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.

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.”

Surprised? So was Sopko. “I was astonished to find that the counternarcotics effort does not seem to be a top priority during this critical transition period and beyond,” he wrote. Given the nature of narcotics as a sustaining force for the insurgency, both in terms of funding and as leverage over the Afghan populace, one would think any plan for withdrawal would make counternarcotics central to a lasting (or, at least, plausible) strategy for peace.

Even granting a pass to the execution and effectiveness of our counternarcotics program, as the inspector general noted, “the United States does not have a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy even though Afghanistan is universally recognized as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The narcotics trade is fueling that corruption.” In September, SIGAR, as Sopko’s office is known, released an extensive and wholly depressing report noting that the United States has no clear strategy on fighting corruption and no metric for success. Plans had previously been drafted to do just such things, but were never finalized and eventually found a home in some drawer at the State Department; the proposals have since expired.

In place of a coherent strategy to fight corruption, officials adopted guidelines from two documents: the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework and the U.S. Civil-Military Strategic Framework for Afghanistan. The inspector general studied the documents, and noticed something conspicuously absent: “specific goals and objectives with measurable outcomes for anti-corruption activities against which the U.S. government can measure its progress.”

Arguably, this is part of the U.S. government’s broader plan to declare victory and go home. After all, if your plan lacks stated objectives, and elides both a standard of success and a way of measuring progress, who can really say we didn’t win the war? Who’s to say our anti-corruption efforts haven’t been a resounding success? Reality, it seems, is whatever we decree it to be.

And still it’s worse than that.

Earlier this month, SIGAR released a report on Afghanistan’s banking sector. “Forensic audits of major commercial banks in Afghanistan have identified systemic weaknesses in many areas of banking governance and operations, including personnel capacity, internal controls, accounting, credit analysis, and compliance with regulations,” the study noted. “[The central bank of Afghanistan’s] ongoing limitations and inability to conduct robust oversight allows such weaknesses in Afghan banks to remain unchecked, heightening the risk of another banking crisis.”

In other words, except for everything a bank is supposed to do, and every safeguard a bank is supposed to have, the banks in Afghanistan are great. This is particularly problematic in the context of the illicit drug trade, as corrupt banks make following money trails difficult, and lend themselves to money-laundering operations—a known and ongoing problem in the country.


Security in Afghanistan is deteriorating and law enforcement is a mess. Even the prisons have become a problem. In 2009, the Counternarcotics Justice Center in Afghanistan opened prisons specifically built for drug offenders. Within three months, the jails were filled with “low-profile detainees,” leaving no room for—you guessed it!—drug offenders. At any rate, the Counternarcotics Justice Center lacks procedures to handle a high caseload, which isn’t a big deal—unless your country produces 90 percent of the world’s opium.

As the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan, so too is the Drug Enforcement Agency. Forget advising forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces—the twin poppy capitals of the world. As the inspector general reports, “without military support for security, intelligence, medical evacuation, and tactical air control for high-risk operations, DEA will have little ability to extend its operations beyond Kabul.” The upshot is the DEA is soon to become yet another U.S. agency ensconced at our fortress in Kabul, sealed behind Roman testudo-style blast walls and fences draped with anti-sniper netting.

Sopko concluded his testimony with an ominous assessment of things to come. “The people I spoke with in Afghanistan in my last few trips talked about two possible outcomes following the 2014 transition in Afghanistan: a successful modern state, or an insurgent state,” he wrote. “However, there is a third possibility: a narco-criminal state. Absent effective counternarcotics programs and Afghan political will to seriously tackle this grave problem, that third outcome may become a reality.”