State Dept. Won’t Say Eradicating Afghan Opium Production Was a U.S. Goal

Ali Meyer | January 23, 2015 | 1:19pm EST
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Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference with Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah on July 12, 2014 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

( - Did the U.S. government have as one of its goals during the 13 years it maintained military forces on a war-footing in Afghanistan the elimination of Afghanistan’s opium production?

The State Department will not give a straight yes-no answer to that question, but the answer they do give is, essentially, no.

“Let me check with our folks,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said when first asked this question by

The number of hectares devoted to opium cultivation in Afghanistan has tripled in since 2002, the first full year that U.S. troops occupied the country following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 74,000 hectares in Afghanistan were used to grow opium poppies. In 2014, a record 224,000 hectares were used.

Afghanistan, according to UNODC data, is approaching a monopoly on global opium production.

The UNODC “World Drug Report,” published in June 2014, said: “The opium production in Afghanistan accounts for 80 per cent of the global opium production (5,500 tons).” When the UNODC released its 2014 “Afghanistan Opium Survey” in November, it said: “Afghanistan produces some 90 percent of the world's illicit opiates.”

Since 2002, while the massive increase in Afghan opium production was taking place, the U.S. government spent significant sums on what the Congressional Research Service characterizes as “counternarcotics assistance to Afghanistan.”

“The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) estimates that the U.S. government has spent at least $7 billion in counternarcotics assistance to Afghanistan since the international community began reconstruction and stability operations in FY2002—including more than $4 billion through the State Department and upward of $3 billion through the Defense Department,” says a CRS report published last May.

According to the CRS, Afghanistan’s opium crop is a boon to the Taliban and other insurgents.

“Drug trafficking, a long-standing feature of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban political economy, is linked to corruption and insecurity, and provides a source of illicit finance for non-state armed groups,” said CRS.

“Elements of the insurgency, particularly the Taliban, are variously engaged in drug trafficking and the protection of fields, routes, and laboratories to finance operations,” said CRS. “According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), such insurgency involvement is ‘extensive and expanding.’ Although estimates vary significantly, the U.N. Security Council’s Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team reported that the Taliban generates an estimated $100 million to $155 million annually in illicit income from the drug trade—a sum that may represent more than a quarter of total Taliban funds.”

Despite the 12-year U.S. investment of $4 billion through the State Department and $3 billion through the Defense Department, and despite the fact that the Taliban profits from the drug trade, Afghanistan was still able to grow its record 224,000 hectares of opium last year.

Now, with the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan winding down, the State Department is handing over to the Afghan government the job the U.S. government did not do over the past dozen years: Stopping opium production.

“State Department-funded counternarcotics programs are in various stages of transition to full Afghan responsibility,” said CRS. “Some are already fully implemented by the Afghan government (e.g., Governor-Led Eradication and the Good Performer’s Initiative), while the transition timeline for other programs may span several more years.”

“After 2014, the State Department does not plan to have a permanent counternarcotics presence outside Kabul,” said CRS.

At a State Department press briefing last week, asked department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf: “The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction [SIGAR] said that the State Department spent $4 billion on counternarcotics initiatives. Despite this, the United Nations reported that Afghanistan set a record for producing opium in 2014 and that 80 percent of the total opium production in the world comes from Afghanistan. Was it the goal of the United States government to eradicate poppy production in Afghanistan while we’ve had forces there for 13 years?”

Harf responded: “Let me check with our folks. Obviously while we’ve had a military operations underway in Afghanistan we have focused on other issues, including the narcotics trade certainly we’ve talked about this a lot and I know we have put a great deal of effort in the  Afghans grow their capabilities to crack down on this. Let me check with our team and see, I hadn’t seen that SIGAR report.”

Harf said: “Well I can certainly answer your second question and say no, obviously. In terms of staffing and where people are located, I can check and see if there’s a specific reason for that. But clearly we have people in Afghanistan and back at the State Department very focused on this issue. Very focused.”

After this briefing, followed up with the State Department in writing to ask again directly whether it had been a goal of the United States to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan over the past 13 years.

