Musa Qala in the north of Helmand province has been one of the key battle grounds in the fight for control of Afghanistan.
The recapture of the town in December 2007 was hailed in the West as a hugely symbolic success and the vindication of a policy of giving the Afghan army a greater role in military operations.
Helmand is the Taliban’s heartland, and also the source of more than half the country’s opium — a consequence, perhaps, of the West’s failure to impose its authority there.
Poppy production remains one of the pillars of the Afghan economy despite efforts to control it. A drive to curtail output in 2008 only reduced it by an estimated 6 percent. Today the UN believes Afghanistan provides 90 of the worlds poppy supplies.
The 2008 harvest had a reputed value of around 518 million euros. By the time it got to its target markets it was worth almost 2.5 half billion. Unsurprisingly it accounts for a massive slice of Gross Domestic Product.
But it is also estimated that only about 20 percent of that wealth is returned to the country. Afghanistan is one of the five poorest countries in the wolrd. Many struggle in poverty and when basic food prices surge, as they did last year, anger can boils over into street protests.
The figures make grim reading for an already impoverished state. Once strong growth collapsed to 3.4 percent, while inflation soared to 27 percent. 42 percent of Afghans now live on less than one euro a day.
The economic importance of poppy growth to ordinary Afghans is a major obstacle to the eradication of the crop in Helmand, as much, some analysts say, as the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s population is 80 percent rural but many do not have access to water, land for cultivation or the kind of micro-credits that have helped farmers flourish in other developing countries. Some experts believe the West should give as much priority to an economic development strategy, as to a military one.