SIGAR Seal

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Lessons Learned Report

June 2018

Counternarcotics:
Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

Introduction

Cover photo: AFP photo by Noorullah Shirzada

This report draws important lessons from U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan from 2002–2017. Stemming opium poppy cultivation and drug production has been an important, though not primary, goal for the United States and its partners. The Afghan drug trade has undermined reconstruction and security, including by financing insurgent groups and fueling government corruption.

From fiscal year (FY) 2002 through FY 2017, the U.S. government spent roughly $8.62 billion on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan. Despite this investment, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer, and opium poppy is the country’s largest cash crop.

Our analysis reveals that no counternarcotics program led to lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production. Eradication efforts had no lasting impact, and eradication was not consistently conducted in the same geographic locations as development assistance. Alternative development programs were often too short-term, failed to provide sustainable alternatives to poppy, and sometimes even contributed to poppy production.

Sustained reductions in Afghan poppy cultivation and drug production will ultimately require improved security, governance, and economic growth.

Unless and until Afghanistan achieves a significant degree of security, is able to extend the rule of law to its 34 provinces, and is able to eliminate the government kleptocracy and take meaningful action against corruption in general, there will be no possibility of enacting strategies and programs to effectively fight narcotics and drug cultivation and production in Afghanistan for any mid-term or long-term success.

Former senior U.S. counternarcotics official in Afghanistan

Counternarcotics: A Chronology

DOD photo by Cpl. Dustin D. March

Starting from Nothing: 2002–2003

A farmer works in the fields in the village of Tarok Kolache in the Arghandab River Valley of Afghanistan. (ISAF photo by Ensign Haraz Ghanbari)
A farmer works in the fields in the village of Tarok Kolache in the Arghandab River Valley of Afghanistan. (ISAF photo by Ensign Haraz Ghanbari)

From 2002 to 2003, poppy cultivation was rising rapidly, a rebound effect of the Taliban’s nationwide poppy ban in 2000. The international community recognized the drug trade could pose serious challenges to the reconstruction effort. As lead nation for counternarcotics, the UK started an eradication program that compensated farmers whose poppy crops were destroyed—an approach that was ineffective. At this stage, U.S. counternarcotics programs were minimal, in part due to the military’s concerns that they would detract from higher priority counterterrorism goals. However, by the end of 2003, the United States began to take a more dominant role in counternarcotics. A “drug czar” for Afghanistan was appointed to coordinate U.S. agencies responsible for the counternarcotics effort.

Read more (PDF)

Counternarcotics as a Priority: 2004–2008

A close-up of an opium poppy in Afghanistan. (UNODC photo)
A close-up of an opium poppy in Afghanistan. (UNODC photo)

As concern over the scale of poppy cultivation grew, members of Congress called for more progress against opium poppy. In 2005, Embassy Kabul issued the first U.S. counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan. The strategy emphasized poppy crop eradication. INL strongly advocated for aerial spraying of chemical herbicides, but this proved highly divisive and damaged U.S. relations with the Afghan government and other coalition partners.

Several U.S. agencies increased their counternarcotics efforts during this period. By 2006, DOD began to give higher priority to counternarcotics, in part due to the perceived nexus between the drug trade and the insurgency. Between 2005 and 2008, USAID allocated an average of 75 percent of its total Afghan agricultural program budget to alternative development. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents mentored Afghan units and raided drug production sites. In 2008, the Afghan Threat Finance Cell was established to target financial flows related to the insurgency, drug trafficking, and corruption.

The U.S. strategy may have been holistic in design, but in execution one pillar quickly became the primary focus: eradication.

DOD official Michael Waltz

Read more (PDF)

Benefiting from Military Forces on the Ground: 2009–2012

An Afghan National Army commando with 3rd Company, 1st Special Operations Kandak, looks through his scope as he patrols through a poppy field during a clearing operation in Khugyani District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, May 9, 2013. Afghan and coalition forces conducted the operation in order to disrupt insurgent networks and support Afghan Local Police efforts in the area. (U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Kaily Brown)
An Afghan National Army commando with 3rd Company, 1st Special Operations Kandak, looks through his scope as he patrols through a poppy field during a clearing operation in Khugyani District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, May 9, 2013. Afghan and coalition forces conducted the operation in order to disrupt insurgent networks and support Afghan Local Police efforts in the area. (U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Kaily Brown)

From 2009 to 2012, the institutions and programs that had previously been put in place started to pay dividends. This was, however, not necessarily a function of specific counternarcotics interventions, but instead, a result of broader efforts to improve security, governance, and development.

