GARMSIR, Afghanistan — The United States spent more than $7 billion in the past 14 years to fight the runaway poppy production that has made Afghan opium the world’s biggest brand. Tens of billions more went to governance programs to stem corruption and train a credible police force. Countless more dollars and thousands of lives were lost on the main thrust of the war: to put the Afghan government in charge of district centers and to instill rule of law.
But here in one of the few corners of Helmand Province that is peaceful and in firm government control, the green stalks and swollen bulbs of opium were growing thick and high within eyeshot of official buildings during the past poppy season — signs of a local narco-state administered directly by government officials.
In the district of Garmsir, poppy cultivation not only is tolerated, but is a source of money that the local government depends on. Officials have imposed a tax on farmers practically identical to the one the Taliban use in places they control.
Some of the revenue is kicked up the chain, all the way to officials in Kabul, the capital, ensuring that the local authorities maintain support from higher-ups and keeping the opium growing. And Garmsir is just one example of official involvement in the drug trade.
Multiple visits to Afghan opium country over the past year, and extensive interviews with opium farmers, local elders, and Afghan and Western officials, laid bare the reality that even if the Western-backed government succeeds, the opium seems here to stay.
More than ever, Afghan government officials have become directly involved in the opium trade, expanding their competition with the Taliban beyond politics and into a struggle for control of the drug traffic and revenue. At the local level, the fight itself can often look like a turf war between drug gangs, even as American troops are being pulled back into the battle on the government’s behalf, particularly in Helmand, in southern Afghanistan.
“There are phases of government complicity, starting with accommodation of the farmers and then on to cooperation with them,” said David Mansfield, a researcher who conducted more than 15 years of fieldwork on Afghan opium. “The last is predation, where the government essentially takes over the business entirely.”
The huge boom in poppy production that began a dozen years ago was strongly identified with the new Taliban insurgency, as the means through which the militants bought their bullets, bombs and vehicles. In recent years, the insurgents have committed more and more working hours to every facet of the opium business. That fact was built into a mantra of Western officials in Afghanistan: When security improves, opium will be easier to take down.
That the Afghan government is now also competing in the opium business, in the absence of other reliable economic successes, has ramifications beyond the nation’s borders. Governments across the region are struggling with the health and security problems brought by the increased opium flow. And as the trade becomes more institutionalized in Afghanistan, it has undercut years of anticorruption efforts, perpetuating its status as a source of regional instability, crime and intrigue.Of course, eradicating the opium trade in Afghanistan, which feeds heroin consumption worldwide, was one of the justifications for the U.S./NATO occupation; that, along with freeing Afghan women from brutal patriarchy. The U.S.-created Afghan government has failed in both, as well as in it anticorruption efforts.
Militarily things are not going well either for the United States. Civilian casualties were at an all-time high in 2015 as the Taliban is on the march north and south, now with more stolen U.S. hardware.
What amazes me is that there is no push-back from Congress or whatever tattered rump is left of the antiwar movement. (Is there an antiwar movement?) So The New York Times can publish one devastating story after another and it doesn't matter. Regardless of its failure there, the U.S. remains committed to Afghanistan. Obama is hoping the clock runs out on his administration before the Taliban achieves a clear military breakthrough. Then it will be someone else's problem.