A new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction provides another painful reminder that despite $7.6 billion of counter-narcotics efforts over the past decade, illegal opium poppy cultivation is at an all-time high in Afghanistan – helping to fuel a heroin epidemic in the United States.
The U.S. government’s efforts have been so dismally ineffective that John F. Sopko, the special inspector general, questioned the advisability of trying to do any more in a letter to federal agencies last week.
“In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the U.S. government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production,” he wrote last week. “However, the recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts.”
Afghanistan is the world's top cultivator of the poppy, which is used to produce opium and heroin. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares (or 516,000 acres) in 2013, up 36 percent from the previous year and substantially more than the previous peak in 2007.
Poppy cultivation has been on the rise since the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan began in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks against the United States. With deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014, according to experts.
The costly debacle in attempting to tamp down poppy production in Afghanistan is even more galling considering that the United States is in the throes of one of the worst heroin epidemics in its history, due largely to a flood of cheap doses of the drug from both Afghanistan and Mexico, according to media reports.
“In some regions, heroin is deemed "highly available" by local police in more than three times the number of communities as it was just seven years ago,” according to a report by delawareonline. Police Chief Michael Schirling of Burlington, Vt., told the publication, “We've got soccer moms on heroin.… You walk down any street in any town in Vermont right now and chances are there is at least one house where someone is dealing with this. This is a completely underground, behind-closed-doors phenomenon.”
Poppy cultivation in in Afghanistan thus has proved to be a double edged sword, helping to fuel the surge in heroin use in this country while undercutting the Afghan government’s largely feeble efforts at reform.
“The narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups,” Sopko said in his letter last week to the heads of the Departments of Defense, State and Justice, which have all played major roles in the failed drug intervention effort. “Despite spending over $7 billion to combat opium poppy cultivation and to develop the Afghan government’s counter-narcotics capacity, opium poppy cultivation levels in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013.”
This failed drug intervention efforts constitute only a fraction of the enormous sums wasted by the U.S. since the start of the war in Afghanistan. In March of 2013, The Fiscal Times reported that the U.S. had spent nearly $100 billion to rebuild Afghanistan in the last decade, but auditors could only account for 10 percent of that money.
Sopko’s letter to agency heads follows his report to Congress in May that detailed scores of shortcomings in U.S. and Afghan government efforts to move farmers away from the lucrative drug trade. The U.S. government spent billions through the Pentagon’s Afghan Security Forces and Drug Interdiction funds, the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Fund, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Economic Support Fund – all for naught.
While opium-poppy cultivation was reaching record levels in recent years, seizures of opium and heroin in Afghanistan declined sharply from 2011 to 2013, according to the report. The amount seized by agents and authorities was the equivalent of about one percent of annual opium production.
“The United States’ drug control policy has shifted in recent years from eradication to interdiction and agricultural development assistance that aims to provide farmers with alternative livelihoods,” Sopko said in his letter to lawmakers in May. “The drug trade undermines the Afghan government because it funds the insurgency, fuels corruption, and distorts the economy.”
Because of the relatively high opium prices and the rise of an inexpensive, skilled, and mobile labor force, “much of this newly-arable land is dedicated to opium cultivation,” Sopko says. Indeed, poppy-growing provinces that were once declared 'poppy free' have seen a resurgence in cultivation, he wrote.
For example, Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, “considered a model for successful counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics efforts and deemed ‘poppy free’ by the UNODC in 2008,” saw a fourfold increase in opium poppy cultivation between 2012 and 2013. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has estimated that the value of the opium and its derivative products produced in Afghanistan was nearly $3 billion in 2013, up from $2 billion in 2012 – a 50 percent increase.
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