A look at Task Force Southwest and the American effort to cripple the Taliban drug trade

Editors Note: This is cross-posted from The Freq media where I currently write a weekly Afghanistan Update. 

Last month the commanding general of Task Force Southwest, Brig. Gen. Dale Alford, USMC, spent an hour talking with Macon All Marine Radio explaining his mission, his impression on the improved security in the Helmand province, and his take on the current peace talks. Dale has the unique distinction of serving in a combat zone at every rank from second lieutenant to brigadier general. If there is another Marine officer who can claim that distinction, I’ve never heard of him. It is rare to hear a task force commander, in a combat zone, spend an hour going over his assessment of the conflict with an interviewer who is a personal friend and also an experienced combat infantry officer. I’ve never heard of an interview like this, which is why I’m such a fan of the long form podcast interview model.

Since the arrival of TF Southwest, the Afghan Security Forces have expanded their control of the province from just Lashkar Gah (the provincial capitol) to 70% of the province — including most of the green zone and the Ring Road. Gen. Alford stressed that when the ANA 215 Corps goes on operations they are accompanied by drones that feed his control teams data in real time. Those teams (he has two) are co-located at the brigade level where they provide supporting fires and intelligence. That seems to be working and the small foot print combined with limited cost (in Washington dollars) would allow the United States to support similar task forces indefinitely.


General Dale Alford, USMC


TF Southwest is the Pentagon-preferred template for future American military operations and may prove an effective use of American military power in an areas of durable disorder. Deploying trainers who do not leave firm bases to fight with the men they train is an approach that some critics (me for one) question as a viable strategy. But it has the advantage of keeping American casualties low, and taking casualties at this stage of the Afghan War is our center of gravity. The American public will not tolerate significant loss of American life in combat operations in Afghanistan.

Gen. Alford also discussed the poppy problem at length, suggesting that the opium crop could be replaced with soy beans — much as tobacco was replaced by government subsidized soy beans in the American south. Unfortunately, in the farmlands of Helmand Province (Kandahar too), by 1975 over-irrigation and poor drainage had led to waterlogging and salination, damaging much of the farm lands (unless you are growing poppy). Efforts to mitigatethat damage stopped with the Soviet Invasion back in the 1970’s and they would have to be completed before any serious thoughts of growing soy beans could be entertained.

A better replacement crop would be industrial hemp, something the Afghans know how to grow already. Industrial hemp has huge potential in the textile markets but the money is in converting the hemp into industrial fiber products. That takes infrastructure or a stable logistical link to factories in China and neither of those will be available in Afghanistan anytime soon.

What was not discussed on the podcast was the recent Taliban attack on Camp Shorabak (where TF Southwest is currently housed). Long form podcasters like Mac tend to avoid “gotcha” journalism which is a good thing. What is more interesting or useful; an hour long talk with a general officer commanding in combat or the ambush of a CG by a media shill trying to maximize clicks by generating controversy?  When you listen to the podcast you are hearing a conversation between two experienced infantry officers who know each other well and are operating on a degree of trust. It’s an honest exchange of information without spin or hedging which makes it interesting.

What could the Gen. Alford say about the Taliban attack on Shorabak anyway (aside from the fact that it was pretty well organized)? The Taliban attacked the same base in 2012 when the Marines and Brits ran it and managed to destroy an entire squadron of Marine Harrier jump jets. The Taliban killed over a hundred ANA soldiers in an attack on an ANA firm base outside Mazar-i Sharif just last year. The Taliban has been infiltrating big bases for years and they will continue to do so because there are always gaps in a static defense or firm base perimeter, always. Even if you put your best troops in the static defense roll how many weeks or months of staring out into empty desert for 12 hours a day does it take to degrade alertness?

Soldiers are humans and humans are predictable, they establish routines, they get lazy and complacent, they make mistakes. In an eighteen-year-long war there are going to be setbacks because the enemy is competent and motivated, or he wouldn’t still be in the fight. Tactical setbacks do not prove or disprove that the Marines of TF Southwest are making a difference, only time will tell if these task forces were effective.

Gen. Alford listed a number of facts that support his contention that the Task Force is an effective way to buy time and develop the capacity of Afghan Security Forces while the peace process continues. He said, and virtually everyone involved with the Afghan process agrees, that these is no way to militarily “win” for the Afghan government. The exact same holds true for the Taliban. The TF Southwest model may prove to be effective which would an interesting development for future U.S. operations in durable pockets of disorder.

Also not discussed was the effort made last year to target the labs that process wet opium. In November of 2017, United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A… I’m going to start using this acronym more because it sounds cool) commenced a targeting campaign against drug labs to deny the Taliban the funds gained. In August of 2018, USFOR-A announcedthey had destroyed over 200 labs and denied the Taliban over 200 million in drug sales proceeds.

Screengrab from the Alcis article linked below

The problem with the USFOR-A claims were they did not withstand close scrutiny by journalist Richard Brittan of Alcis. Brittan identified 29 of the compounds hit in the Helmand province and, using satellite imagery databases, his team was able to see the history of those compounds over time. He sent field evaluators to survey the residents and found the results of the campaign were minimal because the costs of re-establishing the labs were minimal. His article can be found here, and is worth reading.

Another screen grab for the Alcis report showing how fast processing labs are re-built after being destroyed.

