After over 16 years, and with almost $9 billion spent, the US counter-narcotics programmes have done next to nothing to roll back Afghanistan’s opium production. Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer with opium poppies as its largest cash crop, estimated to comprise as much as 30% of the its entire GDP.

These damning figures are not guesstimates by outsiders or by Afghans themselves. Instead they are findings of a report just released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which is the US government’s leading oversight authority.

Although counter-narcotics get meagre resources compared to the US military campaign in Afghanistan, they do account for a large proportion of resources being spent on Afghanistan’s reconstruction process. Despite this massive investment in trying to eradicate poppy cultivation, the results remain dismal.

The counter-drug programme implemented by Kabul and Washington have failed to reduce poppy cultivation or opium production. Part of the problem is short-sighted crop eradication policies. Development projects meant to support poor farmers transition away from poppy cultivation were often too short-termed to achieve meaningful results, and many of them relied on simple substitution of other crops, which were much less lucrative and difficult to grow than the hardy opium crop, given the lack of adequate irrigation and other needed agricultural inputs. SIGAR estimates that poppy farming and related activities provide nearly 600,000 jobs, more than the jobs created by expanding Afghanistan’s security forces.

Massive corruption and widespread insecurity across large parts of Afghanistan remain other major stumbling blocks. Frustrated with the lack of progress, the US has tried conducting air strikes on suspected Taliban drug labs. However, similar aggressive campaigns in the past showed limited impact on disabling drug supplies. Another unintended consequence of anti-drug air strikes is the inadvertent civilian casualties, further alienating the Afghan population and boosting support for the Taliban. Similar problems were noted when the US tired using herbicides to curb opium production, which was also a very unpopular move.

While the Taliban had been much more successful under their rule in curbing poppy cultivation, since 9/11, they have allowed opium production to flourish.

SIGAR does not see much chance of progress unless the security situation in Afghanistan improves and the Afghan government is able to not only exert better control across the country but also over transportation routes. Yet, thinking that better security is the way to prevent opium production is a catch 22, which in turn justifies the massive investment in military operations instead of using that money to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans, desperate enough to grow poppies to feed their families.

The counter-drug programme implemented by Kabul and Washington have failed to reduce poppy cultivation or opium production

SIGAR concludes its assessment with many recommendations. It calls for disrupting drug-related financial flows to insurgent and terrorist groups and more effectively combating drug-related corruption within the Afghan government. It points to the need for closer coordination with other major drug-transit countries and receiving US assistance, which of course includes Pakistan. However, the most significant of SIGAR’s recommendations is to focus on the need to create licit and more diverse livelihood options for rural communities.

SIGAR rightly suggests that the US Congress should ask for more assurances that viable alternative livelihoods are in place and potential negative outcomes have been considered prior to funding more drug-crop eradication programmes. However, one wonders if this advice will be paid heed to given the overarching militaristic and security dominated approach.

By Syed Mohammad Ali