U.S. counternarcotics strategy shifted away from eradication and toward providing legal economic opportunities for rural communities, and interdiction initiatives focused on cutting drug funding to the insurgency.

Increased interdiction operations later proved unsustainable because they had depended on the temporary influx of troops. Specialized Afghan counterdrug units developed promising capacity, but were hindered by corruption within the larger judicial system and lack of high-level support from the Afghan government. Though some areas saw declines in poppy cultivation, those reductions were short-lived. Some alternative development programs attempted to replace poppy with wheat, which had the unintended effect of displacing people and poppy to desert areas.

Read more (PDF)

A Neglected Issue: 2013–2016

The drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan caused uncertainty as to what counternarcotics efforts would be possible in the post-2014 environment. U.S. agencies focused on counternarcotics began to disengage. Some Afghan counterdrug institutions were re-tasked and directed toward security missions. By 2015, with staff in Kabul but none in the provinces, DEA found it increasingly difficult to mount interdiction operations and mentor Afghan partner units. USAID shifted away from alternative development programs and paid little attention to drug-related impacts.

As many donors disengaged from the issue, the Afghan government de-emphasized counternarcotics. The Afghan government’s ability to carry out counterdrug work was hampered by the need to combat an increasingly active insurgency. By 2016, opium poppy cultivation was once again over 200,000 hectares.

Tolukan Canal, Change in Poppy Cultivation, 2013 and 2015

Slide to Compare

April 14, 2013 (14.98 ha poppy)

April 26, 2015 (32.94 ha poppy)

Read more (PDF)

Back in the Sights: 2017–2018

Four U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet aircraft fly over mountains in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin)
Four U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet aircraft fly over mountains in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin)

In 2017, poppy cultivation reached a new record high of 328,000 hectares. In November that year, U.S. and Afghan forces initiated airstrikes against drug labs in Helmand Province, using new authorities included in the South Asia strategy. DOD described the strikes as the start of a sustained air interdiction campaign to disrupt Taliban financial networks. However, given the ease of setting up drug labs, the campaign’s longer-term impact on narcotics remains uncertain. There is also the risk that air strikes could result in civilian deaths, alienate rural populations, and strengthen the insurgency.

Read more (PDF)

Counternarcotics Strands and GIS Analysis

DOD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas Coffman

Four Strands of Counternarcotics Activity

Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan (CNPA) destroyed approximately 25 tons of narcotics and precursor chemicals during a “drug burn” hosted by the Deputy Interior Minister for Counter Narcotics. (U.S. State Department photo)
Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan (CNPA) destroyed approximately 25 tons of narcotics and precursor chemicals during a “drug burn” hosted by the Deputy Interior Minister for Counter Narcotics. (U.S. State Department photo)
Interdiction and Counterdrug Law Enforcement

Programs to investigate, arrest, prosecute, and imprison drug traffickers, as well as seize illegal narcotics and destroy drug-production facilities.

Interdiction and counterdrug law enforcement efforts were marked by tactical successes, but failed to reduce the drug-related threats to Afghan stability in a meaningful way. The sum of all opium seizures from 2008 through March 2018 was about 5 percent of the opium produced in 2017 alone. Significant investments resulted in capable and trusted Afghan entities, but their effectiveness was constrained by wider security and political challenges. The Afghan government’s limited willingness to extradite suspects, combined with corruption in the judicial system, meant that relatively few high-level traffickers were brought to justice.

Read more (PDF)

Afghan police use sticks to eradicate a poppy field near the city of Qalat, Zabul Province. (Resolute Support photo by 1st Lt. Brian Wagner)
Afghan police use sticks to eradicate a poppy field near the city of Qalat, Zabul Province. (Resolute Support photo by 1st Lt. Brian Wagner)
Eradication

The physical destruction of a standing crop.

