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Pentagon, State Blame Afghans for Resurgent Poppy Fields

Eradicating the narcotics trade in Afghanistan could be one of the most efficient ways to cut funding to the Taliban and other insurgent groups promoting instability in a country plagued by a fractured political system and violent extremism. But a report released Tuesday by Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko documented that despite ...

AFP
AFP

Eradicating the narcotics trade in Afghanistan could be one of the most efficient ways to cut funding to the Taliban and other insurgent groups promoting instability in a country plagued by a fractured political system and violent extremism.

But a report released Tuesday by Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko documented that despite the United States’ investing $7.6 billion in counternarcotics programs there, opium poppy production in Afghanistan reached an all-time high in 2013. Yet the federal agencies funding the programs claim they’re making progress and that the problem is a lack of cooperation on the Afghan end, not mismanagement of U.S. funds.

Tuesday’s report outlined earlier findings by the United Nations that farmers in Afghanistan cultivated 209,000 hectares of poppy in 2013, up from the previous high of 193,000 in 2007. It also alleged that insecurity in Afghanistan has probably only added to farmers’ reliance on poppy cultivation as a means for their livelihood.

A response to the report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department claimed that ongoing narcotics efforts are yielding results. SIGAR’s report partially blamed the increase on deep-well technology that has helped transform desert into arable land over the last decade. But embassy officials said poppy farmers are also shifting from newly secured regions to ones "where governance is weak and security is inadequate.

"Improvements in security and governance and broad-based economic developments in the country as a whole also must accompany the reduction and elimination of illicit poppy cultivation in Afghanistan," they wrote to SIGAR.

The Defense Department, responding separately, mostly blamed the "lack of Afghan government support for the effort" to eradicate opium production.

"Poverty, corruption, the terrorism nexus to the narcotics trade, and access to alternative livelihood opportunities that provide an equal or greater profit than poppy cultivation are all contributors to the Afghan drug problem," Pentagon officials wrote to SIGAR.

The United States’ efforts to counter poppy production were funded through programs at the Department of Defense, State Department, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and USAID. The programs were designed to develop Afghanistan’s counternarcotics capacity, offer support to those forces, encourage different means of income for Afghan farmers, and offer financial incentives for Afghan authorities to follow through with counternarcotics initiatives. In some cases, the report says, U.S. authorities even conducted operations alongside their Afghan counterparts.

When reconstruction in Afghanistan began in 2002, opium production was considered a major hurdle in legitimizing the new government. But it seemed, for a while at least, that stamping out poppy production was a tangible goal. In 2008, Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan was declared "poppy-free" by the U.N. This small victory was celebrated too soon. By 2012, Nangarhar was growing poppy again. Between 2012 and 2013, the value of opium products produced in Afghanistan increased 50 percent, from $2 billion in 2012 to $3 billion in 2013.

Hamid Karzai, who was elected president in the country’s first direct democratic elections in 2004, had a hard time maintaining public support and was often mocked as being a U.S. puppet. But when it came to halting poppy cultivation, family dynamics played into his politics. His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, reportedly was a major player in the Afghan drug trade. He also served as chief of the Kandahar provincial council and was considered a major political liability by the George W. Bush administration because of his alleged drug connections.

Ashraf Ghani, who campaigned against opium production and on a platform of economic and agricultural sector development, replaced Karzai as president in 2014.

Past surges in poppy cultivation have prompted coordinated responses from the United States and its coalition partners. Those responses have succeeded in beating back gains, but only temporarily. Tuesday’s report suggests that record-high levels of opium production beg for a reconsideration of the effectiveness and sustainability of past programs. Sopko claimed that U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, namely the implementation of a democratically elected government, could be undermined if poppy cultivation is left unchecked.

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