America's Afghanistan Anti-Drug Boondoggle Nears the $9 Billion Mark

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The amount of money the U.S. government has spent trying to wipe out Afghan opium since it invaded the country in 2002 has now reached $8.94 billion, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted in his latest quarterly report to Congress on October 30.

One striking illustration of the folly of strategies developed by the US and its allies was paying farmers large sums to destroy opium crops. The Washington Post reports:
  • “In the spring of 2002, British officials…agreed to pay Afghan poppy farmers $700 an acre  a fortune in the impoverished, war-ravaged country — to destroy their crops.
  • Word of the $30 million program ignited a poppy-growing frenzy. Farmers planted as many poppies as they could, offering part of their yield to the British while selling the rest on the open market. Others harvested the opium sap right before destroying their plants and got paid anyway.
  • In a Lessons Learned interview, Anthony Fitzherbert, a British agricultural expert, called the cash-for-poppies program “an appalling piece of complete raw naivete,” saying that the people in charge had “no knowledge of nuances and [I] don’t know they really cared.”
  • U.S. officials said the British wanted to be seen as doing something, even though they had little confidence the program would work. Michael Metrinko, a former U.S. diplomat who served in the embassy in Kabul at the time, said the results were predictable.”

Nine billion dollars later, Afghanistan’s opium productions rolls on undaunted.

Afghanistan is far and away the world’s largest opium producer and has been for the entire period since the U.S. invaded and occupied the country in late 2001. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2018 Afghan Opium Survey, Afghan farmers were cultivating about 150,000 acres of opium poppies in the late 1990s, but around 300,000 acres a year in the mid-2000s.

As the US occupation dragged on, opium cultivation generally climbed throughout the 2010s, peaking at more than 800,000 acres in 2017.  That equates to about nine tons of raw opium produced that year, with the heroin produced from it going into the veins of addicts from Lahore to London. 

The SIGAR report also noted that although drought had caused poppy cultivation to drop by 20% last year, “it remained at the second-highest level since the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) began monitoring it in 1994.”

So, despite spending nearly $9 billion, the U.S. war on Afghan opium has not only not succeeded but has seen the poppy foe steadily gain ground. And even though drought struck the crop in 2018, opium still exceeded the value of all of Afghanistan’s licit exports combined and accounted for between 6 and 11 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.

For Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and a long-time observer of U.S. policies aimed at drug producing countries—not just Afghanistan—the SIGAR report spoke volumes.

“Over a similar period in Colombia, the U.S. wasted $10 billion,” he said. “I guess we can conclude the drug war failed more efficiently in Afghanistan.”

To be fair, the U.S. effort against opium has faced huge hurdles. Because of its crucial role in the national economy, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to farm workers and incomes to farmers, moves to suppress the crop meet entrenched resistance—and that’s where the national government is in control. 

But the Taliban controls roughly half the country, and in those areas, it doesn’t try to repress the opium trade, but to tax it. According to a BBC report, the Taliban generates somewhere between $100 million and $400 million from taxes on opium farmers, producers, and traders. That’s not the bulk of Taliban revenues, but it is a significant boost for the insurgency.

When it comes to suppressing illicit drug crops, there are three main approaches: eradication, interdiction, and alternative development. According to the new SIGAR report, all three have proven ineffectual in Afghanistan.

Interdiction—the effort to suppress the trade by arresting traffickers and seizing drugs—has been the bailiwick of Afghan security forces funded by the U.S. But the SIGAR report notes that despite their “strong performance” and their “improved capabilities over the years,” their activities have had “minimal impact on the country’s opium cultivation and production.” It notes that all opium seizures since 2002 only add up to about 8 percent of the production of the single year of 2018.

Eradication isn’t going very well, either. With the Afghan government announcing early this year that is was abolishing the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and moving its functions to other government entities, essentially no eradication took place this year, the SIGAR report round. Only about one thousand acres were eradicated last year and two thousand the year before. And Helmand province, the biggest poppy producer, saw no eradication at all between 2016 and 2018. 

“Eradication efforts have had minimal impact on curbing opium-poppy cultivation,” the SIGAR report concluded.  “The Afghan government has struggled to perform eradication due to the security challenges in poppy-growing areas. Since 2008, on average, annual eradication efforts resulted in eradicating only 2% of the total yearly opium-poppy cultivation.”

That may not be a bad thing, said Tree.

“Forced eradication usually forces peasant farmers into food insecurity,” he explained. “Panic sets in. How will they feed their families next week, next month, or next year? What’s the one crop they know how to grow, for which there ready and willing buyers, and doesn’t require transportation infrastructure like bulky fruits and vegetables? Of course, farmers replant! But this time, they’ve had to borrow money from traffickers to survive and they become even more ensnared in the drug economy.”

The third leg of the anti-drug effort is alternative development. But of the nearly $9 billion the U.S. has invested in the Afghan drug war, less than 5 percent has gone to such programs. The U.S. AID Regional Agricultural Development Plan has received $221 million since 2002, while another $173 million has been spent on alternative development programs. The Defense Department, meanwhile, spent $4.57 billion on counter-narcotics during the same period. 

But alternative development efforts seem to be waning. An important program, the Good Performers Initiative, which sought to encourage provincial level anti-drug efforts ended this year with the transfer of its last two programs to the Afghan government. But even here, the SIGAR report found, “the program was deemed ineffectual at curbing opium cultivation.”

It appears that no matter how many billions the U.S. spends to wipe out Afghan opium, its money flushed down the drain. Maybe it’s time to try something different.

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