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Despite Billions Spent to Eradicate Opium, Afghans Are Cultivating More of It Than Ever

In Afghanistan, where poverty and unemployment is endemic, poppy cultivation provides work for nearly 200,000 families — and has produced a dramatic rise in substance abuse.
Photo by Mark Stroud

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan hit an all-time high last year despite the United States government having spent $7.6 billion over the past decade on counternarcotic efforts in the country.

Afghanistan accounts for about 80 percent of the world's opium production. In 2013, Afghans cultivated an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of opium poppy, surpassing the previous record of 193,000 hectares in 2007 — and the boom appears likely to continue.


The alarming development, highlighted in a report released today by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction who monitors US spending in the country, was anticipated months ago by UN officials. His office's analysis underscores the worsening security situation in parts of the country, as a new Afghan government takes over and most foreign troops prepare to leave. It also calls into question the efficacy of the often misguided spending of billions of dollars on reconstruction efforts in a country that some critics say was hurt by the money pouring in more than it was helped.

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In some cases, the massive funds actually boosted opium cultivation. The report notes that new technology brought in to convert some 200,000 hectares of desert into arable land succeeded, but the newly fertile land was then largely dedicated to growing poppies. Entire provinces that had been declared "poppy free" lost this status in the last few years.

That's bad news is hardly a surprise, but as more areas of the country fall back into instability, it doesn't bode well for a country moving through a delicate political transition, after months of recounts and tensions following the disputed presidential election in April.

"The narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state's legitimacy by stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups," Sopko wrote in a letter to top US officials. "In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the US government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production. However, the recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts."


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A US marine patrolling a poppy field in Helmand province. (Photo via ISAF)

Charles Randolph, program coordinator for the US Embassy in Kabul, expressed similar concern in a letter included in the report. He noted that the effectiveness of previous counternarcotics efforts should be considered when planning "future endeavors in this sector" — but he pointed out that cultivation rates are only one indicator of progress, and disputed some of the watchdog's findings.

"We are making good progress in building the capacity of our Afghan partners to design, lead, manage, and sustain over the long term strategic and tactical counternarcotics efforts addressing all stages of the drug trade, including cultivation, production, trafficking, and use," Randolph wrote. "There is no silver bullet to eliminate drug cultivation or production in Afghanistan or to address the epidemic of substance abuse disorders that plagues too many Afghans."

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One of the most tragic outcomes of Afghanistan's booming opium economy has been the dramatic growth of substance abuse in the country — up to 1.6 million addicts, according to the UN.

"Demand creates supply, but supply creates demand too," Jean-Luc Lemahieu, director of policy analysis at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told VICE News earlier this year. "There are enough reasons, all bad ones, for Afghanistan to be very vulnerable to addiction, and with that enormous supply that's exactly what's happening. The addiction rates are going up and the government does not have the resources to deal with it. It's very tragic."


An opium addict at a detox center in Mazar-i-Sharif. (Photo via Flickr)

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But some US and UN officials blame Afghanistan's growing opium problem on a lack of political will within the local government to stop it.

"The US has put three times more money on counternarcotics in Afghanistan than it did in Colombia, but what distinguishes Colombia from Afghanistan is the political will that was demonstrated by the ruling parties there," Ashita Mittal, UNODC's acting country director in Kabul told VICE News earlier this year. "Unless there's a firm commitment from the top, it's not going to change."

"In our opinion, the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort," Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, wrote in a letter in response to Sopko's, noting that the Department of Defense is not directly involved in eradication efforts. "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."

This is precisely why opium is so difficult to eradicate. In a country where poverty and unemployment is endemic, poppy cultivation provides work for nearly 200,000 families in Afghanistan and accounts for 73 million hours of labor annually, according to the UN.


"There's no legal economy in Afghanistan that can match the profits and the amount of people opium can employ," Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and expert on counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan, told VICE News earlier this year.

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Opium is both profitable and labor-intensive, an important combination in a country with some 400,000 people entering the workforce every year. To put things in perspective, Felbab-Brown said, if the 806 square miles Afghans cultivated with opium last year were to grow wheat instead, they would employ about 20 percent of the people currently working on opium fields.

"What we really need to ask ourselves is, is it bad to have this illicit economy? It probably is bad, but is it much worse than the alternative? The alternative right now would be huge political instability and it would also be huge unemployment," she said. "So yes, it's undesirable that there is a major illicit economy that constitutes so much of the country's GDP, but there's just no way to walk away from that."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi

Photo via Flickr