The opium business is booming in Afghanistan, despite a 12-year, $7.6 billion counternarcotics initiative by the U.S. Last year, Afghans devoted a record 209,000 hectares of land to opium poppy cultivation, and those crops produced drug profits 50 percent higher than in 2012.
Those startling numbers come from a recent report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). And they have led some to call for Washington to end its war on drugs in Afghanistan.
But giving up is no solution. Rather, the report should serve as a sober reminder that there is no silver bullet to Afghanistan’s drug trafficking woes.
Afghanistan has long been the world’s largest opium producer. The drug trade there is not about to go away any time soon. Drug profits fund organized crime, insurgencies and the Taliban, as well as other illegal trades such as human trafficking, arms trafficking and money laundering. Abandoning counternarcotics efforts would only undermine stability in Afghanistan and imperil the very real gains made by U.S. counternarcotics programs since 2001.
SIGAR’s report made clear that certain aspects of current U.S. counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan are failing. It cited specific instances where U.S.-led initiatives were inadvertently encouraging opium production. For example, arable land in southwest Afghanistan– supposedly dedicated to growing other crops under various alternative livelihood assistance programs– was instead used for opium cultivation.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the Defense Department defended their counternarcotics efforts by explaining that essential support from the Afghan government had thus far been limited. The Embassy also criticized the report for focusing primarily on the failure of the alternative livelihood assistance program in southwest Afghanistan and Nangarhar, while ignoring other successful programs such as specialized interdiction units and rehabilitation centers for drug addicts.
Obviously, the U.S. needs to recalibrate its counternarcotics initiatives in Afghanistan. Supposed “quick fixes” like massive eradication campaigns or opium bans do more harm than good. But long-term programs, such as certain alternative livelihood assistance and microfinance programs, have demonstrated great success. USAID’s alternative livelihood programming now reaches an estimated 30 percent of Afghan farmers. Other privately funded, Afghan-led assistance programs have invested over $93 million in alternatives to opium production, reaching 82,000 Afghans.
The U.S. must be careful, however, not to throw good money after bad. A number of programs—such as the Good Performers Initiative, which gave at least $147 million to provinces that eradicated or eliminated opium production, and the Helmand Food Zone—have failed to reduce poppy growth. The U.S. should pull the plug on failed projects and reallocate those funds to U.S. and Afghan initiatives that have proved successful.
Afghanistan is fragile. Rising opium production will only fuel a descent into greater lawlessness and instability. Abruptly abandoning counternarcotics efforts now will play into broader Afghan fears that the U.S. plans to cut and run and will only contribute to economic and political insecurity in the region.
U.S. inability to check Afghan opium production is certainly disappointing, but it’s no excuse to throw in the towel. Ingrained problems demand long-term commitments. Dealing with Afghanistan’s drug trafficking problem requires that and more: private-sector willingness to invest in opium alternatives, and political will from the Afghan government.
Olivia Enos is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.