Eradication was one of the most divisive aspects of counternarcotics. Eradication efforts never destroyed enough poppy to achieve a meaningful reduction in the total amount of opium available for distribution, sale, and final consumption. Even when eradication reached an all-time high in 2007, and 19,000 hectares were claimed to have been destroyed, Afghan opium production that year reached what was, at the time, a new high.

Though U.S. officials pushed for the aerial spraying of chemical herbicides, there was widespread concern that spraying would backfire, harming licit crops and angering rural populations. No spray program was undertaken, but the U.S. push from 2005–2008 for aerial spraying damaged U.S.-Afghan relations, hindering cooperation on other fronts.

Read more (PDF)

An Afghan farmer threshes wheat. USAID’s Agricultural Development Fund has helped more than 15,000 farmers in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. (USAID/Afghanistan photo)
An Afghan farmer threshes wheat. USAID’s Agricultural Development Fund has helped more than 15,000 farmers in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. (USAID/Afghanistan photo)
Alternative Development

Aid projects designed to reduce poppy cultivation by increasing licit economic alternatives.

The bulk of USAID’s alternative development programming focused on large-scale, short-term interventions designed to replace poppy with another crop. Yet most of these projects failed to provide a clear assessment of how program activities contributed to reductions in opium production, or mitigated against the risk of encouraging poppy cultivation. Some projects, for example improvements to irrigation systems, even contributed to increased poppy cultivation.

Read more (PDF)

U.S. Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, Minister of Counter Narcotics Khudiadad, and Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal sign a pledge for an additional $38.7 million to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) to reward provinces for reducing poppy cultivation under Good Performers Initiative (GPI). (U.S Embassy Kabul photo)
U.S. Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, Minister of Counter Narcotics Khudiadad, and Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal sign a pledge for an additional $38.7 million to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) to reward provinces for reducing poppy cultivation under Good Performers Initiative (GPI). (U.S Embassy Kabul photo)
Mobilization of Afghan Political Support and Institution Building

Assistance to build Afghan political support for counternarcotics initiatives and to strengthen Afghan institutional capacity to carry out those initiatives.

Programs that focused on building capacity and political will to reduce opium production had a limited impact. Some efforts tried to link development assistance with reductions in poppy cultivation, in an attempt to incentivize provincial governors to take an active counternarcotics role. Others attempted to encourage more ministries in the Afghan government to address the issue. Though considerable funding was allocated to support the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, the ministry lacked the political capital, authority, and capacity to effectively coordinate the Afghan government’s counternarcotics effort. These programs did not yield a lasting, widespread commitment to counternarcotics within the Afghan government.

Read more (PDF)

Note: Mobilizing Political Support includes funding for the Good Performers Initiative, institution building, and public information. “Other” includes funding for (1) demand reduction programs ($110 million) and (2) programs for which SIGAR does not have adequate funding information to categorize by strand ($96 million).

Source: SIGAR analysis of budget data by year of allocation and strand of effort based on agency data calls, budget documentation, and correspondence.

Geographic Information System (GIS) Analysis

GIS analysis allows program activities and outputs to be mapped and the geographic distribution of programs and investments to be examined. The use of high-resolution imagery over multiple years supports a detailed, more tangible examination of program outputs and outcomes.

Crop Mapping for Khugyani in Nangarhar Province, 2006 and 2012

Slide to Compare

March 22, 2006 (0.12 ha poppy)

Poppy is <1% of total agriculture. No eradication efforts within 2 km.

April 8, 2012 (21.2 ha poppy)

Poppy is 36% of total agriculture. Significant eradication efforts in vicinity and within grid.

Area color and point symbol legend for the Khugyani crop mapping areas. Areas include poppy, wheat, orchard, vineyard, other crops, and prepared. Point symbol is eradication

Mapping of Alternative Development Projects and Eradication in Helmand Province, 2013

Heat and point map displaying alternate development projects and eradication in helmand province in 2013.
Legend for heat and point map. Points include 65 agriculture projects. Heat range from High red to Low green displaying eradication point density in 2013 with 3,473 points total.

