As the United States shrinks its civilian presence in Afghanistan, limiting its ability to combat the country’s booming drug industry, U.S. officials intend to establish an intelligence center in Bahrain to continue fighting the trade.
The center in the tiny Persian Gulf nation, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, will be an “integral part” of the Defense Department’s post-2014 strategy in Afghanistan, Erin Logan, who oversees the Pentagon’s counternarcotics efforts, said Wednesday afternoon.
“The center will help fill the gap where space for personnel on the ground in Afghanistan is no longer available,” she told a Senate panel on narcotics control.
Lawmakers and the inspector general overseeing reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan said they were alarmed that a problem that Washington has spent billions of dollars trying to combat is likely to worsen and further destabilize Afghanistan at a critical time.
John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said that during a recent visit to the country, Afghan and U.S. officials conveyed to him that Afghanistan’s drug problem is “dire, with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond,” after the end of the U.S. combat mission.
“The narcotics trade is poisoning the Afghan financial sector and fueling a growing illicit economy,” said Sopko, who has launched an audit of U.S. counternarcotics efforts. “This, in turn, is undermining the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”
Cultivation of opium poppies, which are processed to make heroin, reached a record high of 516,450 acres last year, according to the United Nations. The statistic raised questions about the return on Washington’s $7 billion investment in efforts to root out poppy cultivation and break the link between the trade and the insurgency. Administration officials conceded that those efforts are going to become more challenging.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's mission in Kabul, which included nearly 100 personnel as of the end of last year, is in the midst of its own drawdown. Although staffing plans have not been finalized, the agency intends to trim its personnel to 45 permanent slots by October and 25 to 30 by the end of the year, according to a document outlining the plans that was obtained by The Washington Post.
James L. Capra, the agency’s chief of operations, testified that DEA agents will soon lose the ability to travel easily across the country, particularly to provinces in the south that form the backbone of the poppy industry.
“Currently, the government of Afghanistan is not capable of absorbing or replicating the scale of assistance provided by the international community,” he said.
DEA agents hope to continue working with and supporting elite Afghan police units that have carried out drug investigations in recent years, Capra said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the counter-narcotics panel, called Afghanistan’s drug trade a problem with “no easy solution,” adding that new approaches must be found. “We ignore it at our peril,” she said.
Feinstein said Washington should attempt to collaborate on counternarcotics efforts with Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan and is a leading destination and crossing point of the heroin trade.
“There may be many areas of disagreement, but this is one where we should agree,” she said.