A new United Nations report found that opium production in Afghanistan increased 36 percent in 2013. This dramatic surge in production is confirming fears that Afghan farmers are taking their chances and joining the opium trade as they brace for the U.S. drawdown.
According to the U.N. report, increases in opium production are due to a combination of factors, including the impending drawdown and uncertainty about who will take power after elections in 2014. This means that without addressing insecurity in the region, the opium trade is unlikely to diminish.
Without maintaining focus on counternarcotics efforts, the U.S. risks squandering the $6 billion already invested in countering the massive drug trade in Afghanistan. But policy adjustments are required. For instance, Afghan-led eradication efforts fail to address the problem at its root because they do not offer long-term alternatives to opium production. The U.S. should discontinue its support for eradication and instead support diversification of the Afghan economy through micro-loans and foreign direct investment that would supply alternative work for Afghan farmers.
In a Heritage Foundation Backgrounder published in September, Lisa Curtis and I contend that without a viable economic alternative, farmers will continue to grow opium. In fact, a recent survey noted that 75 percent of Afghans who grew opium resorted to the trade because of its lucrative nature.
The average Afghan citizen isn’t the only one capitalizing on opium profits. In 2009, the Taliban brought in $150 million from the opium trade, and in many ways the continuation of the opium trade is directly tied to the Taliban’s grip on the region.
A key part of U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan involve the military. Without the security provided through U.S. troop presence in the region, Afghan forces will lack the capabilities to take out major drug traffickers and factories.
As the U.S. and coalition partners draw down troops in Afghanistan and hand over security operations to local forces, the U.S. must renew its diplomatic and financial commitment to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan that will not revert to its pre-war status as a haven for international terrorists. This effort should involve commitment to a long-term counternarcotics policy that diminishes, and eventually destroys, the drug trade in Afghanistan.
The U.N. report should be a wake-up call for U.S. policymakers on the vital importance of implementing a solid, long-term counternarcotics strategy.