The Other War in Afghanistan: How US-Led War on Drugs Devastates Impoverished Farmers and Fails to Slow the Drug Trade
Two men crouch with drugs in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Helen Redmond
Afghanistan is the number-one cultivator of opium poppies and exporter of heroin in the world, despite the United States spending $7.5 billion to eradicate the crop, according to a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR).
The report acknowledges that the 12-year war on drugs has failed to free the country of opium poppy production—just the opposite, in fact. Using statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the report found that the amount of land used to cultivate poppy increased 36%, an all-time high. The Afghan government had set a goal of reducing poppy production by 50%.
Afghan counter-narcotics agencies work under the control of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Defense. Without military logistics and intelligence support from the United States, governor-led poppy eradication campaigns in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Nimroz where the vast majority of poppy is grown, would be impossible. Destroying impoverished farmers' poppy crops causes violent clashes. During eradication campaigns last year, 143 people were killed and in 2012, 102 died.
The SIGAR report explains that the drawdown of coalition forces has resulted in fewer drug raids, arrests and seizures. As the troops leave, the DEA will be forced to downsize counter-narcotics activities for lack of military backup during field operations. But the drug warriors have no intention of ending their role in the war on drugs in Afghanistan. U.S. officials are creating a counter-narcotics center in Bahrain to continue intervening in the region.
General John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction and the author of the report put it bluntly. He said the narcotics trade in Afghanistan “is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond.”
It should come as no surprise that the drug war in Afghanistan is a lost cause. Poppy cultivation is central to the economy and accounts for 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The entire chain of poppy production from the farmers' families who grow and harvest the plants, to the lab workers who manufacture raw opium into heroin, to the drivers who transport the drugs across borders, is vital to the survival of millions of Afghans. Poppy is the economic engine of Afghanistan and has kept the country from falling into total financial ruin.
Government and law enforcement corruption in the form of bribes and “taxes” are demanded from Kabul to Kandahar and ensures that the narcotics trade thrives despite pro-drug war rhetoric from officials in the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics and former president Hamid Karzai.
The report documents that drug use is on the rise in Afghanistan and estimates that 230,000 Afghans smoke opium, an increase of 53 percent from 2005, and 120,000 inject heroin, an increase of 140 percent from 2005. The billions that have poured into the country have not been used to expand treatment, and according to Afghan government figures, 99 percent of drug users are not receiving assistance. There are 113 clinics scattered across the country that offer detoxification and abstinence-based drug treatment.
In Afghanistan, the main addiction is to opiates, but there is only one methadone clinic in the entire country, and it serves just 77 people. The clinic is in Kabul, which is home to about 10,000 opiate users.
Methadone is evidence-based drug treatment and is the most successful way to treat opiate addiction, but in Afghanistan there is a stigma associated with the medication. Attempts to expand methadone maintenance have been resisted by officials in the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics who view taking methadone as substituting one addiction for another.
Since the states Colorado and Washington and the country of Uruguay voted to legalize and regulate marijuana, more and more people are calling for an end to drug prohibition. The war on drugs in Latin America has been widely criticized as unwinnable and numerous countries are exploring alternatives from decriminalization to legalization. They are calling for better health-based support for drug users, not punishment and prison time. Guatemala, a large poppy-producing country, is considering licensing farmers to grow poppies legally for the pharmaceutical industry.
Curiously, Afghanistan, the largest poppy cultivator on the planet, has been left out of international discussions on how to end the futile and violent war on drugs. That has to change, because the drug war in Afghanistan, as the SIGAR report clearly shows, has been an utter failure.