The World

The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 

An Afghan farmer stands in a blooming poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province on April 12, 2014.

Photo by Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

The latest report from the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, gets right to the depressing point: “After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion in counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation levels are at an all-time high.” To get specific, that outlay is actually about $7.6 billion from a number of departments including State, Defense, the DEA, and USAID.

Ironically, the rise in poppy cultivation, and presumably opium production, is due in large part to some promising development trends. The report notes that “affordable deep-well technology” has turned about 200,000 hectares (almost 500,000 acres) of Afghan desert into arable farmland. With opium prices high and labor costs low, much of that land is now devoted to poppy farming.

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According to SIGAR’s report, “The UNODC estimates that the value of the opium and its derivative products produced in Afghanistan was nearly $3 billion in 2013, up from $2 billion in 2012. This represents an increase of 50 percent in a single year.”

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Poppy cultivation actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since. Around 2009, the U.S. mostly abandoned its previous strategy of poppy eradication, which was felt to be turning farmers against the government, in favor of one that focuses on targeting the links between drug traffickers and the Taliban while giving farmers economic encouragement to grow other crops. That encouragement, evidently, hasn’t worked.

The drop in cultivation prior to 2009 probably had less to do with military efforts than with economic factors. Thanks to drought and a global spike in food prices during that period, the gross income ratio of poppies relative to wheat fell from 10-to-1 in 2007 to 3-to-1 in 2008. Since then, global wheat prices have eased—they’re pretty low at the moment—and the price of poppies has increased, and farmers have gone back to the harder stuff. Eastern Nangahar province, which was declared opium-free and touted as a counternarcotics success story in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in cultivation last year.

Farmers may also be hedging their bets in anticipation of the departure of NATO forces—the majority are pulling out at the end of this year, leaving behind a smaller contingent of U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. The majority of Afghanistan’s poppies are still grown in the Taliban-dominated Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but cultivation has been increasing around government-controlled Kabul as well.

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