The drug lab campaign was quietly ended a year after it started because it didn’t offer any return on investment. A good reason Gen. Alford and Mac didn’t talk about it is that Task Force Southwest had nothing to do with the campaign, that’s DEA and spook work, and I bet you money Gen. Alford could have predicted the outcome of that program anyway — I know him; he’s sharp and has a lot of time in the Helmand province.

Opium production in Afghanistan has, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, increased dramatically in recent years. Reading the linked report is depressing, but it did answer the question of what happened in Nimroz province after we fixed the irrigation systems, check out the map below that I pulled from the linked article:

Charborjak district is now a major producer and there wasn’t a drop of water flowing into those lands before we fixed the irrigation system in 2010.

Despite being the number one elicit opium producer in the world, Afghan heroin has little to do with the current opioid crisis in America. Those drugs come from Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala. But regardless of origin, there is only one way to battle the opioid problem in America — just as there is only one way to deprive the Taliban of the millions they are making on the poppy — and that is to legalize drugs.

According to Johaan Hari, author of the recent bestseller Chasing the Scream, everything you know about addiction is wrong. When you read about the Swiss program of providing addicts their daily dose for free at government clinics, it is hard to believe that is an effective treatment option. When you read on about similar programs in Portugal or Vancouver, it is hard not to see the utility of the approach.

A comprehensive program based on the Swiss model could stop the opioid crisis dead in its tracks. If the United States did that, most of the the world would follow. In fact, most of the world was forced to opt into our war on drugs back in 50’s. That effort was lead by the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger — as virulent a racist who has ever served on the national stage.

Type Harry J. Anslinger quotes in Google and standby… you won’t believe your eyes. Here, I’ll give you a tame one: “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” The War on Drugs started because Anslinger (who was ignorant, but neither stupid or lazy) needed to grow a bureau created out of the old Revenue office after prohibition was repealed, just before his appointment. Regardless of its origins, there is no question that the war on drugs has been a dismal failure — and an incredibly expensive one, at that. Here is a historical note that renders the current opioid crisis narrative of the “chemical hook” model of addiction suspect. In 1971 35% of the servicemen in Vietnam had tried heroin and 20% were addicted. James Clear picks up the story in this article from Behavioral Psychology, How Vietnam War Veterans Broke Their Heroin Addictions:

“The discovery led to a flurry of activity in Washington, including the creation of the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention under President Nixon, to promote prevention and rehabilitation and to track addicted service members when they returned home.“

Lee Robins was one of the researchers from that special action office. In a finding that completely upended the accepted beliefs about addiction, Robins found that when soldiers who had been heroin users returned home, only 5 percent of them became re-addicted within a year, and just 12 percent relapsed within three years. In other words, approximately nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addiction nearly overnight”.

Johaan Hari musters a good argument about the utility of currently banned drugs and the folly of the War on Drugs. So did Michael Pollan in last year’s NYT bestseller How to Change Your Mind. A quote from this New York Times article about the book explains Pollan’s understanding of the neural physiology behind psychedelic experiences:

“Where Pollan truly shines is in his exploration of the mysticism and spirituality of psychedelic experiences. Many LSD or psilocybin trips — even good trips — begin with an ordeal that can feel scarily similar to dissolving, or even dying. What appears to be happening, in a neurological sense, is that the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence — the default mode network, it’s called — drops away. An older, more primitive part of the brain emerges, one that’s analogous to a child’s mind, in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and a capacity for awe and wonder is stronger.”

The statistics Pollan musters from legitimate medical studies in the 50’s and 60’s regarding the effectiveness of LSD in treating smoking or alcohol addiction were stunning. That is why there are medical trials being conducted today in many countries, including America, on using psychedelics (a.k.a. entheogens) to treat a variety of problems from end-of-life acceptance to alcoholism to PTSD. Our laws regarding drugs are going to change. The sooner they change towards rationally treating addicts with the drugs they need — while guiding towards establishing meaning and purpose in their lives — the better.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I have no experience with entheogens, although if offered I’d certainly try them. I can’t imagine that happening and it’s not on my bucket list, so I really don’t care. If they prove effective in treating PTSD, then I’m an advocate — but it is too early to make that claim. None of the science discussed in the books linked above is settled. But that’s the nature of science, it’s mostly never settled. Researches must keep an open mind and follow the evidence before any scientific question can be considered “settled”. Right now the evidence researchers are finding is encouraging.

What I know is there is no way to rid Afghanistan of the poppy, except by devaluing the crop. Just as there is no way to beat the Taliban as long as they have safe sanctuary in Pakistan. We are not in a position to effect the cross border problem nor the booming poppy economy. The continued commitment of units like Task Force Southwest may prove to be the only way to buy Afghanistan the time and space it needs to solidify into a viable state. But we will need a lot more time and a lot more money to do this, and I do not see how the United States will find enough of either for too much longer.

Featured image: HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (May 8, 2009) – An Afghan National Police officer picks up a bag of opium. Afghan National Police officers, along with U.S. Special Operations Soldiers, discovered 600 pounds of opium May 7, 2009, during a cordon and search operation of a known Taliban safe house, collection center and trauma center in Babaji Village, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Photo by Cpl. Sean K. Harp, U.S. Army.