America’s Biggest Failure in Afghanistan and its Global Consequences

As the war in Afghanistan drags on, approaching its 17th anniversary, we find that the Trump Administration, the third Administration that has fought America’s longest war, is adapting this policy which was shared with the American people in August 2017:

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.

But to prosecute this war, we will learn from history.  As a result of our comprehensive review, American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically in the following ways:

A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.  I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options.  We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.

Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on.  America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.  I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.

Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome.

Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.  America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field.

With the knowledge that the United States is not going to leave Afghanistan anytime soon, let’s look at one of the greatest untold failures of the 17 year mission; controlling Afghanistan’s drug trade, a failure that has had repercussions throughout the world.  Thanks to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), we get an annual summary of the world of illicit drugs, most particularly, drugs coming from Afghanistan.  In this posting, I will source data from the 2018 edition of the World Drug Report with additional data being sourced from UNODC’s Afghanistan Opium Survey 2017.

Let’s start by looking at opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the source for much the world’s heroin supply.  In 2017, a record high of 328,000 hectares of land was cultivated for opium poppies, up from 201,000 hectares in 2016 with 11 percent of all opium poppy farmers reporting that they had cultivated opium poppies for the first time in 2017.  Since yields were very good, potential opium production doubled from 4800 tons in 2016 to 9000 tons in 2017 or 85.7 percent of the world’s total of 10500 tons.  It is estimated that 7600 to 7900 tons of this opium was available for heroin production with the remaining 1100 to 1400 tons being consumed as raw opium in the region.  The 7600 to 7900 tons of opium will form the base for the production of 550 to 900 tons of export quality heroin (with 50 to 70 percent purity) and 390 to 450 tons of pure heroin base.

If we look back in time, we find that since 2006, the areal extent of opium poppy production in Afghanistan has varied significantly but has never really declined for any length of time:

 

Additionally, it is interesting to see that in 2017, Afghanistan was responsible for 78 percent of the global area under cultivation for opium poppies, a number that has varied from 65 to 82 percent since 2006.

The massive increase in opium poppy cultivation is related to several factors including political instability, lack of government control and security and socio-economic factors including poor employment opportunities for farmers, lack of education and limited access to markets for other agricultural products.  Cultivation of opium poppies created the equivalent of 354,000 full-time jobs for workers hired by farmers to weed, lance and harvest the poppy crop.  Opium poppy farmers use income from their poppy crops to pay for food, debt and medical expenses with very few farmers using the proceeds of their poppy crop to pay for additional property, education or other activities that would allow them to diversify from growing poppies as shown on this graphic:

Here is a map showing the main opium poppy producing regions in Afghanistan with larger producing regions in darker green:

Here is a table showing the percentage of villages (by region) with poppy cultivation:

Here is a table showing the value of the opium poppy to Afghanistan’s overall economy:

Here is a graphic showing the value added to the Afghanistan economy from the agricultural sector as a whole and opiate export sector since 2000:

Here is a graphic showing the farm-gate value (in $millions) of opium production in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2017:

It is quite apparent that nearly two decades of war has done very little to stifle the importance of the opium poppy crop to the economy of Afghanistan, despite the presence of coalition military forces fighting the never-ending war against terrorism.

While there has been some eradication of poppy growing areas, the areas are very small compared to the total with only 750 hectares eradicated over the entirety of 2017 and only 60581 hectares being eradicated since 2016.

As you can see from the data in this posting, the War on Terror which began in Afghanistan in 2001 has been an abject failure when it comes to destroying Afghanistan’s ability to flood the world with its home-grown opiates.  Even more interestingly, taxes paid by opium poppy farmers on their crops (paying ushr) often end up in the hands of the Taliban and other anti-government/insurgency groups, a situation that has made it even harder for the Afghani central government to control one of America’s nation-building experiments.  Unless the United States makes a deliberate effort to control the opium poppy marketplace in Afghanistan under its new strategy which will reflect conditions on the ground rather than arbitrary timetables, the nation will continue to be a source of funding for both the Taliban and terrorist groups.  Not only that, but the failure of the coalition forces to reign in the production of opium poppies has certainly not helped to reduce the growing global opioid crisis.

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