Afghan men gather raw opium on a poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad. Photo: Reuters/Parwiz
Afghan men gather raw opium on a poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad. Photo: Reuters/Parwiz

The amount of money the US government has spent trying to wipe out Afghan opium since 2002 has now reached $8.94 billion, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted in his latest quarterly report to Congress on October 30.

Afghanistan is far and away the world’s largest opium producer and has been for the entire period since the US invaded and occupied the country in late 2001. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2018 Afghan Opium Survey, Afghan farmers were cultivating about 60,700 hectares of opium poppies in the late 1990s, but around 121,400 hectares a year in the mid-2000s.

As the US occupation dragged on, opium cultivation generally climbed throughout the 2010s, peaking at more than 323,700 hectares in 2017. That equates to about 9 tons of raw opium produced that year, with the heroin produced from it going into the veins of addicts from Lahore to London.

The SIGAR report also noted that although drought had caused poppy cultivation to drop by 20% last year, “it remained at the second-highest level since the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) began monitoring it in 1994.”

So, despite spending nearly $9 billion, the US war on Afghan opium has not only not succeeded but has seen the poppy foe steadily gain ground. And even though drought struck the crop in 2018, opium still exceeded the value of all of Afghanistan’s licit exports combined and accounted for between 6% and 11% of its gross domestic product.

For Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and a longtime observer of US policies aimed at drug-producing countries – not just Afghanistan – the SIGAR report spoke volumes.

“Over a similar period in Colombia, the US wasted $10 billion,” he said. “I guess we can conclude the drug war failed more efficiently in Afghanistan.”

To be fair, the US effort against opium has faced huge hurdles. Because of its crucial role in the national economy, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to farmworkers and incomes to farmers, moves to suppress the crop meet entrenched resistance – and that’s where the national government is in control.

But the Taliban control roughly half the country, and in those areas, they don’t try to repress the opium trade, but to tax it. According to a British Broadcasting Corporation report, the Taliban generate somewhere between US$100 million and $400 million from taxes on opium farmers, producers and traders. That’s not the bulk of Taliban revenues, but it is a significant boost for the insurgency.

When it comes to suppressing illicit drug crops, there are three main approaches: eradication, interdiction, and alternative development. According to the new SIGAR report, all three have proved ineffectual in Afghanistan.

Interdiction – the effort to suppress the trade by arresting traffickers and seizing drugs – has been the bailiwick of Afghan security forces funded by the US. But the SIGAR report notes that despite their “strong performance” and their “improved capabilities over the years,” their activities have had “minimal impact on the country’s opium-poppy cultivation and production.” It notes that all opium seizures since 2002 only add up to about 8% of the production of the single year of 2018.

With the Afghan government announcing early this year that it was abolishing the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and moving its functions to other government entities, in essence no eradication took place this year

Eradication isn’t going very well, either. With the Afghan government announcing early this year that it was abolishing the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and moving its functions to other government entities, in essence no eradication took place this year, the SIGAR report found. Only about 400 hectares were eradicated last year and 800 the year before. And Helmand province, the biggest poppy producer, saw no eradication at all between 2016 and 2018.

“Eradication efforts have had minimal impact on curbing opium-poppy cultivation,” the SIGAR report concluded. “The Afghan government has struggled to perform eradication due to the security challenges in poppy-growing areas. Since 2008, on average, annual eradication efforts resulted in eradicating only 2% of the total yearly opium-poppy cultivation.”

That may not be a bad thing, Tree said.

“Forced eradication usually forces peasant farmers into food insecurity,” he explained. “Panic sets in. How will they feed their families next week, next month, or next year? What’s the one crop they know how to grow, for which there are ready and willing buyers, and doesn’t require transportation infrastructure like bulky fruits and vegetables? Of course, farmers replant. But this time, they’ve had to borrow money from traffickers to survive and they become even more ensnared in the drug economy.”

The third leg of the anti-drug effort is alternative development. But of the nearly $9 billion the US has invested in the Afghan drug war, less than 5% has gone to such programs. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Regional Agricultural Development Plan has received $221 million since 2002, while another $173 million has been spent on alternative development programs. The US Defense Department, meanwhile, spent $4.57 billion on counter-narcotics during the same period.

But alternative development efforts appear to be waning. An important program, the Good Performers Initiative, which sought to encourage provincial-level anti-drug efforts, ended this year with the transfer of its last two programs to the Afghan government. But even here, the SIGAR report found, “the program was deemed ‘ineffectual at curbing opium cultivation.’”

It appears that no matter how many billions the US spends to wipe out Afghan opium, its money is flushed down the drain. Maybe it’s time to try something different.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug-policy journalist for the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit, and has been the editor of AlterNet’s Drug Reporter since 2015. He received the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

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