeters of safety FIRST. As for my "precious" 20 year old son. I hope and pray everyday that he stays alive long enough to start his life and live with some kind peace of mind that he did his best to be a good soldier for the United States Of America..

    September 9, 2009 at 1:52 pm |
  16. Mina

    About these IEDs... I'm not as informed as I would like to be (which is partly why I appreciate you being over there to report back to us) but I did hear there are vehicles and more advanced machinery now being tested that can detect IEDs.

    Why are our troops patrolling along simply in search of these devices that are killing them? Can we not provide better equipment to keep them away from unnecessary harm?
    ...Just questions, would love some answers.

    September 9, 2009 at 12:18 pm |
  17. Cindy

    Great post!! Unfortunately when people have no means of making money they will turn to doing things that they usually would never imagine themselves doing to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately for us that entails planting IED's to kill our soldiers. I don't see that changing unless somehow jobs can be brought in that pay more than the Taliban are willing to pay them.

    You all would pick the most dangerous place to go now wouldn't ya!? Please stay safe over there!


    September 9, 2009 at 9:10 am |