(Photo courtesy United Nations Photo)

(Photo courtesy United Nations Photo)

On a scorching day in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, Shafi Sharifi found himself sitting with an opium farmer in the middle of a brightly colored field of poppies.

It was 1999. Sharifi was working for Doctors Without Borders, distributing mosquito nets to families in rural areas to shield them from malaria.

He sat with the farmer for several hours, sipping tea under the mid-day sun and, it turns out, inadvertently inhaling fumes from the newly scored opium poppies. When it was time to leave, Sharifi opened his car, sat down and promptly passed out.

“I fell asleep just from the smell of it,” he said. “That’s how strong it is.”

Fast forward fifteen years — through an oppressive Taliban regime, civil war and the U.S.-led invasion — and Sharifi and the rest of Afghanistan are still feeling the potent effects of an opium industry that is growing at a historic pace. Drug money is a major source of funding for the resurgent Taliban and insurgent groups gaining ground in southern Afghanistan.

Opium drips out of a scored poppy. (Photo by Andrew Lopez)

Opium drips out of a scored poppy. (Photo courtesy Andrew Lopez)

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Despite billions of dollars spent by the U.S. over the last decade to combat the drug trade, opium cultivation reached record highs in 2013. Drug enforcement experts in the United States are calling on Congress and the Pentagon to make counternarcotics a priority as the U.S. contemplates the nature of its role and the level of its commitment in Afghanistan’s future.

“As we look at the future of Afghanistan, it is impossible to envision success without sustaining an Afghan capability to fight the violence and corruption created by the drug trade,” said Erin Logan, principal director for counternarcotics and global threats at the Defense Department, testifying before Congress last month.

The U.S. is watching closely as Afghans ponder two decisions that will shape the prospects of their fragile democracy — who will be the next president, and will international troops remain in the country after this year?

With so much happening right now in the country, the opium issue has taken a back seat in both Washington and Kabul. Logan and Afghanistan policy leaders like John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said controlling the opium industry goes hand in hand with military and diplomatic efforts to secure the country.

“The Afghan drug problem is growing and threatens to undermine the overall U.S. mission to build a stable Afghanistan,” Sopko told the Senate in January. “Absent effective counternarcotics programs, everything we have invested in both lives and treasure will be at risk.”

To counter the drug trade, experts say, the U.S. needs to shift its strategy away from eradicating and seizing opium and toward financial alternatives for opium farmers and smugglers.

The problem

Opium became Afghanistan’s national cash crop during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. Wartime poverty and desperation — along with pressure from mujahedeen rebel groups that trafficked drugs and used the profits to fund their jihad against the Soviets — led many farmers to start growing the lucrative poppy in order to feed their families.

Sharifi grew up in Kunduz, a small province on the northern border with Tajikistan; he remembers when the Taliban would drive their tanks up to the border, fight off Afghan-Tajik border guards, and clear the way for smugglers to enter Tajikistan.

Since then, insurgent groups and drug traffickers have been joined at the hip and Afghanistan has taken over a 90 percent share of the world’s opium industry.

And the industry is still growing. Afghan farmers grew a record 209,000 hectares of opium poppy last year — that’s about 516,000 acres, or about the size of all five boroughs of New York City — according to the 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

(Data courtesy Afghan Opium Survey 2013 by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

Data courtesy Afghan Opium Survey 2013 by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Production of opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin brought in the equivalent of 15 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product last year, a 4 percent rise from 2012, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime surveys from each year.

By any measure, the drug trade is booming, and it has major implications for U.S. and Afghan military and political interests. Much of the profit goes to the Taliban and other insurgents, paying for the soldiers and weapons that kill American and allied troops every month.

Corrupt political and security leaders also take their share of the cut and turn a blind eye toward — or are complicit in — the activities of narco-insurgent networks.

“Corruption is a massive problem,” said Sharifi, now a journalist who splits his time between Kunduz and Washington. “There are a lot of officials involved. When criminal networks have this disposable income, it’s not much to entice an official in the government, who gets paid probably only $200 per month, if you pay him $2,000.”

Counternarcotics: What are we doing now, and what’s working?

The record growth of the Afghan opium industry has occurred in spite of considerable efforts by the U.S. and its partners to combat the industry—and considerable spending.

The U.S. has dedicated $7 billion to counternarcotics operations since 2002, including more than a billion dollars in 2013, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The money is spent on programs to eradicate poppy fields and seize stockpiles, entice farmers to grow legal crops, prosecute drug traffickers and corrupt officials, and treat drug addicts.

There is little consensus in Washington on the effectiveness of these efforts.

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration-trained Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan made hundreds of large drug busts, seizing 72,000 kilograms of opium and 6,200 kilograms of heroin and arresting hundreds of criminals.

But Sharifi said eradication and seizure is only treating the symptoms, not the disease.

“This is not a problem you can solve by eradicating,” he said, making a hacking motion with his hand. “Afghan forces go into an area and they just cut poppy flowers. It’s just not [working]. They grow it again next year. There has to be some sort of alternative financial incentive to replace poppy.”

Officials agree that alternative crops are a staple of counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, but replacing poppy is much easier said than done. In 2013, one hectare of opium poppy yielded four times the profit of the same area of wheat. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime survey found that 86 percent of opium farmers chose to grow the crop because of its high price, their need to provide for their family or their desire to improve their living condition.