Mapping of Alternative Development Projects and Eradication in Helmand Province, 2013

Heat and point map displaying alternate development projects and eradication in helmand province in 2013.
Legend for heat and point map. Points include 65 agriculture projects. Heat range from High red to Low green displaying eradication point density in 2013 with 3,473 points total.

Note: Mapping of alternative development programs and eradication efforts in 2013 shows high levels of eradication in eastern Marjah. At the same time, there were no alternative development programs undertaken in the areas with the most intense eradication in 2013, despite the fact that households were highly dependent on opium poppy. This image is based on MDA analysis of SIGAR-provided data. The data set for alternative and rural development programs includes those programs that identified reducing poppy cultivation as a program objective. One exception is Stability in Key Areas (SIKA) South, a stabilization program which supported a large number of irrigation programs in Helmand Province; SIKA South GPS coordinates are included in this data set. Without the inclusion of SIKA South data, the number of development projects in areas with high cumulative crop destruction levels would likely be reduced.

Source: SIGAR visualization of imagery provided by MDA Information Systems LLC. For the original imagery, see figure A.8 in appendix A within the full report.

Conclusions

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Anthony Quintanilla

From 2002 to 2017, Afghan opium poppy cultivation soared. In 2002, cultivation estimates ranged from 31,000 to 74,000 hectares, compared to 328,000 hectares in 2017. Opium production also rose to historic levels, from approximately 3,400 metric tons in 2002 to roughly 9,000 metric tons in 2017. No counterdrug program undertaken by the United States, its coalition partners, or the Afghan government resulted in lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production.

While counternarcotics efforts suffered from challenges that dogged the wider reconstruction effort—such as insecurity, corruption, lack of coordination, and poor metrics—there were also problems specific to the counternarcotics effort. A push for aggressive eradication was based on flawed assumptions and poor data. U.S. advocacy for aerial spraying damaged U.S.-Afghan relations, and geospatial imagery confirms that significant eradication efforts rarely led to any sustainable reductions in cultivation.

Some of the most intense eradication occurred in areas that did not benefit from alternative development. Some alternative development programs, intended to help farmers shift from poppy toward licit crops, focused narrowly on crop substitution. This contributed to the displacement of people and relocation of poppy cultivation to areas outside government control. Other programs had the inadvertent effect of enabling more poppy production.

Everyone did their own thing, not thinking how it fit in with the larger effort. State was trying to eradicate, USAID was marginally trying to do livelihoods, and DEA was going after bad guys.

Senior DOD official

A key strategic U.S. interest in Afghanistan was to reduce the amount of funding insurgent groups received from the opium and heroin trade. However, the primary metric for U.S. counternarcotics efforts was levels of poppy cultivation, which did not effectively assess efforts to cut off insurgent financing. As of late 2017, these financing estimates underpinned assumptions about the potential benefits of a costly air interdiction campaign that carried risks of civilian casualties. Without a clear understanding of how insurgents benefit from and participate in the narcotics trade, it is difficult to measure the campaign’s effectiveness.

U.S. support helped establish well-trained, capable Afghan counterdrug institutions, such as the National Interdiction Unit and Sensitive Investigative Unit. These bodies are regarded as some of the most trustworthy and proficient in the country, but their effectiveness has been stymied by the lack of a competent, non-corrupt judicial system and sufficient Afghan political support. The fact that these entities have often been redirected to counterterrorism objectives is evidence of their value to both the Afghan and U.S. governments.

Given the difficult security and economic environment in Afghanistan today, particularly in many of the largest opium-producing regions, the Afghan drug trade will likely persist for decades. This makes it critical that U.S. policymakers focus limited resources on those counternarcotics programs that contribute to wider U.S. strategic goals.

Findings

USAID/Afghanistan photo

Lessons

USAID/Afghanistan photo

Recommendations

DOD photo by Gunnery Sgt. Bryce Piper

Afghanistan-Specific Recommendations

Legislative Branch Recommendations

Executive Branch Recommendations