The U.S. government wasted $7.6 billion on an ill-conceived drug war in Afghanistan that was doomed to failure from the start, according to a scathing new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The Afghan opium poppy crop, providing the raw material for the bulk of the world's heroin supply, reached record levels in 2013 and is likely to climb even higher this year, the report finds.
"The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability" of the past decade of counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, Special Inspector General John F. Sopko concludes. "Given the severity of the opium problem and its potential to undermine U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, I strongly suggest that your departments consider the trends in opium cultivation and the effectiveness of past counter-narcotics efforts when planning future initiatives."
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown, who has written extensively about the relationship between drug economies and military conflict, is not at all surprised by the findings. "A lot of these programs were counterproductive," she told me, "and more importantly did not really address the structural drivers of [poppy] cultivation."
At its root, the Afghan poppy trade is just a symptom of a much broader problem: Afghanistan is "an extremely weak state with an extremely weak economy, and huge insecurity," Felbab-Brown said. Given the uncertainties, many Afghan farmers turn to poppy because they know they can turn a profit off it.
Until Obama took office, most U.S. anti-drug efforts were focused on unsustainable crop eradication efforts. Starting in 2009, U.S. policies focused more on economic development and the structural drivers of poppy cultivation, but Felbab-Brown says the implementation of these programs has been deeply flawed.
Unrealistic timeframes were a big problem - policymakers were showering Afghan provinces with money hoping to deliver results within six to twelve months. Felbab-Brown says policy horizons of 10 to 15 years would be much more realistic considering how much of the Afghan economy currently depends in one way or another on poppy cultivation.
"20 to 30 percent of Afghanistan's economy is linked to opium poppy," she said. "That's enormous." By contrast, at the height of the cocaine boom in Columbia, roughly 3 to 5 percent of that economy depended on cocaine.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan will lead to a natural adjustment of some of the previous policy excesses. "Much will be corrected simply because the US won’t be present in the same scale," Felbab-Brown said.
Still, parts of the U.S. government are still eager to pursue the same old policies in Afghanistan. The State Department requested $137.5 million in funding for counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan for fiscal year 2014, a $31 million increase over fiscal year 2012. Poppy eradication programs remain a major focus of these programs. USAID is requesting $50 million for alternative crop development programs, despite reaching only 25 percent of their alternative crop planting goal in 2012.