After fighting the longest war in its history, the US stands at the brink of defeat in Afghanistan. How could this be possible? How could the world’s sole superpower have battled continuously for more than 16 years – deploying more than 100,000 troops at the conflict’s peak, sacrificing the lives of nearly 2,300 soldiers, spending more than $1tn (£740bn) on its military operations, lavishing a record $100bn more on “nation-building”, helping fund and train an army of 350,000 Afghan allies – and still not be able to pacify one of the world’s most impoverished nations? So dismal is the prospect of stability in Afghanistan that, in 2016, the Obama White House cancelled a planned withdrawal of its forces, ordering more than 8,000 troops to remain in the country indefinitely. …
By attacking the guerrillas but failing to eradicate the opium harvest that funded new insurgents every spring, Obama’s surge soon faltered. Amid the rapid drawdown of allied forces to meet Obama’s politically determined deadline of December 2014 for “ending” all combat operations, a marked reduction in air operations allowed the Taliban to launch mass-formation offensives, which killed record numbers of Afghan army troops and police.
At the time, John Sopko, the special inspector for Afghanistan, offered a telling explanation for the Taliban’s survival. Despite the expenditure of a staggering $7.6bn on “drug eradication” programs during the previous decade, he concluded that, “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”.
As the 2014 opium crop was harvested, fresh UN figures suggested that production levels were approaching the country’s 2007 high. In May 2015, having watched this flood of drugs enter the global market as US counter-narcotics spending climbed to $8.4bn, Sopko tried to translate these developments into a comprehensible all-American image. “Afghanistan,” he said, “has roughly 500,000 acres, or about 780 square miles, devoted to growing opium poppy. That’s equivalent to more than 400,000 US football fields – including the end zones”. …
Simultaneously, a UN security council investigation found that the Taliban had systematically tapped “into the supply chain at each stage of the narcotics trade” – collecting a 10% tax on opium cultivation in Helmand, fighting for control of heroin laboratories and acting as “the major guarantors for the trafficking of raw opium and heroin out of Afghanistan”. No longer simply taxing the traffic, the Taliban was so deeply and directly involved that, according to the New York Times, it “has become difficult to distinguish the group from a dedicated drug cartel”.
These dismal trends persisted throughout 2017, as the Afghan opium harvest nearly doubled to 9,000 tonnes, well above the previous peak of 8,200 tonnes in 2007. Inside wartorn Helmand province, the poppy area increased by 79% to 144,000 hectares, representing 44% of the country’s total crop. In November, convinced that opium is providing 60% of the Taliban’s funds for wages and weapons, the US command – emboldened and expanded by Donald Trump’s decision to “win” the Afghan war – dispatched, for the first time ever, F-22 fighters and B-52 bombers to destroy 10 of the Taliban’s heroin laboratories in Helmand, a small share of the country’s 500 drug refineries.
For the foreseeable future, opium will likely remain entangled in the rural economy, the Taliban insurgency, and government corruption whose sum is the Afghan conundrum. …
The failure of America’s intervention in Afghanistan offers broader insight into the limits to its global power. The persistence of both opium cultivation and the Taliban insurgency suggest the degree to which the policies that Washington has imposed upon Afghanistan since 2001 have reached a dead end. For most people worldwide, economic activity, the production and exchange of goods, is the prime point of contact with their government. When, however, a country’s most significant commodity is illegal, then political loyalties naturally shift to the economic networks that move that product safely and secretly from fields to foreign markets, providing protection, finance and employment at every stage. “The narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and fuels a growing illicit economy,” John Sopko explained in 2014. “This, in turn, undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”
After 16 years of continuous warfare, Washington is faced with the same choice it had back in 2010, when Obama’s generals airlifted those marines into Marja. Just as it has been over the past decade and a half, the US can remain trapped in the same endless cycle. As snow melts from the mountain slopes and poppy plants rise from the soil every spring, there will be a new batch of teenage recruits from impoverished villages ready to fight for the rebel cause.
Even for this troubled land and its dauntingly complex policy problem, however, there are alternatives. Investing even a small portion of all that misspent military funding in the country’s agriculture can produce more economic options for the millions of farmers who depend upon the opium crop for employment. Ruined orchards could be rebuilt, ravaged flocks repopulated, wasted seed stocks regrown and wrecked snow-melt irrigation systems – which once sustained a diverse agriculture before these decades of war – repaired. If the international community continues to nudge the country’s dependence on illicit opium downward through sustained rural development, then maybe Afghanistan will cease to be the planet’s leading narco-state – and just maybe the annual cycle of violence could at long last be broken.
How the heroin trade explains the US-UK failure in Afghanistan