The U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is adding an unexpected toll on Americans as poppy production in that country reaches an all-time high, fueling a global opium and heroin scourge that also is funding terrorist activities.
U.S. taxpayers have spent $7.5 billion over the past 12 years on counternarcotics efforts inside Afghanistan, but the withdrawal of troops has prompted a massive surge in the drug trade, America’s top watchdog inside the country warned in a report Wednesday.
The narcotics situation in Afghanistan “is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond,” said John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
Mr. Sopko’s assessment is shared by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the United Nations and other global agencies. Afghanistan produces roughly 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium, according to the State Department.
“As we approach 2014 and the withdrawal of international forces from the country, the results of the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2013 should be taken for what they are — a warning, and an urgent call to action,” said Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The latest data from the U.N. office show that approximately 516,000 acres of land in Afghanistan are under opium poppy cultivation, an all-time high and a 36 percent increase since 2012.
U.S. officials blame the surge in Afghan opium on the withdrawal of American troops, many of whom led the counternarcotics effort of the past decade.
The Department of Defense and the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan told the special inspector general that the drawdown of coalition forces in Afghanistan has hurt counternarcotics efforts, especially in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar where poppy growing is at its highest. Those provinces were the focus of a surge of coalition forces and their subsequent withdrawal.
The special inspector general reports that there are more than 74,000 acres of poppy fields in Helmand province alone.
Over the past several years, eradication efforts seemed to have made hardly a dent. According to the report, since 2008, eradication efforts have affected on average less than 4 percent of the annual national poppy crop.
The numbers are likely to fall further this year as the poppy-growing cycle and eradication efforts coincide with Afghan elections, taking forces away to help with security at the polls.
The rise in opium trafficking and production is alarming to U.S. officials, but not for the reasons many might suspect. American heroin use is rising, but that supply comes mostly from South America and not Afghanistan. The real concern for U.S. officials is that the booming Afghan opium trade — mostly with Europe — is enriching warlords, the Taliban and Islamic extremists and helping fund terrorist activity.
The DEA said many high-ranking members of the Taliban are also major opium kingpins and that terrorist attacks often are funded by drug sales.
In July 2005, several suicide bus bombings in central London killed 52 people. DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said these terrorist attacks were funded by the sale of hashish.
“The drugs may never touch the U.S., but the dollars that are raised from the trafficking and the sale of these things are going back to Hezbollah and al Qaeda, people that don’t like us very much,” Mr. Payne said. “They have operatives all over the world, even here. These are organizations that need money to operate.”
Mr. Payne told The Washington Times that the problem is an even bigger issue in West Africa, where cocaine from Central and South America is funneled through trafficking groups in unstable African countries to Europe. Money from sales of the drugs then go back to terrorist groups in Africa and the Middle East.
“We see global drug trafficking as not just a criminal issue, not just a rule-of-law issue, we see it as a national security issue,” he said.
A need to ramp up
Some officials say counternarcotics efforts must be increased, not drawn down.
“What is needed is an integrated, comprehensive response to the drug problem. Counternarcotics efforts must be an integral part of the security, development and institution-building agenda,” Mr. Fedotov said.
However, Mr. Payne argues that the overall issue is the demand for illicit drugs.
“Obviously, global drug demand both here in the U.S. and elsewhere is what’s driving this,” he said. “We need to figure out how to reduce drug demand.”
Although drug usage overall has gone down in the U.S. about 35 percent since 1979, demand is still strong.
In January, the DEA assisted Afghans with a search warrant on a precursor storage compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A large amount of precursor chemicals acquired from Pakistan were being stored for heroin processing labs in southern Afghanistan. As a result of the operation, an arrest was made and over 12 metric tons of heroin precursor chemicals were seized and destroyed.
In February, the DEA and Afghan law enforcement seized and destroyed two heroin-processing labs, approximately 20 kilograms opium, two opium presses, 415 kilograms of ammonium chloride, 154 liters of acetic anhydride, 415 kilograms charcoal, 50 kilograms soda ash, one generator, 50 55-gallon barrels, two scales, four hydraulic jacks, two vats, as well as additional miscellaneous lab equipment in the Sherzad District in the Afghan province of Nangarhar. Also seized were two AK-47 assault rifles, one bolt-action rifle and two assault rifle chest rigs.
Surveys conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, found that heroin usage is on the rise across the U.S.