By the Pentagon’s own definition, the U.S. and its allies have failed to curb the drug trade in Afghanistan that provides 90 percent of the world’s heroin and is the main source of funding for the Taliban.
“The main goal of the International Security Assistance Force’s Counter-Narcotics strategy is to reduce the ability of the insurgency to draw support from the narcotics industry," the Defense Department declared in its latest report to Congress on the progress of the war.
Yet, rampant corruption in the Kabul and provincial governments, the quick profits farmers can realize from the poppy harvest, the shifting tactics of the allies, and the resiliency of the Taliban have combined to frustrate any immediate hopes of achieving ISAF’s goal.
“Due to bad weather, the 2012 poppy yield was lower than previous years, leading to a decrease in narcotics-derived insurgent revenue,” the report said. “However, overall insurgent funding in 2012 remained largely unchanged from previous years.”
“The 2013 poppy harvest is expected to expand considerably over 2012 due to improved weather conditions, increased prices and the drawdown of ISAF security forces,” the report said. “The Taliban is showing a greater propensity to protect financing from narcotics.”
The United Nations has estimated that the Taliban took in about $700 million from the drug trade last year.
Continued focus on crop substitution, high-profile arrests and seizures of drug shipments have had a small but not insignificant effect on overall insurgent profits according to the Pentagon report, titled “Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”
“The reason we are in this predicament is because there is essentially Mafia rule in Afghanistan,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution analyst who has written extensively on drug trafficking in Afghanistan and worldwide.
“There is limited motivation to focus on counter-narcotics” in the Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai when about one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product comes from the drug trade, Felbab-Brown said.
The 2009 troop surge and the subsequent increased presence of Marines in southwestern Helmand province “discouraged farmers from growing poppy. It was a deterrent but this deterrent is weakening” as U.S. troops withdraw, Felbab-Brown said.
The United Nations has pledged to fill the counter-narcotics vacuum left by the withdrawing allies, but that effort will be dependent on continuing contributions from donor states.
In its World Drug Report 2013, the UN said that it “will need to provide far greater assistance to bring counter-narcotic programs into the mainstream of social and economic development strategies so as to successfully curb the current cultivation and production of opium and the worrying high use of opiates among the Afghan population.”
Afghanistan, with a population of 30 million, has an estimated one million addicts, and human rights groups have reported that thousands of young girls have been sold into bondage or arranged marriages to pay off drug debts.
To continue anti-drug efforts past 2014, when all coalition combat troops will be withdrawn, the U.S. must include Drug Enforcement Administration agents with the long-term residual force that President Obama plans to leave behind post-2014, pending an agreement with the Kabul government, according to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.
As the Obama administration plans its military presence in the country, counter-narcotics must not be relegated to the back burner,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the Caucus, said in a statement last month.
“The war against the Taliban is far from over, and a positive outcome for our 12-year investment in blood and treasure will increasingly depend on these critical counter-narcotics efforts,” Feinstein said. “The United States must also continue to target, investigate and convict Afghan drug kingpins who finance terrorism,” she said.
At least five Afghan drug “kingpins” caught by the DEA have been brought to the U.S. and sentenced to long prison terms.
In 2006, John Gilbride, special DEA agenct in charge in New York City, and Michael Garcia, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of N.Y., announced that the first Afghan ever extradited to the U.S. under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import heroin into the U.S.
The indictment charged that Baz Mohammed headed a group called “The Organization” had “arranged for heroin to be transported from Afghanistan and Pakistan into the United States, including New York City, hidden inside suitcases, clothing, and containers.”
“The Organization collected heroin proceeds in the United States for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In exchange for financial support, the Taliban provided the Organization protection for its opium crops, heroin laboratories, drug-transportation routes, and members and associates,” the indictment said.
In Afghanistan, the DEA has relied on its FAST (Foreign Advisory and Support Teams) of paramilitary agents who have joined with Special Operations Forces in targeting drug caches and high-profile traffickers.
DEA agents also work with their Afghan counterparts “on everything from confidential informants to drug investigations to establishing the rule of law,” said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman. He declined to speculate on a DEA presence post-2014, but said “We’re going to be there as long as we’re asked to be there.”