Losing The Opium War


A new report (pdf) from the office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, reveals that poppy production in Afghanistan hit a record high of 209,000 hectares last year, despite a $7.6 billion eradication effort:

“In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the U.S. government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production,” Sopko said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials. “The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts,” he said.

No shit, Sherlock. Keating notes that poppy production “actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since”:

The drop in cultivation prior to 2009 probably had less to do with military efforts than with economic factors. Thanks to drought and a global spike in food prices during that period, the gross income ratio of poppies relative to wheat fell from 10-to-1 in 2007 to 3-to-1 in 2008. Since then, global wheat prices have eased—they’re pretty low at the moment—and the price of poppies has increased, and farmers have gone back to the harder stuff. Eastern Nangahar province, which was declared opium-free and touted as a counternarcotics success story in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in cultivation last year.

Farmers may also be hedging their bets in anticipation of the departure of NATO forces—the majority are pulling out at the end of this year, leaving behind a smaller contingent of U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. The majority of Afghanistan’s poppies are still grown in the Taliban-dominated Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but cultivation has been increasing around government-controlled Kabul as well.

Jason Koebler compares Afghanistan to South America:

Though the situation is a little different because the US has been engaged in an all out war-war in Afghanistan and not just a war-on-drugs war as it has been in South America with cocaine, the failures and patterns appear to be very similar to what has happened there. In South America, for instance, when Colombia or Peru (backed with US money) has tried to curb coca cultivation by applying aerial herbicide, farmers have simply gone to more remote areas or started growing coca plants in between other crops in order to disguise what they were doing.

In the short term, prices go up when supply temporarily falls, then stabilize once the already skilled farmers relocate and get supply back up to normal or record levels. The overall profits flowing into potentially dangerous coffers (in South America, drug cartels; in Afghanistan, the Taliban or local warlords) don’t really change all that much.

So where did all that money go? Ryan Devereaux answers:

While U.S. efforts have failed to effectively diminish drug trafficking in Afghanistan, they have succeeded in making a handful of private security companies increasingly rich, a point that is not addressed in the inspector general’s report. In 2009, official responsibility for training Afghan police forces was shifted from the State Department to an obscure branch of the Pentagon known as Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office (CNTPO), which took over the roughly $1 billion contract. In waging the privatized war on drugs, CNTPO has partnered with such corporate security giants as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, ARINC, DynCorp and U.S. Training Center, a subsidiary of the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

AJ Vicens reminds us why this matters:

Drug addiction is a major problem in Afghanistan, with as many 1 million people addicted to opium, heroin, and other drugs—including children as young as four. In a joint statement that prefaced the release of the 2013 data, Din Mohammad Mobariz Rashidi, Afghanistan’s acting minister of counternarcotics, and Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UNODC, said that Afghan and American officials are making progress, and that authorities seize roughly 10 percent of Afghan poppy production. But, they continued, not enough “powerful figures” are being prosecuted. That could be a reference to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s brother, who was accused of having strong connections to the Afghan heroin trade.

Also, as James Weir and Hekmatullah Azamy’s research indicates, access to the lucrative drug trade and other illicit activities is the main draw for Afghans who join up with the Taliban:

In early 2014 we conducted research that examined violent extremism and Taliban networks with the hope of bridging differences between insurgent groups, community elders, and the Afghan government. In interviews with active, former, and imprisoned Taliban, tribal leaders, and government officials in Helmand and Herat provinces of Afghanistan a consensus emerged: joining the insurgency pays well, especially in a countryside marked by insecurity and economic stagnation. And more important than an insurgent salary, — Taliban rarely mentioned, and most emphatically denied, ideological or political inspiration — being associated with the Taliban enables quasi-independent profiteering from a diverse array of illegal activities.