WASHINGTON — Two months after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama gave a televised address that laid out sweeping goals for U.S. financial, military, and technical assistance to Afghanistan, among them developing an economy there “that isn't dominated by illicit drugs.”
Since 2001, Washington has committed roughly $10 billion to its ambitious counternarcotics effort in the poverty-stricken country. But mostly because of reversals in the past two years, all that spending appears to have had little enduring impact, and Afghanistan's prospects for finding its financial footing outside the drug trade are now slim, an independent federal auditor told the Senate's Caucus on International Narcotics Control Wednesday.
“The situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond,” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told the caucus, recounting “the opinion of almost everyone I spoke with” about the growing role of narcotics in the country's economy during a November visit there.
In blunt testimony to the caucus chaired by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sopko cited statistics that cast an unflattering light on the costly U.S. effort, which is now winding down as the Obama administration prepares to pull additional troops from the country.
From 2012 to 2013, the value of Afghanistan's narcotics trade increased 50 percent, and it now accounts for 15 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Poppy cultivation has reached record levels, with acreage now three times the level in 2002 and equivalent to plantings on land 12 times the size of Washington, D.C. At more than 500,000 acres, that's more land than is used to grow oranges in Florida.
Opium production alone increased nearly 50 percent in the past year. More than 5 percent of the Afghan populace is now addicted to opiates. Moreover, half of the existing poppy fields are now located in Helmand Province, the principal locus of the U.S. military's “surge” during Obama's first term.
This grim news is a boon to the Taliban, which is now drawing at least $155 million a year from narcotics-related activities, and investing the funds in insurgency, according to United Nations estimates. “The Taliban is involved in taxing opium poppy farmers; operating processing laboratories; moving narcotics; taxing narcotics transporters ... [and] providing security to poppy fields, drug labs, and opium bazaars,” Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations James Capra said in written testimony to the caucus.
Sopko warned that this booming narcotics trade is undermining the country's stability, threatening the health of its people, eroding the rule of law, and adding further to official corruption — essentially threatening much of what the United States has tried to accomplish there over the past decade, at a total cost of more than $70 billion and 2,300 U.S. military deaths.
The Obama administration seems uninterested in shifting course, however. Its spending on the Pentagon's office of counternarcotics for work in Afghanistan is slated to decline by 20 percent this year, and in-country staffing by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security is dropping by half.
The military airlift and protection that DEA officers need to operate are mostly evaporating, Capra and other witnesses acknowledged. A special Afghan air unit, created with nearly $1 billion dollars in U.S. funding, only has a quarter of the personnel it needs, and few pilots rated to fly with the night vision goggles considered essential to counternarcotics raids. Total Afghan drug seizures in the first nine months of last year amounted to 121 metric tons, compared with an estimated 5,500 tons of opium alone produced over the entire 12 months.
Smith is managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity and Quinn is a reporter there.