US troops aren’t protecting much of anything, now that there are only 10,000 of them in Afghanistan. But to better answer your question, no, US troops are not now and never did protect opium fields.
- I have also seen photos of soldiers walking alongside these plants. What does that prove? That they are operating in an opium-rich area? It’s Afghanistan. Of course there are poppy fields. What do you expect them to do about it? The unit isn’t going to abandon whatever mission it was one the first time someone finds an opium plant.
Soldier: “Hey Sarge, I found a poppy!”
Sergeant: “Holy shit! A poppy! Are you kidding me? Everyone stop! Find a flamethrower! We have to deal with this right goddamned now!”
2) Every soldier that goes to Afghanistan costs $$$, not just in transportation costs but also food, housing, equipment, etc. Congress only authorizes a limited amount of soldiers to be in theater at any given time. We can’t just flood an unlimited number of soldiers into theater. So every soldier that you task to perform poppy eradication is one soldier that is cannot be tasked with hunting the enemy. Which task should take priority, then?
The US DID, in fact, invest a significant amount into poppy eradication. Something like $7.6 billion at last report. Again, I have to ask, what do you really expect them to do about it? They burn a poppy field and it just gets replanted next season. There is no way to permanently and completely wipe out every opium plant at once. Do you expect us to be dropping Agent Orange over half of Helmand province? Because that worked out so well last time we tried it? Come to think of it, when have drug eradication efforts EVER been a phenomenal success?
What do you think happens when someone DOES burn a poppy field? Do you really think the Afghan farmers just plant wheat instead? Afghanistan is basically THE poorest country on Earth. Farmers make vastly more money off opium than they would from food crops. More importantly, they often go into debt with warlords and drug smugglers to fund their poppy fields in the first place. So when the eradication teams wipe out a poppy field, how does that look to them? When you eradicate someone’s livelihood and they have to sell their daughters as sex slaves to pay off their debts to drug dealers, they tend to be rather cross with you. To put it mildly. So then they join the Taliban or whatever other drug-fueled insurgent group is operating in their area and they try to take revenge on the evil foreigners who burned their crops. It’s not like they can just get a job at Wal-Mart, after all. So in the long run you just end up pissing people off and creating more terrorists/insurgents.
If you can figure out how to untangle that ball of string in a way that makes everyone happy, please let me know.