A new United Nations report on the state of opium cultivation in Afghanistan reveals a worsening situation, after more than a decade of US and NATO occupation. It confirms the failure of counternarcotics missions in the country.
In 2012, poppy cultivation rose for a third year in a row and now extends over 154,000 hectares, an 18% increase over 2011. The last time cultivation had spread to such a large area was in 2008. Production is concentrated in the south and west of the country, particularly in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Farah. Jean-Luc Lemahieu, of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime representative in Afghanistan, said that "opium cultivation is heading toward record levels." The country is the global leader in heroin production, accounting for 75% to 90% of the raw materials needed to make the drug.
One important reason poor Afghan farmers choose to produce opium is that it fetches high prices and helps them survive. One kilogram of opium sells for $248, whereas the same quantity of wheat is valued at only $0.44. It is not difficult to understand why - even after considering the risk of seeing their crops eradicated by counternarcotics agents - many Afghans choose to grow poppies.
Once again, the mainstream media blamed the Taliban for the increase in cultivation, asserting that drugs constitute "an important form of income for their operations." However, the Taliban play a more minor role in the opium economy than such claims would have us believe, and drug money is probably a secondary source of funding for them. Indeed, it is estimated that only 10% to 15% of Taliban funding is drawn from drugs and 85% comes from other sources.
Moreover, although the Taliban are often identified as the culprits behind the drug industry, the fact is that they capture only about 5% of total drug revenues in Afghanistan, while farmers take 20%. And the remaining 75%? It is shared among police officers, warlords, government officials and traffickers - in short, many of the groups supported and tolerated by the US and NATO. The latter thus hold a large share of responsibility for the skyrocketing of opium production in the country from 185 tons in 2001 to over 8,000 tons in 2007 (today it is about 3,700 tons).
The United States attacked Afghanistan in 2001 in collaboration with Northern Alliance warlords and drug lords whom they showered with weapons, millions of dollars, and diplomatic support. The empowerment and enrichment of those warlords enabled them to tax and protect opium traffickers, leading to the quick resumption of narcotics production after the hiatus of the 2000-2001 Taliban ban. Impunity and support for drug lords and warlords has been the norm since 2001. NATO’s mission is to support the Afghan government, but at one point you could count seventeen drug traffickers in the Afghan parliament.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s brother, assassinated in 2011, had been receiving regular payments from the CIA since 2001, even though his involvement in narcotics was widely suspected. A Wikileaks cable recounting American officials' recent meetings with him stated that "While we must deal with AWK [Ahmed Wali Karzai] as the head of the Provincial Council, he is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker." But in public, the ties are denied, as when John Kerry said that "We should not condemn Ahmed Wali Karzai or damage our critical relations with his brother, President Karzai, on the basis of newspaper articles or rumors."
A New York University report documented the widespread use by NATO and US forces of private security companies and militias that are often run by strongmen responsible for human rights abuses or involved in narcotics. For example, the report noted that in Badakhshan Province, General Nazri Mahmad, a warlord who "control[s] a significant portion of the province’s lucrative opium industry," had the contract to provide security for the German Provincial Reconstruction Team.
In short, not only have counternarcotics missions failed to contain drug trafficking, let alone reduce it, but the international intervention in Afghanistan has led to its resurgence. The withdrawal of international troops could lead to two scenarios. Either opium production will decrease because key traffickers will be weakened by losing US support. Conversely, trafficking could increase if the country becomes more chaotic and Afghans have no choice but to rely to an even greater degree on poppies to survive.
In any case, Washington won't assume any responsibility, as noted in a report issued earlier in 2013 by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, which stated that the "issue of illicit drug production has largely fallen off the policy agenda in Afghanistan" and that "the uptick in cultivation continues to be of little immediate concern to Western policymakers and politicians."