WASHINGTON – With Afghanistan farmers cultivating opium at a record pace, U.S. officials expressed concern that the country’s drug trade will continue to grow unchecked as the U.S. scales back troop presence in the country.
Counternarcotics experts from the State, Justice and Defense departments testified this week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the future of drug control operations in Afghanistan, the world’s largest exporter of opium. They expressed the need to bolster counternarcotics operations already on the ground, despite uncertainty regarding the status of a new security agreement to allow some American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
“The narcotics trade generates billions of dollars, and those dollars have the ability to destabilize not just neighborhoods but entire nations,” said James Capra, chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Agency. “They fund extremist groups around the world.”
Opium, which contains morphine and is used to produce heroin, accounts for at least four percent of the country’s gross domestic product and is a major source of funds for tribal warlords and insurgents in the southwestern region where it is most heavily cultivated.
“Insurgents tax local poppy farmers, and in return, provide farmers with loans, material support, and protection for their operations,” said Erin Logan, principal director for counternarcotics and global threats at the Defense Department.
But trafficking from Afghanistan has implications far beyond the country’s borders. Drugs from the “Golden Crescent” region of central Asia reach all corners of the world, including the United States, where heroin use has spiked significantly in recent years.
“The trade in Afghan-produced opiates has become an increasingly global phenomenon,” Logan said in testimony before the committee on Wednesday. “The ripple effect of the heroin trade undermines stability in key regions of U.S. interest, fuels corruption, undermines legitimate economic activity, and provides vital revenue for terrorist groups and other transnational criminal organizations.”
About four percent of heroin consumed in the United States is of Afghan origin, but there’s no reason that rate couldn’t surge, said William Brownfield, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the State Department.
“There’s nothing magical that keeps Afghan heroin from coming to the United States, and if that happens, it is a direct threat to the people and communities of the U.S.”
To combat the drug industry at a social level, foreign aid workers have tried offering farmers legal crop alternatives like wheat. But opium growth is ingrained in Afghanistan’s economy, if not its culture, and there’s no easy substitute for the cash crop. In 2013, one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of opium poppies yielded four times the profit of the same area of wheat.
“Programs to replace poppies with alternative crops won’t succeed unless there is a more holistic approach,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla..
Witnesses said a multi-tiered approach is already in place, but more time and money is needed for it to be fully effective. Logan outlined several drug control initiatives set up by the U.S., including the creation of the D.E.A.-trained Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan, which seized 72,000 kg of opium and 6,200 kg of heroin in 2013; a system of information sharing between law enforcement agencies; tighter border control to stem the flow of drugs, weapons and terrorists; and direct monetary incentives to reward provincial governors who successfully eradicate opium in their districts.
Despite a large number of drug busts, the billions of dollars invested by the U.S. in counternarcotics initiatives have born little fruit in slowing the drug industry. Logan compared the programs to sprouting plants, with “great potential” but requiring “care and nurturing before they are ready to stand on their own.”
Other government agents, like John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, paint a less flattering picture.
A November 2013 report by Sopko compiled two years’ worth of U.S. audits of Afghanistan’s 16 government ministries, including the Ministry for Counter Narcotics, and concluded that not one of the agencies could be trusted with U.S. funds without significant risk of money being wasted or stolen.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said the witnesses’ calls for patience—and more funding—sounded like “déjà vu all over again.”
“We invest a lot of money, we have a lot of personnel, and [still] opium cultivation increased by 36 percent to a record 516,000 acres,” Connolly said. “What I see is the United States, frankly, losing this war.”