A record opium boom is America's latest epic failure in Afghanistan

November 15, 2017, 12:55pm

Add a record-high opium boom to the list of alarming metrics coming out of Afghanistan.

Poppy cultivation grew by 63 percent in 2017, according to a new U.N. report published Wednesday. The report casts more doubt over the strength of Afghanistan’s government and the efficacy of the U.S. military’s $8.5 billion counternarcotics efforts. Not to mention the latest sign the U.S. is seriously struggling to contain a resurgent Taliban.

Since 2002, the U.S. military has burned billions of dollars trying to stymie Afghanistan’s opium trade, but the money has had little impact, with just ten of 34 provinces now poppy-free.

“Rule of law-related challenges, such as political instability, lack of government control and security, as well as corruption, have been found to be main drivers of illicit cultivation,” the report noted, adding that “scarce employment opportunities, lack of quality education and limited access to markets and financial services continue to contribute to the vulnerability of farmers towards opium poppy cultivation.”

In the southern province of Helmand, which has experienced heavy levels of fighting in recent months, opium cultivation rose by 79 percent over the previous year, accounting for roughly half of the total country’s increase.

In another province, Balkh, poppy cultivation increased nearly sixfold between 2016 and 2017. The province had low levels of production until 2017, and was poppy-free in 2012 and 2014.

The U.N’s findings are the latest in a series of distressing reports revealing the dire state of Afghanistan’s 16-year war in which the Taliban has rarely appeared stronger.

The militant group has continued to grow in 2017, broadening its reach to new districts, and conducting more frequent and sophisticated attacks.

READ MORE: U.S. troops will face the deadliest Taliban yet

Civilian casualties have peaked in the first six months of 2017, reaching 5,234, according to the most recent quarterly SIGAR report.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced in August the U.S. would be sending 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan this fall in an effort to combat the Taliban’s recent gains. But experts are skeptical this will tip the balance in the U.S.’ favor, considering the state of Afghan forces and the Taliban’s dominance.