War on Drugs in Afghanistan Complicates War on Terror

Poppy profits are key to survival for many, including Taliban recruiters, so U.S. treads lightly.

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Still, Americans continue to the effort. Supporters of drug control, like California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, co-chairs of the Senate Caucus of International Narcotics Control, argue that it helps national security goals by cutting off a central source of funding for terrorists and insurgents. In a hearing on the issue held Wednesday by the caucus, they pushed for greater law enforcement and punishment—including extradition to the United States—for Afghanistan's major narcotics players.

In recent years, the Obama administration has backed away from large-scale poppy eradication efforts, which were more expensive and alienated rural farmers, threatening to push them away from the legitimate government and under the wing of the insurgents. Instead, according to testimony from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Pentagon, and the State Department, U.S. agencies partner with local law enforcement to crack down on individual drug labs, most of which are run by the Taliban. In 2010, Nichols reported in his testimony, the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan and their American partners seized over 11 metric tons of heroin on such operations.

[See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

As far as drug-related corruption in government, that's been more difficult to pinpoint, and partly as a result, less of a priority. According to Nichols, fighting bribery and corrupt practices has been most difficult among the country's top officials. "There has been important progress against mid-level officials, but there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done in terms of high-level corruption," he told senators Wednesday.

Indeed, although rumors circulate about Afghan government officials' involvement with drug trafficking, there's hardly ever a smoking gun. Nevertheless, Thomas Harrigan, assistant administrator and chief of operations at the DEA, says that if agents had the evidence against top officials, there would be nothing stopping them from pursuing it. "We're concerned with levels of corruption in the Afghan government, but the bottom line is that we don't know what we don't know," he testified Wednesday.

To get a legal economy—one that could compete with the black market—up and running is another problem that U.S. officials are trying to deal with before security is transferred to the Afghans. There have been efforts by the U.S. State Department to promote agricultural alternatives and to educate rural populations about the dangers of narcotics cultivation. But for farmers who often struggle just to survive, it's difficult to walk away from the profits. According to the most recent Afghanistan Opium Survey released in January by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, leaders of more than three quarters of villages said their main motivation for growing poppy was the high price of opiates. Poverty was the second most dominant reason.

Harrigan says the DEA is committed to remaining in Afghanistan to deal with the drug problem even after American troops leave, and they're making an effort to train and equip Afghan law enforcement to take care of the problem in the future. Nevertheless, according to Felbab-Brown, if and when troops leave, the fight against drugs likely won't be a priority for the Afghan government or security forces, especially given the economic benefits of the industry. "When we significantly scale down ground operations in Afghanistan, the pressure will be very hard to resurrect eradication," she says. "That said, we will either have to do it against the will of the Afghan government, or somehow buy them or force it down their throat." 

  • See our roundup of political cartoons on Afghanistan.
  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
  • Read why Ahmed Wali Karzai's death won't change U.S. withdrawal policy in Afghanistan.