Apart from their omnipresent checkpoints, the Marines also introduced the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition program. It offered opium farmers an incentive package of cash, wheelbarrows, shovels, new water pumps, and all-important safe-conduct passes to move securely through this war zone. Despite the Taliban’s “night letters... forbidding locals from interacting with coalition forces,” the Marines were encouraged that more than 1,000 local farmers signed up for the program.
In the end, however, it wasn’t sustainable. Four years later in 2014, as American troop levels in the country were beginning to fall, General Daniel Yoo stood before his Marines at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province and announced that they would all soon be heading home, leaving the province’s security in the hands of their Afghan allies. “I am cautiously optimistic that they will be able to sustain themselves,” the general said, “but they’ve got to want it more than we do.”
Within a year, the Taliban were back, stronger than ever. Amid a nationwide offensive, the guerrillas focused, above all, on recapturing the poppy heartlands of Helmand Province, because, as the New York Times put it, “the lucrative opium trade made it crucial to the insurgents’ economic designs.” By December 2015, after overrunning checkpoints and winning back much of the province, they came close to capturing Marjah itself. Had American Special Operations forces and airpower not intervened to relieve “demoralized” Afghan troops and police, the town would undoubtedly have fallen.
Farther north, in the fertile poppy fields astride the Helmand River system, insurgents captured most of Sangin district, forcing the retreat of government soldiers who, hobbled by the endemic corruption of their government and military, were reportedly “fighting with lack of ammunition and on empty stomachs.” By 2016, President Obama was forced to reverse his drawdown and launch a mini-surge of hundreds of new U.S. troops to deny insurgents the economic prize of the world’s most productive poppy fields.
Despite support from American airpower and 700 Special Operations troops, in February and March 2016 embattled government forces retreated from Musa Qala and Khan Neshin, leaving the Taliban largely in control of 10 of Helmand’s 14 districts. After 3,000 government troops died in that Taliban offensive, the remaining demoralized forces hunkered down inside provincial and district capitals, leaving the countryside and the opium crops that went with it to the heroin-funded guerrillas.
In the midst of all that fighting, Helmand’s farmers managed to expand their poppy cultivation to 80,000 hectares by 2016, which represented 40% of the entire country’s drug production.
Not only did this problematic drug war fail to curtail the traffic, but it also alienated the rural residents the government so desperately needed to win over. Worse yet, in the end it actually encouraged illicit opium production—a frequent outcome in Washington’s worldwide drug war that I once called “the stimulus of prohibition.”
Using sophisticated satellite imagery, Sopko’s team, for example, found a troubling disconnect between areas that received development aid from Washington or its allies and those that were subjected to opium eradication programs. In strategic Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, for instance, satellite photographs clearly reveal that the various drug eradication projects ripped through remote areas where “the population was highly dependent on opium poppy for its livelihoods,” rendering poor farmers destitute. The development aid was, however, lavished on more accessible, largely drug-free districts near major cities elsewhere in Afghanistan, leaving countless thousands of farmers in critical rural areas angry at the government and susceptible to Taliban recruitment.
Even liberal development alternatives to those rip-up-the-poppies programs, claims Sopko, only served to stimulate opium production in surprising ways. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, spent $36 million on irrigation for a showcase Food Zone project, meant to promote the growing of legal crops in southern Kandahar Province. As it happened, though, this important infrastructure program actually turned out to contribute “to rising levels of opium poppy cultivation”—an unintended outcome that could be seen in similar “irrigation projects in provinces like Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Kunar.”
Next door to Kandahar in central Helmand Province, another Food Zone program initially helped reduce the opium crop by 60%. But as British agronomist David Mansfield reports, by the spring of 2017 an “unprecedented” proliferation of poppies covered up to 40% of the farmland targeted by that project; guerrillas were back in force; and farmers felt, as one put it, that “the Taliban is better than the government; they don’t ban poppy, they just ask for tax.” By now, of course, given all the years of bungled anti-drug programs, Mansfield concludes that the Kabul government has little hope of wresting “back control of central Helmand.”
USAID programs that emphasized increased wheat production proved similarly counterproductive. “With higher-yielding varieties and improved agricultural technologies,” writes Sopko, “households in the well-irrigated central valleys of rural Afghanistan would be able to meet their family wheat requirements with a smaller part of their land,” allowing “a larger area... to be allocated to [the] high-value... opium poppy.”
An Uncertain Future
Corroborating Sopko’s pessimism, a recent report by Mujib Mashal of the New York Times depicted the worsening Afghan drug situation as the product, in part, of Washington’s failed policies. Fueled by a booming opium harvest, the Taliban has recently expanded from poppy growing into large-scale heroin production with an estimated 500 labs refining the drug inside Afghanistan— part of a strategy aimed at capturing a greater share of the $60 billion generated globally by the country’s drug exports.
Out of the whole opium eradication project, the National Interdiction Unit, an Afghan outfit trained by U.S. Special Forces, is more or less what’s left when it comes to hopes for reducing the traffic in drugs. Yet their nighttime helicopter interdiction raids on mobile, readily reconstructed heroin labs are proving futile and their chief, reports Mashal, was recently sacked for “probably leaking information to hostile forces.” U.S. military commanders now realize that local Taliban bosses, enriched by the heroin boom, have nothing to gain from further peace negotiations, which remain the only way of ending this endless war.
Meanwhile, the whole question of opium eradication has, according to Mashal, gotten surprisingly “little attention in the Trump administration’s new strategy for the Afghan war.” It seems that U.S. counter-narcotics officials have come to accept a new reality “with a sense of helplessness”—that the country now supplies 85% of the world’s heroin and there’s no end to this in sight.
So why has America’s ambitious $9 billion counter-narcotics program fallen into failure again and again? When such illegality corrupts a society as thoroughly as opium has Afghanistan, then drug trafficking comes to distort everything—giving even good programs bad outcomes and undoubtedly twisting Trump’s headstrong plans for victory into certain defeat.
Think of the never-ending war in Afghanistan as Washington’s drug of choice of these last 16 years.