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NATO Couldn’t Crush Afghanistan’s Opium Economy

After 12 years and a multibillion-dollar U.S.-led counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan, the country’s opium economy and drug trade hit a record high in 2014 and is poised to continue growing well after the NATO mission there winds down. According to a report released on Wednesday by the United Nations, opium poppy cultivation rose 7 percent, ...

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

After 12 years and a multibillion-dollar U.S.-led counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan, the country’s opium economy and drug trade hit a record high in 2014 and is poised to continue growing well after the NATO mission there winds down.

According to a report released on Wednesday by the United Nations, opium poppy cultivation rose 7 percent, with the area used for poppy cultivation expanding to 224,000 hectares from 209,000 hectares in 2013. Prior to Wednesday’s findings, 2013 represented the highest level of poppy cultivation since 1998, when the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime began tracking it.

Eradicating the narcotics trade in Afghanistan had been a key aspect of NATO’s strategy for defeating the Taliban and other insurgent groups, which receive much of their funding from poppy cultivation and opium distribution. But combating the opium economy has been harder than anticipated.

During the economic collapse that accompanied the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, growing poppy represented one of the few economic opportunities for many Afghan farmers. The fight against Afghanistan’s opium trade was also hindered by the inability of U.S.-led NATO troops to drive the Taliban out of traditional poppy growing provinces in the southeast. This continues to be a major roadblock to any counter-narcotics progress in the country, with the U.N. saying that 89 percent of 2014’s record growth occurred in nine province that all have a major Taliban presence.

Attempts at diversifying the Afghan economy have also failed to yield results. Since 2002, the United States has spent $7.8 billion on counter-narcotics programs, such as encouraging farmers to switch to other crops, like wheat, fruit, or saffron. But poppy cultivation is still Afghanistan’s most lucrative cash crop, and opiates — opium, morphine, and heroin — are its largest export. The U.N. report values 2014’s crop at $22 billion, or 4 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP. The country’s booming opium economy also provides full-time employment to as many as 411,000 Afghans — more than the entire Afghan National Security Forces.

Speaking to Congress earlier this year, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko said: "The expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs is one of the most significant factors putting the entire U.S. and international donor investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk."

Yet, despite the threat that the burgeoning opium economy poses to Afghanistan, counter-narcotics has largely fallen off the Afghan agenda of both the United States government and the international community. Meanwhile, insurgent attacks have reached the highest levels since 2011, and the Afghan army is sustaining heavy combat losses.

Corruption, budget shortfalls, and poor governance are casting doubt on the ability of President Ashraf Ghani’s new government to combat the drug trade that helps fuel the insurgency, Sopko’s office said in its quarterly report to Congress in late October.

Fighting the drug trade has become increasingly rare in declarations from inter-governmental conferences on Afghanistan reconstruction, according to SIGAR, and is only referred to in passing in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, the agreement that underpins reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan.

This leaves little reason to believe that poppy cultivation will fall in 2015. Despite the wholesale price of opium decreasing because of increased supply, the Afghan economy remains fragile. With slumping growth, falling wages, and growing inflation likely to become the norm in the coming years, 2014 won’t be the last bumper crop for Afghan poppy.

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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