As U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, poppy trade it spent billions fighting still flourishes


Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in a poppy field in the Khogyani district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, in May. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
November 3, 2013

The United States is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan having lost its battle against the country’s narcotics industry, marking one of the starkest failures of the 2009 strategy the Obama administration pursued in an effort to turn around the war.

Despite a U.S. investment of nearly $7 billion since 2002 to combat it, the country’s opium market is booming, propelled by steady demand and an insurgency that has assumed an increasingly hands-on role in the trade, according to law enforcement officials and counternarcotics experts. As the war economy contracts, opium poppies, which are processed into heroin, are poised to play an ever larger role in the country’s economy and politics, undercutting two key U.S. goals: fighting corruption and weakening the link between the insurgency and the drug trade.

The Afghan army opted this spring for the first time in several years not to provide security to eradication teams in key regions, forgoing a dangerous mission that has long embittered rural Afghans who depend on the crop for their livelihoods.

Experts say that, in the end, efforts over the past decade to rein in cultivation were stymied by entrenched insecurity in much of the country, poverty, and the ambivalence — and, at times, collusion — of the country’s ruling class.

With a presidential election just months away, political will for anti-drug initiatives is weak among members of the Afghan elite, many of whom have become increasingly dependent on the proceeds of drugs as foreign funding dries up, said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan. “Money is less and less available within the licit economy,” he said. “The real danger is the weakened resistance to corruption and to involvement in a distorted political economy, which weakens your resistance to collusion with the enemy.”

As U.S. forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan — roughly 51,000 American troops are left, down from a peak of 100,000 — insurgents have fought particularly hard to reclaim lost ground in Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan’s poppy industry, U.S. military officials have said.

In its latest progress report on Afghanistan to Congress, the Pentagon warned that the 2013 poppy harvest was expected to be “considerably” bigger than 2012’s, citing warmer early-season weather, the drawdown of NATO troops and the high price for poppies.

The July report characterized the reach of counternarcotics efforts by the Afghan government and its foreign partners as “small but not insignificant.” The report noted that demand remains high, drug-smuggling networks remain resilient, and “insurgent penetration of that market is extensive and expanding.”

The UNODC is scheduled to release its yearly Afghan opium survey report next week. Experts and Western diplomats in Kabul have said they expect the report to show a dramatic expansion of cultivation from 2012, when the agency estimated that 154,000 hectares of land were used to harvest poppy.

U.S. officials say they have established a competent, well-trained Afghan counternarcotics police agency and a special drug court to discourage the trade. But the long-term sustainability of those efforts is uncertain as the West reassesses spending levels in Afghanistan after 2014, when the U.S. combat mission is due to end, and continues to shift increasing responsibility for security to the Afghans.

Haroon Rashid Sherzad, Afghanistan’s deputy counter­narcotics minister, said getting at the root causes of its drug problem would take a generation and vastly expanded regional cooperation.

“The concern I have is whether the international community realizes the importance of this problem for global instability and security,” he said in an interview, singling out regional neighbors in particular. “They should understand that the drug economy is fueling terrorism, destabilizing the region and the global village. It is vanishing the achievements of the past 10 years.”

Soon after the 2008 election, as the new Obama administration weighed a Pentagon request to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to the worsening conflict, the White House set out to overhaul its approach to counternarcotics. Until then, the United States and its allies in Afghanistan had turned a blind eye to the drug links of several warlords they backed.

Richard Holbrooke, who would become President Obama’s top envoy for the region, argued that the United States needed a robust inter­agency approach to fight the drug trade. It would include aggressive interdiction, strengthening rule-of-law institutions and taking down the heads of the trade — even if that meant pursuing senior government officials.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which had just more than a dozen agents in Afghanistan, deployed several dozen more to the war zone, embedding small teams in U.S. military bases. DEA officials said they became alarmed by how intertwined the trade and the insurgency had become. Taliban leaders had long taxed poppy farmers, but more insurgents were running drug labs and smuggling networks, investigators found.

“At first, they saw it as a means to achieve their ends, as a funding source,” said a senior DEA official in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment of the problem. “As so often happens with drugs, it corrupted them. You get money and power and influence and all those things through drug trafficking, not to mention houses and fancy cars.”

The booming trade had a peculiar feature that stunned agents who had tackled cartels in Colombia and Southeast Asia. Unlike drug networks in those regions, where rivalry among kingpins often turned violent, Afghan drug traffickers were surprisingly collaborative.

“They seem to operate more as a collective,” said the DEA official. “They’ll share land. They’ll share labs, chemists. It was surprising to those of us who came from areas where that was a problem.”

The DEA and members of Afghanistan’s counternarcotics police had considerable success in interdiction operations and brought a steady stream of cases to a drug tribunal funded by the U.S. and British governments. But few top kingpins were prosecuted. Extraditing cartel chiefs to the United States was not an option, because Kabul and Washington do not have an extradition treaty.

The State Department funded manual eradication initiatives that were run by provincial officials. It also established a monetary rewards system for governors of provinces that remained poppy-free or had significant declines in cultivation. The U.S. Agency for International Development, meanwhile, launched programs to increase the appeal of alternative crops.

Critics of the West’s counternarcotics policies say that while some of those initiatives were well thought out, ultimately they were too little, too late.

The office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction noted in its latest quarterly report that drug interdictions have dropped as the U.S. drawdown has gained steam. The DEA operations, the report added, will be largely constrained to Kabul; without the military, agents will have limited ability to move around the country safely. Drug trafficking is all but guaranteed to flourish unimpeded in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern provinces where the largest share of U.S. troops were killed during the war, the auditing agency warned.

“Poor security, a small Afghan [counternarcotics] security force, minimal assets and lack of intelligence to identify opium production networks are likely to allow drug traffickers to move and operate largely unimpeded in these important provinces,” the inspector general said in the September report.

Hajji Sha Wali, an elder in Helmand province, said poppy farmers were once open to heeding the calls from Kabul and international officials suggesting they plant alternative crops.

“They told us they would give us alternatives, build bridges for us, but they didn’t keep their promises,” Wali said in a phone interview from his home district, Marja. Most ordinary Afghans dislike the drug trade, he added, but a growing number are turning to it out of necessity or coercion. “But people are very impoverished, and costs are rising every day. Meanwhile, the armed opposition forces are getting people to plant poppy so they can make money from it.”

The senior DEA agent said the fight against drugs will probably become more challenging in the years ahead. “This is going to be the Afghans’ fight to carry forward,” he said. “We will continue to be here in some numbers to support and assist them and continue to advise, but it definitely has to be turned over to them.”

Lemahieu, the U.N. official, said the counternarcotics institutions the West is leaving behind represent a model of the type of effort that could ultimately make a dent. But they lack political support and remain woefully small, he said.

“If you leave 2,700 counternarcotics police to clean up Afghanistan of drug activity, good luck,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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