How a failed drug war will defeat Trump’s Afghan adventure

Tuesday, 14 November 2017 03:24 Written by  Alfred McCoy Read 1096 times


After nine months of confusion, chaos and cascading tweets, Donald Trump’s White House has finally made one thing crystal clear. The United States is staying in Afghanistan to fight and — so the administration insists — win.


“The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might,” the president said in August 2017, trumpeting his virtual declaration of war on the Taliban. Overturning Barack Obama’s planned, and stalled, drawdown in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that the Pentagon would send 4,000 more soldiers to fight there, bringing American troop strength to nearly 15,000.

In October 2017, as that new mini-escalation was ramping up, the CIA leaked to The New York Times news of a complementary covert surge with lethal drone strikes and “highly experienced” Agency paramilitary teams being dispatched to “hunt and kill” Taliban guerrillas, both ordinary fighters and top officials. “This is unforgiving, relentless,” intoned CIA Director Mike Pompeo, promising a wave of extrajudicial killings reminiscent of the Agency’s notorious Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War.

CIA paramilitary officers, reported the Times, will lead Special Forces operatives, both Afghan and American, in expanded counterterrorism operations that, in the past, “have been accused of indiscriminately killing Afghan civilians.” In short, it’s game on in Afghanistan.

After 16 years of continuous war in that country, the obvious question is … does this new campaign have any realistic chance of success, no less victory? To answer that, another question must be asked. How has the Taliban managed to expand in recent years despite intensive U.S. operations and a massive air campaign, as well as the endless and endlessly expensive training of Afghan security forces?

After all, the Afghan war is not only the longest in U.S. history, but also one of the largest, peaking at 101,000 American troops in country during Obama’s surge of 2010 to 2011.

Thinking about the Taliban

Americans have been hearing about the Taliban for so long that most fail to appreciate just how relentless that movement’s growth has been in recent years. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bush White House unleashed a lethal combination of U.S. air power and CIA-funded Afghan warlords to crush the fundamentalist Taliban and capture the Afghan capital, Kabul, with stunning speed.

Not only was that Islamist movement and its government defeated, but it lost so many dedicated militants to those devastating air attacks that it was seemingly smashed beyond repair or revival. Nonetheless, within five years, the Taliban was back in force, already fielding 25,000 fighters. By 2015, it was in control of more than half the countryside, had captured district capitals, and was even pounding at the gates of major provincial cities like Kunduz.

As with any movement, there are multiple reasons for the Taliban’s success, including the failure of the government in Kabul — a cesspit of corruption — to deliver anything like rural prosperity, the country’s martial tradition of fighting foreign occupiers, and Pakistan’s sub-rosa support, as well as the wide-open sanctuaries in its tribal backlands along the Afghan border.

But there is one other factor, more fundamental than all the rest: the opium poppy.

The Taliban guerrillas are, like many insurgent armies, largely made up of teenagers who fight, at least in part, for cash to feed their families. Every spring for the past 15 years, as snow melts from mountain slopes across that country, new crops of such teenage recruits emerge from impoverished villages ready to take up arms for the rebel cause.

Each of them reportedly makes at least $300 a month, far more than they could possibly hope to earn from the usual agricultural wages.  In other words, it takes an estimated $90 million in salaries alone for the Taliban to field its 25,000 strong guerrilla army for a single fighting season. With an overall budget approaching a billion dollars annually, the cost of the insurgency’s 15-year war rings in at something close to $15 billion.

So where, in that impoverished, arid land, has the Taliban been getting nearly a billion dollars a year? According to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, a single Afghan province, Helmand, “produces a significant amount of the opium globally that turns into heroin and … provides about 60 percent of the Taliban funding.”

The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, agrees. “Without drugs,” he’s said, “this war would have been long over. The heroin is a very important driver of this war.”

The Taliban’s rise has paralleled the relentless growth of Afghanistan’s opium production from a mere 185 tons when the United States invaded in October 2001 to a still-unequalled yield of 8,200 tons in 2008, a harvest that provided an unprecedented 53% of the country’s gross domestic product and 93 percent of the world’s illicit heroin supply.

That same year, the United Nations stated that Taliban guerrillas were extracting “from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics, and militia pay.” A study for the U.S. Institute of Peace also found that, in 2009, the Taliban already had 50 heroin labs in its territory and controlled 98 percent of the country’s poppy fields, collecting $425 million in “taxes” levied on the opium traffic.

