The war on drugs in Afghanistan 'has just been a total failure,' the US's top watchdog there says

Afghanistan Opium Poppies

Parwiz Parwiz/REUTERS

An Afghan policeman destroys poppies in Kunar province, April 29, 2014.

The US-led war in Afghanistan turned 18 in October, and those two decades of fighting and rebuilding appear to have yielded little progress.

The counternarcotics effort there, for example, "has just been a total failure," John F. Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, in November.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration has "done a yeoman's task there" and the special Afghan units they've trained have "made wonderful seizures," Sopko said. "The Afghans with the cooperation of the DEA have actually seized more drugs in Afghanistan than I believe we in the United States have seized on the Mexican border."

Afghanistan opium poppy heroin farmer

REUTERS/Parwiz

An Afghan man works on a poppy field in Jalalabad province, May 1, 2014.

Nevertheless, "the amount seized over ... I think it's the last 10 years still is less than 5% of the crop that was grown last year - 10 years of seizures, less than 5%. So you're never going to work your way out of that by just seizures alone," he said. "That's an area where we definitely have seen no improvement. If anything, I think we've probably gone back."

The Taliban banned opium in 2000, leaving many farmers destitute but causing drug production to hit a historic low in 2001, when the US invaded.

The invasion and collapse of governing institutions opened a vacuum that allowed cultivation to increase, leading more robust counter-drug efforts by the US-led coalition.

Production leveled off in 2009 and 2010 but has steadily risen since 2011.

Afghanistan opium poppy cultivation

UNODC Afghan opium survey 2018

"From 2013 to 2016, drug production continued at or near the highest levels ever consistently seen in Afghanistan," according to a 2018 SIGAR report, which found the US allotted about $8.62 billion to fight drugs in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2017.

In 2018, opium cultivation covered 263,000 hectares in Afghanistan, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. That was down from 328,000 hectares in 2017 but still more than any other year since 1994.

The broader problem of impunity also affects anti-drug efforts.

"We created a counternarcotics court to handle the narcotics issues," Sopko said. "They try a lot of people, but they try the poor slob who happens to be a the scene of the crime and not the big fish."

Improvements, but not without caveats

polio vaccine afghanistan child

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

An Afghan child receives polio vaccination drops in Kabul, March 24, 2014.

Sopko said there had been progress on other development efforts, but each came with caveats.

"Education has improved, so our work in that area has helped. Whether all the money was spent wisely, I don't know," Sopko said. "The number of kids going to school has improved over time. How much we can say is related to US programs vs. the fact that other donors were involved, we can't tell."

"Healthcare has improved, particularly maternal healthcare ... that's mainly been in the major cities," he added.

"I think the military has improved overall, although it's hard to say how much, because our government no longer collects data on indica of improvements, which we find a little disconcerting," Sopko said. "For years they had different ways to rate the improvements in the military, and every time we went to audit, our military would change the goal posts, and after a while they just stopped collecting the data."

A-29 Super Tucano afghan air force

Video by Staff Sgt. Robert Kingery/Released

One of four A-29 Super Tucano aircraft given to the Afghan air force by the US at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Sopko said the Afghan air force and Afghan special forces have "improved dramatically" with US assistance. But US forces still appear to be doing most of the air transport and strikes on insurgents.

The Afghan military has also failed to train enough air controllers and liaisons, according to a Defense Department Inspector General report, which found that just 2.5% to 7.5% of airstrikes by Afghan aircraft involved tactical Afghan air controllers.

"We're always cautious when US government agencies claim dramatic increases due to their programs," Sopko said. "There's usually not a tie between them."

Corruption, a national security issue

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

Alex Brandon / AP

President Donald Trump with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during Trump's surprise Thanksgiving Day visit, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, November 28, 2019.

"Corruption, particularly in a country like Afghanistan, is a national security issue," Sopko said. "Because one of the best ways for the Taliban to recruit is to [tell Afghans to] look at all the corrupt government officials."

Sopko complimented the anti-corruption efforts of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the country's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, but said there had been backsliding.

"It's hard for us to comprehend what it's like when you are the president or senior official and you appoint somebody as a minister, and even though that minister may be honest everybody in his chain of command is on the take," he added.

While the Afghan government is good at "checking boxes," he said, it falls short on other important measures - like the number of indictments, the number of arrests, or the amount of money seized.

Sopko cited as an example the creation of a special anti-corruption force with dedicated police, prosecutors, and judges. At the US's suggestion, the Afghans polygraphed those officials but didn't remove those who failed. After some prompting, they removed the officials who failed but then didn't replace them.

President Donald Trump addresses members of the military during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

Alex Brandon / AP

Trump addresses US troops during his surprise Thanksgiving Day visit, at Bagram Air Field, November 28, 2019.

Asked about privatization and the role of contractors, Sopko chided the US Corps of Engineers, which he said has been "horrendous in not holding contractors' feet to the fire" for mistakes and other problems with their projects.

A particular problem with Afghan contractors has been companies that only exist on paper.

"We're currently investigating one company that does purchasing of gas for us," Sopko said. "Fuel is liquid gold, and over 50% of the fuel we buy for the Afghans is stolen or doesn't exist, and we're looking at one company and ... this individual has about 200 to 300 companies - paper companies. So when we shut him down in this name, he opens up in another name, and we've had a big problem with that."

Sopko said his agency would urge the US and other donors not to focus on how much money was given to support reconstruction in Afghanistan but rather on where it goes and how it's used.

"If we don't, you might as well just pile up all of that money in Massoud Circle and burn it," he said.

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