As the US Spent $8 Billion on Afghan Drug War, Opium Production Soared by 164%

A close-up of an opium poppy in Afghanistan

A close-up of an opium poppy in Afghanistan. (Source: UN Photo/UNODC/Zalmai)

The US Government has spent over $8 billion on counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan, yet illicit opium production has reached record levels, a new report reveals.

In 2002, the US began to suppress opium production in Afghanistan as part of the war on terror, alleging that the drug’s trafficking funded militant groups and undermined stability. Over the 15 years that followed, US authorities allocated approximately $8.62 billion to these efforts, according to a new report (PDF) by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction – a US government body. Over 80 per cent of this sum was used for programmes “with a substantial counternarcotics focus”, with the remainder spent on programmes which included some kind of counternarcotics element.

Despite the exorbitant cost of this approach, illicit opium production rates have spiralled in Afghanistan. According to US Government sources, the estimated total land being used for illegal opium poppy cultivation has skyrocketed from 1,685 hectares in 2001 - the year before counternarcotic efforts began – to 329,000 hectares in 2017. The estimated quantity of opium produced rose from around 3,400 tons in 2002 to 9,000 tons in 2017; an increase of around 164 per cent.

“Our analysis reveals no counterdrug program undertaken by the United States, its coalition partners, or the Afghan government resulted in lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production,” the report reads. The approach’s failure is partly due to a lack of coordination between counternarcotic policies and wider security goals, and poorly designed alternative development programmes for farmers, the report asserts.

Meanwhile, various other factors are contributing to the rise in production, including weak government institutions and law enforcement, and a broader failure in reconstructing the country following the US invasion in 2001.

The past year has seen a further escalation in the US’ regional counternarcotic efforts. As TalkingDrugs reported in April, the Trump administration has introduced an unprecedented, controversial, and deadly new tactic to suppressing the Afghan opium trade: aerial bombardment of processing facilities. In an approach described by NATO as a "counter-revenue campaign designed to degrade the Taliban’s primary means of funding its operations – narcotic production", US and Afghan forces are using airstrikes to destroy opium labs, and thereby killing any people who happen to be in them at the time.

The total death toll of these attacks has not been made public, but Xinhua reported that just two of the first strikes claimed the lives of 44 people. At least 75 such strikes have taken place since November 2017.

It remains to be seen if this new approach will disrupt the Afghan opium trade and reduce cultivation. However, even if these strikes do counter drug production, there is a fear that they could deepen insecurity in the country.

“Civilian casualties— or public perceptions that the bombings were targeting rural communities with few viable income sources—could result in a greater long-term cost to the coalition than the short-term benefit of temporarily disrupting drug production and insurgent financing,” the report notes.

Borhan Osman, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, put this more bluntly: “Most drug labs being targeted are the primary livelihood of ordinary people, and are usually located in populated areas. Destroying them with no provision for alternative sources of income, and the probable killing of civilians in the process, will increase popular support for the Taliban”.