A State Department official responded in writing, but not with a yes-or-no answer.

“Our experience around the world shows that counternarcotics efforts require a long-term, multi-faceted approach, well integrated within the broader context of supporting good governance and sustainable economic growth,” said the State Department official. “It takes decades to get into narcotics crises and decades to get out of them. Our goal has been and will continue to be to support the Afghan government’s development of the capabilities and institutions necessary to tackle independently drug production and trade.”

“There are many causes for the recent increase in opium poppy cultivation, including lack of security in parts of Afghanistan, political uncertainty during an election year, and economic insecurity exacerbated by the delay in the signing of the BSA,” said the official.  “Cultivation is largely isolated in areas where security is the worst, where physical and economic infrastructure is least developed, and where there is a lack of Afghan government presence and control.  The overall number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan has grown from six in 2006 to fifteen today.”

“Afghanistan has made significant strides in recent years in its capacity to counter the illicit economy and sustain broad, multi-faceted programs that minimize narcotics cultivation, production, trafficking, and use, enhance public information campaigns, and develop regional and international cooperation networks,” said the official.  “The many challenges to successfully reducing narcotics production and trafficking are ones the new Afghan national unity government has inherited.  The United States looks forward to working with renewed commitment with the new Afghan government to build upon the counternarcotics capabilities that have been developed over the past decade.”

The State Department also provided a written follow-up response to’s question, posed at the briefing, as to the whether the U.S. government had given up trying to stop post-war Afghanistan from being the opium capital of the world.

“Assisting the Afghan government in countering the narcotics trade is a priority for the U.S. government post-2014,” said the State Department official. “While we have transferred our provincial Regional Law Enforcement Centers in Herat and Kunduz to the Afghan government, U.S. counternarcotics programs are multi-faceted and continue to reach wide areas of the country outside of Kabul, with a focus on sustainability and strengthening the capacity of the Afghan government.” then followed up in writing again with the State Department on the question of whether or not it had been the goal of the United States government to eradicate poppy production in Afghanistan while we had forces there for 13 years—this time expressing the view that the previous answer the State Department had provided to this question was effectively a “no.” A State Department official responded again in writing.

“Our goal has been and will continue to be to support the Afghan government’s development of the capabilities and institutions necessary to independently tackle drug production and trade over the long term,” said the State Department official.

“We recognize that a successful counter-narcotics effort requires a long-term approach,” said the State Department official. “In Colombia, for instance, it took years of sustained engagement before cultivation significantly declined – and we are not yet finished.  Successes in Colombia to date are due to strong leadership by the Colombian government, robust efforts to dismantle major drug trafficking organizations, and significant bilateral engagement in economic growth and development programs.  Our focus has been, and will continue to be, on creating Afghan solutions that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan can sustain and bu But the State Department

In November, the State Department’s Inspector General published a report on the department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). This agency, the IG said, had spent $220 million since 2006 on seven counternarcotics (CN) initiatives in Afghanistan.

“The degree to which INL’s CN program for Afghanistan has achieved desired results is unclear because INL has not fully developed or implemented Performance Measurement Plans (PMPs) to track progress for its CN initiatives and to allow for appropriate budgeting,” said the IG report. “As a result, INL cannot determine whether its Afghan CN initiatives are successful or should be revised, reduced, or canceled. Additionally, the long-term viability of CN initiatives is unclear because INL had not worked with the GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] to develop required sustainment plans that detail how CN initiatives will continue without U.S. assistance.”

The most expensive of the INL’s seven initiatives in Afghanistan was $99.8 million “to support the operation and maintenance of existing Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan facilities” and “life support and salary supplements for police units mentored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.” Another $91.7 million went to “development assistance to provinces that have successfully reduced or eliminated poppy cultivation.”

Another $4.4 million was invested in Afghan government “drug prevention initiatives in Afghan schools.”

The IG said: “While the GIRoA has improved drug interdiction, poppy cultivation has risen in Afghanistan over the life of INL’s CN program.”

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