WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Insurgents in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the Taliban’s opium-producing heartland, are operating with less than half the cash they had a year ago, the commander of coalition forces in the area said Thursday.
U.S. Marine Corps Major General Richard Mills said Afghan government-led poppy eradication efforts, supported by the 30,000 troops he leads from six countries, had disrupted the opium trade significantly amid the current summer fighting season.
“We believe that the local insurgency here within the province has less than one-half of what they had last year in operating funds,” he said in a video briefing from the province to the Pentagon press room, citing what he called sensitive intelligence.
Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, produces more than half of the opium cultivated in Afghanistan, the source of about 90 percent of the global supply, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The drug crop is closely tied to the insurgency and the Taliban are funded in a large measure by the opium trade.
Mills said the insurgents were feeling the pinch, with less money available to buy sophisticated roadside bombs, their weapon of choice.
Instead they have been relying more on bullets, he said, adding that the insurgent groups were getting smaller each month.
The insurgents have been “driven to desperation” around Marjah, a long-time Taliban stronghold that the Afghan government and international forces are fighting to take back, Mills said. As a result, the insurgents were resorting to “murder and intimidation” of local residents to promote their goals, he said.
Coalition forces have not engaged in crop eradication for fear of angering local farmers. Mills said his forces attacked the poppy trade “only when it crosses over into the insurgency,” for instance to root out the networks used to smuggle drugs out to pay for weapons.
Such efforts, he said, have combined “to significantly deprive the insurgency of the money they so desperately need to operate.”
The Afghan Taliban last month rejected comments by U.S. Army General David Petraeus, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that their progress had been reversed, including in their Kandahar and Helmand provincial strongholds.
Violence across Afghanistan has reached record levels despite the presence of almost 150,000 U.S. and international troops.
Fighting against foreign forces has been particularly tough in the south, with thousands of U.S. and British troops engaged in clashes around Marjah in Helmand province. Helmand’s population is mainly made up of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, from which the Taliban movement draws most of its followers.
Editing by Eric Walsh