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As U.S. forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan — roughly 51,000 American troops are left, down from a peak of 100,000 — insurgents have fought particularly hard to reclaim lost ground in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.