What’s really behind the ‘failure’ of the US ‘war on drugs’ in Afghanistan?

Although drug production has not been reduced, this has not really been a failure. The drug war’s true function lies in reinforcing western support for the war.

Julien Mercille
17 March 2016

Poppy cultivation, Badakhshan. Getty Images / Paula Bronstein. All rights reserved.

Poppy cultivation, Badakhshan. Getty Images / Paula Bronstein. All rights reserved.Since 2001, the United States has spent over $700 billion on the war in Afghanistan. In contrast, it has spent only $7 billion on counternarcotics operations there. What should we conclude from the fact that the ‘drug war’ in Afghanistan accounts for a mere 1% of total expenses? We should conclude that drugs are not a priority for US foreign policy, and never have been. The US government has no serious interest in tackling drug problems. In fact, if it did, its strategy would be the exact opposite of what it has been doing for several decades now.

There has not been a real drug war in Afghanistan, and therefore, although drug production has not been reduced, this is not really a failure, as the drug war’s function is more about representing enemies like the Taliban in a negative way to reinforce support for the war in the west.

It is a well established fact that the most effective solutions to reduce drug consumption and its related problems are the provision of treatment services for addicts as well as prevention programmes. Tough solutions like police work and capturing traffickers and narcotics shipments have limited effectiveness because as soon as one drug lord or small dealer is arrested, others will replace them, as long as there is demand for the drugs globally. Moreover, military operations overseas are the least effective approach to drugs. No matter what military officers, politicians and enforcement agents say, it does not work and never has.

It is therefore no surprise that US counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan over the last 15 years have been a total failure. Nearly everything has been tried, from doing nothing to eradicating poppy fields to arresting traffickers and confiscating their shipments to rural development to provide ‘alternative livelihoods’.

But nothing has worked. John Sopko, the special inspectors general who assesses American programmes in Afghanistan, recently summarised it: “By every conceivable metric, we’ve failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan”.

The 2015 World Drug Report notes that Afghanistan still accounts for about 80% of global opiate and heroin production. Profits from drugs amount to about 10-15% of the country’s GDP.

Source: World Drug Report 2015 (UNODC).

Source: World Drug Report 2015 (UNODC).The chart demonstrates the complete failure of the ‘war on drugs’ and counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan and globally. As the US attacked Afghanistan in 2001, that year’s opium production was a mere 180 tons (the result of a production ban implemented by the Taliban regime). Since then, it has reached record harvests of over 7,000 tons in 2007 and over 6,000 tons in 2014 (in 2015, production dropped to 3,300 tons, but this appears to be the result of a fungus and drought conditions that have nothing to do with policy). The situation is the same globally as production has not shrunk while peaking in 2007 and 2014. 

The fundamental problem is that even if production is reduced in one country, farmers elsewhere will increase production to meet global demand. This phenomenon is known as the ‘balloon effect’, by analogy to a balloon pressed at one end that would automatically increase in size at its other end. In short, it is global demand for drugs that must be reduced in order to address the problem, following the overwhelming consensus among researchers and the scholarly literature on substance abuse.

However, treatment and prevention in Afghanistan have received little support from the United States. As a result, drug consumption in Afghanistan has “increased sharply” in recent years, according to UNODC reports. For example, the consumption of heroin and other opiates doubled between 2005 and 2009. The number of heroin users in the country is now estimated at 120,000.

Why do the US government and military refuse to employ effective methods to deal with drugs and continue to prioritise the strategies that are known not to work? The short answer is that reducing drug problems is not a strategic objective of the US establishment. However, the drug war provides a useful tool to arrest or keep on their toes whoever is not considered to be an ally of the United States, or whoever challenges US hegemony. Conversely, in Afghanistan and historically, US allies have repeatedly been involved in drug trafficking in order to support themselves financially. This has been useful to Washington, which has therefore often turned a blind eye to their trafficking activities. To be sure, this interpretation is not a conspiracy view that alleges that the US government, military or the CIA actively support the drug trade as an end in itself – they don’t. But the fact is that US authorities merely look the other way because it provides indirect benefits to some allies. The drug trade fulfills an instrumental function in US foreign policy.

And this is indeed what has happened in Afghanistan since 2001. Allies of the US, including Afghan government officials, have benefitted from drug trafficking. The Obama administration has even made it somewhat of an official policy to target drug production only when and where the Taliban are involved in it. Obama has sought to target the ‘drug-insurgency nexus’ while remaining soft on the ‘drug-government nexus’. The war on drugs’ double standards could not be clearer.

According to the latest reports, it appears that government involvement in drugs has gotten even worse than in the years immediately after 2001. An insightful recent New York Times investigation found that “more than ever, Afghan government officials have become directly involved in the opium trade, expanding their competition with the Taliban beyond politics and into a struggle for control of the drug traffic and revenue”. A former police chief in Helmand province, the centre of drug production, described the situation: “over the years, I have seen the central government, the local government and the foreigners all talk very seriously about poppy”. But in “practice, they do nothing,” he said, “and behind the scenes, the government makes secret deals to enrich themselves”.

Impunity and support for drug lords and warlords has been the norm since 2001. NATO’s mission has been to support the Afghan government, but at one point 17 drug traffickers could be counted in the Afghan parliament. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of former president Karzai who was assassinated in 2011, had received regular payments from the CIA since 2001, even though his involvement in narcotics was widely suspected. A New York University report documented the 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”, held the contract to provide security for the German Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin described the US attitude well when he wrote in 2004 that when “he visits Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld meets military commanders whom Afghans know as the godfathers of drug trafficking. The message has been clear: Help fight the Taliban and no one will interfere with your trafficking”.

Similarly, the Taliban have now also deepened their involvement in the drug trade. They raise up to $155 million from narcotics annually, more than one quarter of their total funding. Insurgents are taking more direct roles in trafficking and control operations at a higher level. The Taliban have become more reliant financially on drug money, due to decreases in donations from the Persian Gulf which are now directed to other conflicts. Also, their presence in the country is now the most extensive since 2001: the threat level in half the country’s districts is ‘extreme’ or ‘high’, according to the United Nations, the worst situation since 2001. Their increased geographical reach allows the Taliban to control drug networks to a greater extent.

The size of the Afghan drugs trade has not been reduced at all since 2001. And this should not be surprising, given that it was never a priority. On the contrary, key traffickers and power brokers have been supported by the west, with disastrous results. 

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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