The Futile Cruelty of the US-Led Drug War in Afghanistan⁠—What Now?

    A report published last month by the Washington PostThe Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war⁠—confirmed what many of us already knew about the war on opium in Afghanistan: It was a staggering, costly failure.

    What we also long suspected has now been confirmed by declassified documents: Three American presidents, the US military and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) knew the drug war was a complete boondoogle but continually lied.

    Year after year, the American public was falsely told that strategies to eradicate poppy, destroy drug-producing labs and curb Afghan drug use were making progress.

    One image that encapsulates the utter futility of the drug war in Afghanistan is a photo of US Marines dropping three 1,000-pound bombs on 1600 bags of poppy seeds. Those bombs cost a lot of money. According to John F. Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR), from 2002 through 2017 the US government spent a whopping $8.62 billion on counternarcotics operations.

    For all those counternarcotics billions, Afghanistan retains its position as the largest opium producer in the world.

    It isn’t just the US. British counternarcotics agencies naively believed that they could reduce poppy cultivation by 70 percent in five years and eliminate the crop altogether in 10 years. Their Operation Drown offered a one-time payment to farmers whose poppy crops were destroyed. A similar attempt was made by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which gave millions to farmers to grow alternative crops like wheat, saffron or pomegranates.

    Whether bombs or cash were used, it’s all reminiscent of the United Nations slogan first proclaimed in 1998: “A drug-free worldWe can do it!”

    We didn’t do it. For all those counternarcotics billions, Afghanistan retains its position as the largest opium producer in the world. In 2017, poppy cultivation and opium production reached record levels.

    Cultivation, manufacturing and transporting of poppy and its derivatives (like heroin) are essential to the Afghan economy, with an estimated annual export value of $1.5 to $3 billion. That money keeps an estimated 590,000 Afghans employed full-time and able to survive in the midst of endless war18 years now and counting. “We stated that our goal is to establish a ‘flourishing market economy’ [in Afghanistan], said Douglas Lute, a retired US Army Lieutenant General. “I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade—this is the only part of the market that’s working.”

    Around 2004, the US took the lead in counternarcotics efforts because of the prevailing belief that the Taliban was funded by the opium economy. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) alleged that 50 percent of the group’s revenue came from the opium trade. But that number is only an estimate, and it’s notoriously difficult to track how much any organization is funded by illicit drugs. The Taliban was also increasingly referred to as a “narco-terrorist organization” to build continued public support for the drug war.

    But US-backed political forces in the country, including the Afghan government, also benefit from drug money. Corruption is a hallmark of the drug war in every countryfrom the guard who is bribed at the Mexican border to the international banking system that knowingly launders drug money. It’s business as usual.

    So is the drug war. The DEA ramped up its presence and participated in military-style raids with Afghan and US Special Operations forces, while the CIA—an organization with a long history of corruption—funded powerful Afghan drug traffickers-turned informants.

    US officials also proposed aerial spraying of poppy (a strategy that was a toxic disaster in Colombia), but this was vehemently opposed by then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

    “The evidence … indicates the costs of the campaign and the destruction caused did far more harm than good.”

    One senior US Department of Defense official noted of the counternarcotics chaos that has reigned for almost two decades, “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.”

    In 2017, a last, desperate operation to curtail the drug trade, code-named Iron Tempest, used American F-2 airplanes to bomb suspected Taliban heroin and meth labs. US and Afghan warplanes launched more than 200 strikes.

    It was yet another expensive failure. According to David Mansfield, who has researched the opium economy in Afghanistan for two decades, “There have been claims by US military forces in Afghanistan that the aerial bombing campaign against drugs labs over the last 18 months denied millions in revenue to both traffickers and the Taliban. The evidence we have painstakingly collected on the ground and using high-resolution imagery contradicts these claims—and indicates the costs of the campaign and the destruction caused did far more harm than good.”

    Nine civilians died in the attacks.  

    SIGAR Counternarcotics: Lessons From the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan is a comprehensive and largely honest assessment of the disaster of drug interdiction efforts in Afghanistan. But unfortunately, the report’s recommendations make clear that no lessons have been learnednot even that Afghanistan is a sovereign nation and the US has no moral right to wage a drug war in the country. 

    Instead, the recommendations are “intended to improve counternarcotics outcomes and yield a better return on US investments in partner nations … inform policy decisions and foster institutional improvements within the US government so policymakers are better equipped to make the difficult decisions inherent in countering narcotics in reconstruction efforts.” 

    In other words, an “improved” drug war, not an end.   

    The hell the people were living in, thanks to prohibition and extreme stigma, was both heartbreaking and enraging. 

    Like all drug wars, the one in Afghanistan is a war on people. When I was in Kabul to film my documentary about methadone in 2013, I saw how drug prohibition oppresses and degrades Afghans. Peer educators from the methadone clinic, on whose work Michelle Tolson has reported for Filter, took me to the open-air drug scene under the Pul-e-Sokhta bridge on the Kabul river. 

    I had never seen anything like it. Hundreds of men wearing colorful scarves were huddled together, injecting heroin and smoking opium amidst mud and filth. The river was a toxic shade of green and a constant stream of garbage floated by. Squatting in dirt, dozens of men nodded off, seemingly oblivious to what was happening around them. 

    I watched as a young man tied off his thigh with a piece of rubber then, with a needle in his shaky hand tried, over and over, to find the femoral vein. 

    At one point, the peer educators and I were surrounded by dozens of people, all begging and pleading to get on methadone. All they could do was put their names on a waiting list for the program, which could only accept 68 people. 

    Afghans standing on the bridge meanwhile rained down verbal abuse on the men and threatened to assault them. The hell the people were living in, thanks to prohibition and extreme stigma, was both heartbreaking and enraging.  

    The drug war in Afghanistan is a moral outrage that has impoverished ordinary Afghans while enriching a small group of drug lords and politicians, private contractors, an international cabal of drug warriors and counternarcotics agencies, and the arms industry. 

    For over a decade, the US has been awash in cheap heroin cut with fentanyl, greatly exacerbating our overdose crisis. Does anyone seriously believe that US drug agencies could enforce drug prohibition in Afghanistan when they obviously can’t in their own backyard? 

    Here is an alternative set of recommendations—the ones SIGAR should have made—grounded in human rights, self-determination, dignity and pragmatism. Many of these proposals have been implemented successfully in other countries.  


    1. US military out of Afghanistan 

    2. All international counternarcotics out of Afghanistan 

    3. End the drug war immediately

    4. Halt all drug crop eradication 

    5. Stop arresting and incarcerating people who use drugs

    6. Legalize and regulate all drugs for personal use

    7. Legalize poppy production, licensing Afghan farmers and workers to grow poppy and process it into morphine for domestic use and  international sale in a world with severe painkiller shortages

    8. Create an opium/heroin prescription program for people who are dependent on opioids

    9. Deploy opium/heroin vans to deliver safe supply to remote areas with high drug use

    10. Open safe consumption sites staffed with peer educators and healthcare providers 

    11. Close abusive detoxification programs 

    12. Use savings from ending the drug war to fund culturally sensitive, harm reduction-based drug treatment services for all who want them



    Photo of Afghans by the Pul-e-Sokhta bridge in Kabul, by Helen Redmond.

    • Helen is Filter‘s senior editor and a multimedia journalist. She is on the methadone, vaping and nicotine train. Helen is also a filmmaker. Her two documentaries about methadone are Liquid Handcuffs and Swallow THIS. As an LCSW, she has worked with people who use drugs for over two decades. Helen is an adjunct assistant professor and teaches a course about the War on Drugs at NYU. She lives in Harlem.

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