The canceled “Afghanistan peace plan” and Camp David meeting of the United States and Taliban leaders ignored Afghanistan’s opium and heroin production, which leads the world. It funds their terrorist activities against us and around the globe.
Now the United States has a chance to get it right.
Talks have resumed between the Taliban and top American diplomats, who recently led peace negotiations with them. Pakistan has urged both sides to resume peace talks, and the Taliban has said it remains open to talks with the United States. Now, a deal seems even more likely to be accomplished in the near future.
Afghanistan produced approximately 9,000 metric tons of opium last year — almost double global consumption. Afghanistan’s opium harvest produces more than 90 percent of illicit heroin globally. Under our watch, Afghanistan experienced record highs for opium crops and now supplies 92 percent of the world’s heroin-producing opium, according to the United Nations. We say we want an economically stable Afghanistan, but it is dependent on drug manufacturing.
Sixty-five percent of Taliban income comes from opium trafficking. The nation is in abject poverty. According to Aryana Aid, a volunteer charity in Afghanistan, and government estimates, 42 percent of the country’s total population lives in poverty. The drug trade has been funding the Islamic state, al Qaida and, now, ISIS. It spills over next door to traffickers in our supposed ally Pakistan. They transport one third of the amount of Afghanistan for the Taliban — a huge impact — so it’s a double whammy against us.
In March 2019, the U.S. State Department released the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. It found that, “A symbiotic relationship exists between the insurgency and illicit drug trafficking.” Also, “Traffickers provide weapons, funding and material support to the insurgency in exchange for protection.” The narcotics industry is a primary driver of corruption, which undermines the law throughout Afghanistan. The Afghan government is slow to implement a national drug action plan. It likes its lucrative narco-economy.
The United States and Afghanistan have cooperated with one another to curtail the illicit drug trade. As stated in the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy, “The U.S. government will focus its diplomatic efforts to encourage partner nations to produce results that match the growing threat from illicit drugs.” Yet the opium economy still thrives.
Since the United States launched its anti-drug campaign in Afghanistan, it has turned a blind eye, despite strong protests from former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, a four-star general who worked toward reductions in Afghan opium from 1996-2000. Years later, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported in June 2018 that recent “U.S. counter narcotics programs were minimal, in part due to the military’s (other than McCaffrey) concerns that they would detract from higher priority counterterrorism goals.”
Moreover, mobilization of Afghan political support and institution building was a failure. Though considerable funding was allocated to support the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, the ministry lacked the political capital, authority and capacity to effectively mobilize the Afghan government’s effort.
One strategy had an effect from 2009 to 2013. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton froze the assets in Afghanistan that related to laundering drug money, restricting the Taliban’s business. Production went down. However, this was a short-term fix.
John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan said in a recent interview with Sharyl Attkisson, “America’s top general — Joseph Dunford — admitted the Taliban are ‘not losing.’ In all, more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed. The Islamic extremist Taliban remain dominant and spreading. The Afghan government is mired in corruption. And billions of U.S. tax dollars have been lost to waste, fraud and abuse.”
With the right strings attached, the United States can assure that Afghanistan actively combats corruption at all levels to regain its counterdrug campaigns and that provincial governors and other relevant officials genuinely cooperate on national drug control. There must be bolder surveillance and eradication of poppy fields — we can survey and quantify by air, as we do in Colombia, while incentivizing economic alternatives for opium growers to change products.
With the Taliban’s strength growing, especially if we make a deal, our national security is at stake. Stopping the spread of deadly narcotics’ dirty money stops not just the drugs but the terrorism that accompanies them.
Robert Weiner is former spokesman for the Clinton and Bush White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the House Narcotics Committee. August Clarke is a policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.