AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN

Fight against Afghanistan's opium trade is failing, U.S. report says

U.S.-led counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan is failing, report says

For the last decade, the United States has spent $7.6 billion in a massive effort to combat Afghanistan's lucrative opium trade. But after a record harvest last year, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan has concluded that the counter-narcotics strategy is failing badly.

An inspector general report being released Tuesday says the amount of land used to grow poppies in 2013 eclipsed the previous record set in 2007, producing nearly $3 billion in profits, up from $2 billion in 2012.

"The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability" of the U.S.-led counter-narcotics program, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in the report.

Sopko said several areas once declared poppy-free by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime are now awash in opium, the raw ingredient in heroin. He cited Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, declared poppy-free in 2008 and cited as a model for successful interdiction. The province saw a fourfold increase in opium production in 2013.

Part of the surge is due to increased reliance on affordable deep-well technology that has provided ample water for poppy plants, the report says. The wells have turned 494,000 acres of desert land into arable agricultural areas over the last decade in southwestern Afghanistan, the center of the country's opium cultivation.

Because of high opium prices and a cheap and skilled agricultural work force, much of the newly arable land has been dedicated to poppy cultivation, the report says.

In 2013, Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 516,000 acres of opium poppy, surpassing the previous record of 477,000 acres in 2007, according to the U.N. drug office. Sopko's report predicts further increases in production for this year's harvest.

"The narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state's legitimacy by stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks and providing significant financial support to the Taliban," he wrote.

Afghanistan provides 80% of the world's opium. Much of it is grown in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, strongholds of Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan. Nangarhar province also produces a significant crop.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which has supervised the counter-narcotics strategy, said in response to the report that it was continuing its efforts to combat opium despite what it called "disappointing news" about the increase in cultivation. The response, included in Sopko's report, incorporated comments from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which have assisted counter-narcotics efforts.

"We agree that we need to regularly evaluate the efficacy of our counter-narcotics efforts and adjust them to meet on-the-ground realities as necessary and appropriate," the embassy wrote.

Despite production increases, the U.S. is making progress in helping Afghan officials take the lead in eradication programs, the embassy said. But it also warned that "there is no silver bullet to eliminate drug cultivation or production in Afghanistan."

It added, "Our counter-narcotics goals can be accomplished only when these are also Afghan counter-narcotics goals."

The embassy questioned three technical charts or maps in the report, calling them inaccurate or "potentially misleading." They show areas of potential poppy cultivation and regions with significant increases that showed marginal increases in the past.

But the embassy did not dispute the primary figures cited in the report or its conclusions.

The report also includes a response from the Defense Department, which has no direct responsibility for counter-narcotics efforts but is tasked with creating secure conditions to help the U.S. and the Afghan government reduce opium cultivation.

The Pentagon response blamed the corrupt and inefficient Afghan government for failing to adequately support the eradication effort.

"Poppy production is on the increase and is a significant threat to U.S. and international efforts in Afghanistan," the Pentagon said.

In 2003, then-interim President Hamid Karzai proclaimed a jihad, or holy war, against opium production. But members of his government continued to reap enormous profits from their roles in the opium trade as the Taliban used opium income to help sustain its fight against coalition and government forces.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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