U.S. Leaves behind a Booming Opium Market as it Exits Afghanistan

Wednesday, November 06, 2013
Opium farmer in Afghanistan

The United States spent $7 billion to wean Afghanistan off growing poppies in order to stem the heroin trade coming out of the war-torn country. But that money has little to show for itself, now that the U.S. is preparing to withdraw its forces and the drug trade is doing better than ever.


“The U.S. is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan having lost its battle against the country’s narcotics industry, marking one of the starkest failures of the 2009 strategy the Obama administration pursued in an effort to turn around the war,” Ernesto Londoño wrote for The Washington Post.


The failure of the U.S. to disrupt the country’s opium market has undercut “two key U.S. goals,” added Londoño, which are “fighting corruption and weakening the link between the insurgency and the drug trade.”


With American troops on the way out, insurgents in key areas are becoming more involved in the narcotics operations. U.S. drug enforcement agents have been surprised to find a high level of collaboration within Afghan drug groups, unlike the usual violent rivalries found between cartels in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.


In fact, opium poppies are expected to play a bigger role in Afghanistan’s economy once foreign assistance dries up with the U.S. departure.


The U.S. also can’t count on the Afghan army to conduct counternarcotics operations, as evidenced by its decision last spring to stop guarding eradication teams in areas like Helmand Province, the center of Afghanistan’s poppy industry.


And the country’s political leadership is equally reluctant to stem the drug business because of the money it produces.


The Department of Defense said in its latest progress report (pdf) to Congress on the Afghanistan war that the 2013 poppy harvest was expected to be “considerably” bigger than last year’s due to better weather, the removal of NATO troops and the high price for poppies.


The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime is expected in a new report coming out soon to back up this assessment, saying poppy cultivation went up significantly this year compared to 2012’s harvest.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

As U.S. Withdraws from Afghanistan, Poppy Trade it Spent Billions Fighting Still Flourishes (by Ernesto Londoño, Washington Post)

Drug Addiction Doubles in Afghanistan (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Afghan Opium Kills More Westerners than the Fight against the Taliban (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

US Envoy Holbrooke Blasts Wasteful Anti-Opium Efforts in Afghanistan (by Aaron Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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