By the time Obama’s 2010 surge segued into an exit strategy four years later, observers were unanimous in their assessment that opium had become central to the Taliban’s survival. Despite a succession of “drug eradication” programs sponsored and funded by Washington, the Pentagon’s Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko,concluded in 2014 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.”

The 2013 opium crop covered a record area of 209,000 hectares, bringing the harvest back up to a substantial 5,500 tons. This massive crop generated some $3 billion in illicit income, of which the Taliban’s tax alone took an estimated $320 million — almost half that movement’s revenues. The U.S. embassy corroborated this dismal assessment, calling the illicit income “a windfall for the insurgency, which profits from the drug trade at almost every level.”

The failure of antinarcotics efforts

As 2017 ends, with the White House poised for another four-year plunge into the Afghan abyss, has anything changed that might weaken the Taliban and so spare Washington from a defeat foretold? To answer this question, John Sopko has been armed with a Congressional mandate to probe all forms of failure there and already has five years of experience in this difficult mission.

Recently, he drafted a scathing review of Washington’s failed 15-year effort to reduce Afghan opium production and thereby defeat the Taliban. This 150-page draft report, Counternarcotics: Lessons from Afghanistan, 2002-2016, depicts a drug-policy disaster only likely to ensure an ever-increasing income for the Taliban to fight an endless war.

When read in tandem with the United Nations’s annual opium surveys, Sopko provides ample evidence that Trump’s decision to double down in that country is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Over the past 15 years, all counter-narcotics efforts by the U.S., Great Britain, and the U.N. have failed to slow the country’s drug production. “Opium remains the country’s most valuable cash crop,” says Sopko, “worth around $3 billion per year at border prices.” It provides, he adds, “up to 411,000 full time equivalent jobs, more than the number of people employed by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”

Despite the expenditure of nearly $9 billion on its counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, Washington has presided over what Sopko calls a “dramatic expansion of opium poppy cultivation from less than 8,000 hectares grown in 2001 to 200,000 hectares in 2016.”

By then, the opium crop represented more than two-thirds of the country’s agricultural output. Meanwhile, 11 percent of the population is now estimated to be using illicit drugs, one of the world’s highest addiction rates.

The United Nations’s crop survey for 2016, compiled by hundreds of Afghan enumerators who regularly walked through the poppy fields — and corroborated by sophisticated satellite imagery — adds yet more somber strokes to this picture. That year, at 5,600 tons the opium harvest was again up … by 43 percent.

In the same period, opium eradication efforts fell by 91 percent to a mere 355 hectares of the crop destroyed, or less than two percent of all illegal poppy fields in the country.

Since the start of its intervention in 2001, Washington and its drug war allies have tried every possible counter-narcotics option. All, without exception, have failed. The bulk of the U.S. budget — $4.3 billion — was allocated to interdiction efforts, but ample funds were left for more experimental approaches, none of which seem to have worked.

As much as Washington’s drug policies failed, the U.N. efforts were, in Sopko’s view, even less effective. During the first decade following its 2001 invasion, Washington was obsessed with counterterror operations and so outsourced the drug war to others. It delegated opium suppression to the British and police training for interdiction to the Germans. In this critical period, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime maneuvered to fill the leadership void.

In what was then seen as a clever political gambit, the United Nations argued, according to Sopko’s report, that “it was necessary to destroy 25 percent of the standing poppy crop each year in order to deter future planting,” in the process justifying the employment of thousands of Afghan peasants to pull up poppy plants.

Defending that crop suppression program, Antonio Maria Costa, the Soviet-trained Italian economist who then headed UNODC, declared, according to Sopko, “that there was no relationship between poppy cultivation and poverty.” From his high modernist headquarters in Vienna, Costa pledged “to reduce poppy cultivation by 70 percent in five years and eliminate the crop altogether in 10 years” — a claim that soon proved laughable.

Near the start of Washington’s Afghan adventure in 2002, the U.S. military, the CIA and the country’s American-supported president, Hamid Karzai, had little interest in or next to no knowledge of the drug problem. Other actors with far less power — the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the World Bank and the European Commission, among others — all made periodic forays into antinarcotics work.

Funds for such operations ebbed and flowed, while new initiatives were regularly launched without significant analysis of or thought about past policies.

In this chaotic process, as Sopko points out, “interdiction efforts failed to fundamentally alter or impact the Afghan drug trade in a meaningful way. In 2017, poppy cultivation and opium production seemed destined to reach a record high and the Taliban continued to derive funding from the drug trade.”

Second part of the piece can be read in next issue