How the US Lost the Opium War in Afghanistan

The US spent $1.5 million a day since 2001 fighting the opium war in Afghanistan.
After hundreds of airstrikes failed to curtail the Taliban’s $200-million-a-year opium trade, the US military quietly ended the campaign when the Trump administration officials engaged in direct peace talks with the Taliban, notes Atanu Biswas.

In her 2011 book, Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan, Afghan-American journalist Fariba Nawa revealed the characteristics of the drug trade that rules Afghanistan.

As Nawa pointed out, 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from opium — an industry worth $4 billion inside the country, but worth an estimated $65 billion outside its borders.

It’s ‘an all-encompassing market that directly affects the daily lives of Afghans in a way that nothing else does’.

Many families depend on the opium enterprise, working as cultivators, refiners, or smugglers, and a culture of ‘opium brides’ has emerged.

When crops fail, farmers resort to selling their daughters to traffickers in exchange for the forgiveness of opium debts.

Nawa focused on the story of a twelve-year-old girl named Darya in this context.

In his award-winning documentary Opium Brides (2012), Najibullah Quraishi, a correspondent for Frontline, also reported on the harrowing story of the collateral damage of the counter-narcotics effort.

Quraishi illustrated how the government’s eradication programme had left farmers in a desperate situation.

They have long borrowed money from drug gangs for their cultivation and they found themselves in a horrifying situation: Repay their debts or give their daughters to drug-traffickers.

These daughters are known as ‘loan brides’ or even ‘opium brides‘.

According to the US military, 90 per cent of the world’s heroin is made from opium grown in Afghanistan.

Illicit narcotics is ‘the country’s largest industry except for war,’ said Barnett Rubin, a former US state department adviser on Afghanistan.

Power, politics, and money drive opium production in Afghanistan.

And it was apparent in early 2000s that this was the major source of funding for the Talibans.

Certainly, to eradicate the opium industry, if at all possible, one needed to provide alternative livelihood to hundreds and thousands of people engaged in the illicit opium industry.

There was an option of legalising opium in Afghanistan, which was also discussed at different levels.

A February 2007 report of the bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, an agency that reports to the US department of state, examined the arguments in favour of such legalisation as advocated by the Senlis Council, a policy think-tank based in London.

The arguments favouring legalisation were that it would alleviate a massive ‘global pain crisis’ caused by a shortage of opium-based pain medications, and benefit Afghanistan’s security and economic development.

The US report provided some rationale against legalisation — the licit opium market is not lucrative enough to entice Afghan farmers, there is no legitimate world demand for legally produced opium from Afghanistan, historical experience from other countries against this approach, and that legalisation is ultimately counterproductive and dangerous.

‘Legalising opium in Afghanistan would jeopardise this balance and increase the availability of widely abused drugs such as opium, morphine, and heroin,’ the US report concluded.

In 2009, President Barack Obama said that Afghanistan’s ‘economy is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency’.

And then Afghan president Hamid Karzai identified the opium economy as ‘the single greatest challenge to the long-term security, development, and effective governance of Afghanistan.’

However, a 2009 US congressional research service report for Congress quoted the Obama Administration special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as saying that the US counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan were ‘the most wasteful and ineffective programme’ he had seen in 40 years in and out of the government.

Thus, many believe that the war in Afghanistan was essentially an ‘opium war’.

The US spent $1.5 million a day since 2001 fighting the opium war in Afghanistan.

It spent more than $8 billion over 15 years — from poppy eradication to airstrikes and raids on suspected labs, but couldn’t slow Afghan opium poppy production.

The opium production in Afghanistan kept on rising, more or less, over the years.

Even amid the ravaging pandemic, Afghanistan saw a 37 per cent increase in opium poppy cultivation in 2020.

In November 2017, the US military began targeting Taliban narcotics facilities with airstrikes and special operations raids.

The logic of this operation, code-named Iron Tempest‘, was to hit the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances.

For around 60 per cent of the Taliban’s finances come from the narcotics trade.

After hundreds of airstrikes failed to curtail the Taliban’s $200-million-a-year opium trade, the US military quietly ended the campaign when the Trump administration officials engaged in direct peace talks with the Taliban.

The opium war was lost by the US and its Western allies — possibly due to wrong strategy, or maybe it was inevitable.

There is little doubt that the only way to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the Afghanistan people was to give them economic security in a way that allowed them to maintain their traditional culture.

That didn’t happen in reality and Afghanistan got Talibanised for the second time.

Atanu Biswas is professor of statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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