Pentagon Stops Reporting Counter-Narcotics Program in Afghanistan

U.S. Marines with Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT), Weapons Company, 2D Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, conduct a satellite patrol through a poppy field in Marjah, Afghanistan, April 16, 2012. Photo by David A. Perez/U.S. Marine Corps)U.S. Marines with Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT), Weapons Company, 2D Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, conduct a satellite patrol through a poppy field in Marjah, Afghanistan, April 16, 2012. Photo by David A. Perez/U.S. Marine Corps)

The U.S. has spent more than $8 billion with little effect over 15 years to counter the flourishing poppy trade that has made Afghanistan the No. 1 supplier of heroin to the world.

The Defense Department no longer includes a section on counter-narcotics in its semi-annual report to Congress on Afghanistan. It was absent from the report on “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” submitted last month and also omitted in the previous submission.

After nearly 15 years in Afghanistan, it has reached the point where U.S. military officials can now occasionally see an upside to the poppy harvest — it gives a breather to the struggling Afghan army.

In a May briefing to the Pentagon from Kabul, Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission, said the Taliban would be too busy with the poppy harvest to press the fight against the 215th Division of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces in southwestern Helmand province, the country’s biggest opium-producing region.

“The poppy crop is really the engine that provides all the money that fuels the Taliban,” Cleveland said, and the insurgents were keen to rake in the profits from “this very good poppy crop that they had this year.

“A lot of the Taliban fighters have been out harvesting the poppy,” giving the 215th Division a chance to regroup from the firing of corrupt leaders and the battering it took from the Taliban last year, Cleveland said.

Neither the Afghan government nor the U.S. will say so up front, but both acknowledge that narcotics is the main driver of the Afghan economy and will remain so for decades, according the Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institute analyst with long experience in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government hasn’t quite given up on the effort to rein in the poppy trade, “but the government is realistic,” she said. Afghanistan was “extraordinarily dependent” on the money the drug trade brings in, with estimates that more than one-third of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product comes from poppy.

“No country in history has been as economically dependent on the drug economy as Afghanistan,” Felbab-Brown said. “Much of the economic and political life of the country depends on it,” and currently “we are in a situation where a worsening insurgency limits action,” she said.

The ongoing U.S. and NATO commitment to Afghanistan will be a sidebar at the NATO summit in Warsaw this weekend, which will focus mainly on alliance efforts to counter Russia. President Barack Obama, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah were scheduled to attend.

At a news conference in Brussels Monday to preview the summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO’s Resolute Support mission would continue into 2017 along with continued funding of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces through 2020. The levels of funding were still open to debate.

“With a regional presence, we will continue to advise, train and assist the Afghan national forces because we are very committed to continuing to support Afghans,” Stoltenberg said.

NATO officials were discussing the possibility of $5 billion for the Afghan military and police through 2020, but Afghan officials put the price tag at $25 billion.

“Our first expectation is NATO members and U.S. under our bilateral security pacts should finance all the related and foreseeable costs of our security and defense forces for the next five years,” Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Haneef Atmar said, Bloomberg News reported. “The total cost is estimated to be $5 billion each year and we expect to receive most of it from the United States of America.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. has spent $68 billion to support Afghanistan’s army and police forces, and an additional $45 billion has been spent on direct humanitarian assistance, according to John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

However, independent analysts have put the total costs to the U.S. of the commitment to Afghanistan at more than $700 billion in a war that has also cost the lives of more than 2,300 American troops.

The inspector general reported, “as of March 31, 2016, the United States has provided $8.5 billion for counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002. Nonetheless, Afghanistan remains the world’s leading producer of opium, providing 80% of the world’s output over the past decade, according to the United Nations.”

The report also quoted Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, as saying, “until we can create a stable enough environment for some of these economic development initiatives to take hold, I think we are going to have this problem (narcotics) for some time to come.”

Afghan officials tend to suggest that the failures of the counter-narcotics efforts can mostly be attributed to the waning interest of the U.S. and its allies.

“I think if you look at the scheme of priorities, dealing with counter-narcotics is a very high priority for Afghanistan, but not really for the international partners,” Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Afghanistan’s deputy Foreign Minister told the Russian outlet RT on June 17, when the Pentagon report to Congress was released.

The report of more than 100 pages contained a single line on the counter-narcotics effort, stating the obvious: “Revenue from opium trafficking continues to sustain the insurgency and Afghan criminal networks.” However, the report also noted that the Afghan Counter-Narcotics Police had arrested in April an individual suspected of being a major trafficker in eastern Afghanistan.

The sputtering and half-hearted attempts at curbing the poppy trade were also counter-productive, given the entrenchment of narcotics trafficking in Afghan society, according to Felbab-Brown.

Harvesting, processing and transporting poppy “employs a lot of people, including Taliban fighters,” she said. “If miraculously opium poppy disappeared, that would mean many people would be unemployed and with time on their hands” with the likely result that they would turn against the government and join the insurgency, Felbab-Brown said. “Yes, absolutely more people would be available for insurgency.

“It doesn’t look good at all and very little can be done,” she said. “No country has ever substantially reduced drug cultivation during an ongoing insurgency. Under the best of circumstances, we will still be looking at several decades of efforts” to reduce poppy cultivation.

Until then, the allies will have to decide whether to continue support for a government “running a country based on illegality (the drug trade) and foreign aid,” Felbab-Brown said, but the tragic reality was that “things would be much worse without poppy — much more violence and terrorism, huge amounts of unemployment.”

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.