“The focus on eradication left rural farmers without a steady income, and more vulnerable to the lure of extremism or other black market economic activities,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Programs to replace poppies with alternative crops won’t succeed unless there is a more holistic approach. Simply giving farmers what seeds to plant in lieu of poppies won’t do anything if Afghan wheat has not been marketed as a viable option for importers.”

The British-run Helmand Food Zone, 10 districts in Helmand where farmers were provided with seeds, fertilizers, transportation and other assistance, was an experiment in crop subsidies. The program had some success, reporting annual poppy yields slightly less than the districts outside of the Food Zone, but it ended in 2012 and opium cultivation spiked once again.

Try as they might, the U.S. and U.K. haven’t been able to promote wheat as a suitable alternative. But there are other options, like saffron, a spice that is nearly as durable and profitable as opium and is common in the western provinces.

Sharifi said he’s in favor of some form of legalization of opium, to sell to pharmacies to produce medical morphine and codeine. Legalization in Turkey in 1974 proved to be far more effective and profitable than eradication in stemming the illegal flow of drugs, according to the Toronto Star.

Whatever the plan, Sharifi and counternarcotics leaders agree it must be long-term.

“So far, all short-term plans here and there haven’t produced endurable results,” he said.

“I do not promise you success this year or next year,” said William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. “But I do promise, with your support, a sustainable and adaptable counternarcotics strategy for the Afghan government to address drug challenges post-2014.”

What will counternarcotics look like after 2014?

Brownfield and his peers have yet to put forth a decisive post-2014 strategy for counternarcotics, largely because so much is still up in the air, like the still-unsigned bilateral security agreement that would allow 10,000 American troops to remain in Afghanistan after the year’s end.

“We do not know what is the nature of the security relationship,” Brownfield said. “Whether we will have a bilateral security agreement and what it will say; who will win the election in April; what will be the number of resources available to us in the [next] appropriations bill; and what the other international players will be doing.”

“We are obligated to put together the best set of policies and programs that allow us to adjust to whatever those variables eventually deliver,” he said.

Logan said despite rising cultivation and production numbers, counternarcotics programs are on the right track and just need more time and money to be fully effective.

“We have a counternarcotics seed that has now sprouted, and it includes all of the elements we believe we need to grow,” she said. “But that growth will only happen if we nurture and protect that which we have planted.”

Other officials paint a less flowery picture.

“In the opinion of almost everyone, the situation is dire, with little prospect for improvement this year or beyond, even with the signing of a bilateral security agreement,” Sopko told the Senate. “Law enforcement officials tell [me] that Afghan authorities lack the political will to effectively prosecute senior officials.”

“I have to say, it’s déjà vu all over again when I look at this data,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We invest a lot of money, we have a lot of personnel, and opium cultivation increased by 36 percent between 2012 and 2013 to a record [high]. What I see is the United States, frankly, losing this war.”


Making matters worse is the continued drawdown of U.S. military and civilian presence in the country. The budget for civilian aid in Afghanistan was cut in half for fiscal year 2014, and counternarcotics operations have seen similar cuts.

“We know that the U.S. government drawdown is going to impact everybody,” said James Capra, chief of operations at the D.E.A. “We’re pulling out of forward operating bases just like the military. We put a plan together with certain assumptions that have to be in place: one is funding, the next is the security of our men and women there.”

“We are moving towards a drawdown, and at the end of this year we will probably have somewhere around 47 people in the country.”

With less manpower and funding, drug control units will also have to learn to operate in a less secure environment, especially if U.S. troops are forced to completely withdraw in the absence of a new security agreement.

Sharifi is more concerned about the psychological impact of the drawdown.

“So much media coverage inside and outside [Afghanistan] is focused on the U.S. pulling out,” Sharifi said. “These things really affect the psyche of the people, and in a way it strengthens the Taliban. There’s this perception that we’re going to be left alone again.”

Because of that fear, farmers in contested areas keep growing opium to stay in favor with the Taliban, should the group reassert itself after the U.S. leaves — a lesson they learned, Sharifi said, in the 1990s when the Soviet war ended and “the world walked away.”

“They want to make sure both sides are happy,” he said. “If the government isn’t able to protect them, at least they’re not hurt by the Taliban either.”

Cautious hope

But the looming challenges in Afghanistan tend to obscure the social progress that has been made over the last decade.

“Women couldn’t walk out of the house without a relative,” Sharifi said. “They were banned from employment and education by the Taliban. Today, millions go to school and hundreds of thousands have graduated.”

On April 5, the country will take a great leap forward by selecting a president to take over from Hamid Karzai in the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in the history of Afghanistan. The election will be covered by one of the freest medias in Asia.

Much has changed since Sharifi sat snoozing in his car in an opium field in Helmand province in 1999.

Then again, much has stayed the same. A thriving drug trade bolsters an obstinate insurgency, while international attention is more aimed at fighting the enemy than fixing the underlying problem.

The U.S. has failed so far to make a dent in an industry as deeply rooted in Afghanistan’s tradition as in its trade, but Sharifi and U.S. drug control leaders said the U.S. should stay and continue the fight. If American troops are forced to pull out in the absence of a new security deal, they said, the opium trade, and with it the insurgency, will grow out of control.

“It’s a massive security threat to the United States,” Sharifi said. “The U.S. cannot just ignore it and say it solves by itself.

“It could get a lot worse.”