The Looming Narco-State in Afghanistan

Afghan farmers are growing more opium today than at any time in recent memory, according to America’s watchdog in the country.
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Afghan farmers work at a poppy field in Jalalabad province, on May 5, 2012. (Reuters/Parwiz)

Testifying Wednesday before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, offered a grim assessment of the war-torn country—and revealed startling details about America’s hapless reconstruction efforts there.

Few have a job as challenging as Sopko’s. As the inspector general, he must study our actions and spending, and uncover and investigate examples of fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption. Since the U.S. has spent the last 12 years blasting dollars into Afghanistan, “following the money” is a task on the order of investigating grains of sand in the desert. Still, Sopko and his team have proven to be uncompromising, inexhaustible, and enormously effective. His office is independent; he is not beholden to the usual feudal lords in Washington. As Congress has decided to sit this war out, Sopko has proven to be the conflict’s only real oversight mechanism.

Since taking charge in 2012, he’s uncovered everything from $230 million in missing spare parts to spending on diesel running $500 per gallon (when the going rate was around $5 per gallon). Thanks to Sopko, American taxpayers learned that they bought $200,000 thermostats for air conditioners in a small medical clinic that was never completed—and according to the Afghan government, was probably never going to be used. And that’s just in the areas to which he has access. Because of security concerns, by next year his office will be restricted to a mere 21 percent of the country.

And according to Sopko’s congressional testimony, things are bad. Really bad.

Since the fall of the Taliban government at the start of the war, the United States has invested $10 billion to fight the Afghan drug trade, through efforts such as ending poppy cultivation, halting the manufacture of narcotics, establishing drug treatment programs, and building a robust counternarcotics police force and criminal justice system. This might be money well spent, as 90 percent of the world’s opium originates in Afghanistan. No effort to build a stable nation there can succeed amid the hurricane forces of financial and institutional corruption that come with a thriving drug trade.

But 12 years and $10 billion later, according to Sopko’s testimony, “Afghan farmers are growing more opium poppies today than at any time in their modern history,” and despite the “mammoth investment” of American dollars and blood, “more land in Afghanistan is under poppy cultivation today than it was when the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2002.”

Still, the optimist might argue, good policies under hard conditions take time to bear fruit. So five years after President Obama assumed decisive control over our strategy in Afghanistan and tripled the number of U.S. service members in that war, are his efforts finally set to pay dividends? Said Sopko: “In the opinion of almost everyone I spoke with, the situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond.” As a result, “All of the fragile gains we have made over the last twelve years on women’s issues, health, education, rule of law, and governance are now, more than ever, in jeopardy of being wiped out by the narcotics trade which not only supports the insurgency, but also feeds organized crime and corruption.”

One-third of the Taliban’s funding is thought to come from opium. And though U.S. officials have remained fixed in the denial stage of the Kübler-Ross model, claiming that we can work with elements of the Taliban, the news remains bleak all the same. According to Sopko, “It is widely thought that every drug organization supports or works with insurgents in Afghanistan.”

The exhausted American might wonder: Why does it matter? With the litany of problems in Afghanistan, why should we care about fields of pink flowers and the drugs they yield? This is a fair question, but assumes that the drug trade is an island unto itself. Not so, according to the inspector general. “Opium cultivation and insecurity go hand in hand,” the report noted. “About 89% of total poppy cultivation this year occurred in Afghanistan’s southern and western regions, where insurgents and criminal networks are strongest.”

And the problem is spreading. Nangarhar, the eastern province in Afghanistan whose capital is Jalalabad, was declared “poppy free” in 2008 and had been hailed as a model province. In the span of one year, however—from 2012 to 2013—poppy cultivation has increased 500 percent, now covering 15,719 hectares of the province.

***

It’s hard to make the argument that the United States has ever waged a drug war effectively, and our work in Afghanistan is no exception to that. In 2002, we had a sweep-and-destroy policy for poppy fields in Afghanistan that yielded little success. As the late Richard Holbrooke, America’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in 2009, “[Those policies] did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people and drove people into the arms of the Taliban.”

A more sensible policy was thus implemented, in which the U.S. would encourage and assist farmers in planting alternative crops such as saffron and grapes. Executed in parallel were training programs to establish an Afghan equivalent of the Drug Enforcement Administration; drug interdiction programs to get drugs off the black market; and the use of forensic accounting to squeeze Taliban revenues at their sources. At the local level, basic security measures were implemented to provide law-and-order in villages and towns, and rehab clinics were established to help addicts. In other words, the U.S. led a full-spectrum effort to provide a better life for the average Afghan, which would in turn make poppy cultivation less appealing. “Nonetheless,” said Sopko, “on my last trip to Afghanistan no one at the Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the U.S. government counternarcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after the 2014 transition.”

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David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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