1 in 20 Afghans Use Drugs Despite Expensive U.S. Efforts to Eradicate Drug Crops


It is estimated that the war-torn country of Afghanistan produces 80 percent of the world’s opium supply—5,500 tons in 2013. After twelve years of the United States’ invasion of the landlocked Asian nation, a recent study shows that one in 20 Afghans is using drugs, primarily opium and cannabis, despite massive U.S. spending to eradicate drug crops.

Since the U.S. invasion, American taxpayers have spent $7.5 billion in efforts to interdict and eradicate narcotics in Afghanistan.  America’s return on that investment has been to see a 36 percent increase in opium production from 2012 to 2013, setting a new record for that country’s farmers.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testified before Congress in January.  Speaking to National Public Radio about his testimony, Sopko pulled no punches. 

“I can say the money that has been used so far, if the goal was to reduce cultivation, we failed,” said Sopko.  “If the goal was to reduce opium production, we failed. If the goal was to reduce the amount of money going to the insurgency, we failed. If the goal was to break that narco trafficking nexus and the corrupting influence, we have failed.”

Like the failed policy of Plan Colombia, U.S. efforts to destroy the production of opium have resulted in a “balloon effect” —the concept that describes how squeezing the balloon on one end just makes it bulge at the other. Afghan farmers with no other viable cash crops turn to opium production just to survive. Any success of U.S. interdiction efforts simply moves the production and raises the price. The lawlessness of the opium market provides trafficking revenue for the Taliban and other extremists. 

And it is the innocent people of Afghanistan who pay the ultimate price in violence and drug addiction.

In an innovative new study, researcher Linda Cottler, who chairs the epidemiology department at the University of Florida's College of Public Health and Health Professionals and College of Medicine, interviewed the female heads-of-household in Afghanistan about drug usage, backing it up with samples of hair, urine, and saliva for confirmation. The results they found were stunning.

One out of nine members of an Afghan household tests positive for drugs.  If we ignore minors who may test positive due to second-hand exposure, Cottler’s research shows twice as many adult men test positive as adult women, 7.2 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively; or an overall prevalence of 5.1 percent for any adult. However, women had the triple the usage rate of prescription drugs; about 15 percent of women used pain pills, sedatives, and tranquilizers compared to about 5 percent of the men. (Perhaps that helps the women deal with the fact that over one-third of them report being beaten by their husbands.)

Leaders like James Capra, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chief of Operations try to spin the results by reporting increased opium seizures and drug conviction rates, which is a bit like crowing about your fishing prowess at a freshly-stocked pond. Increased seizures are simply a factor of having vastly more opium available to seize. America’s costly dozen-year effort to reduce Afghan opium production has been a spectacular failure, and that was with American soldiers occupying the country to enforce it. Unless the new Afghan government works quickly to provide substitute crops, internal security, and smarter harm reduction strategies, with our troops are largely withdrawn from Afghanistan the production of opium will continue to increase, fueling extremists and devastating everyday Afghans.

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