Afghan Opium Trade Thriving Despite - or With Help of - US $7 Billion Effort

PHOTO: An Afghan security force member destroys an illegal poppy crop in the Noor Gal district of eastern Kunar province of Afghanistan on April 29, 2014.Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Imagess
An Afghan security force member destroys an illegal poppy crop in the Noor Gal district of eastern Kunar province of Afghanistan on April 29, 2014.

Despite more than $7 billion of American counter-narcotics spending, Afghanistan’s opium trade has never been bigger, according to a U.S. government watchdog.

A new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued today highlights the continued growth of Afghanistan’s poppy fields despite more than a decade of U.S. and international counter-narcotics efforts.

Various federal agencies have spent $7.6 billion in Afghanistan over 12 years to curb the world’s largest opium industry. Despite some initial progress, the farming of opium poppies by Afghanistan’s farmers has rebounded in recent years. United Nations figures show that farmers in Afghanistan cultivated 806 square miles of opium poppy last year, a field roughly 2.5 times the size of New York City.

"The expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs puts the entire Afghan reconstruction effort at risk," said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

"By every conceivable metric, we've failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan," Sopko said.

SIGAR has found that well-meaning efforts have in some cases helped fuel the increase in poppy farming.

For example, in southwestern Afghanistan affordable deep-well technology has turned 200,000 hectares of desert into arable land over the past decade. But the report found “due to 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.”

And it found that provinces once-declared to be "poppy free" have seen a resurgence in cultivation.

In 2008, the U.N. touted Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan as a success story where farmers had turned away from planting cash crops of opium poppy. But five years later the cultivation of opium poppy had increased “fourfold,” the new report concluded.

Afghanistan produces 80 percent of the world’s opium which is turned into heroin, most of which is ends up in Russia and Europe.

The production and sale of opium “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 wrote in the report.

Afghanistan’s opium trade was valued at $3 billion in 2013, according to U.N. estimates.