Just months before the Taliban became an enemy in the war on terror, President George W. Bush’s administration declared the fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan an ally in the global “war on drugs.”
In early 2001, narcotics officials in the United States praised a ban on poppy cultivation instituted by the Taliban that appeared to wipe out the world’s largest crop of opium poppies in a year’s time, even as aerial images raised suspicions about large stockpiles of heroin and opium on Afghanistan’s northern border. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a $43 million gift to the Taliban that was broadly seen as a reward for banning opium cultivation even as farmers were hammered by a drought. Poppies, which produce a sap used to make opium, heroin, and other painkillers, are one of the only Afghan crops that grow well during drought. Observers feared famine would grip the countryside. Meanwhile, critics of the Taliban’s harsh laws and brutal oppression of women and girls were furious at the Bush administration for supporting the regime.
Taliban leaders declared drug production a violation of Islamic law and promised farmers international aid. Farmers complied out of faith, obedience and fear of going to prison. However, the Taliban’s motives appeared to be anything but religious. Afghanistan was increasingly seen as a pariah state on the international stage, and the Taliban craved the legitimacy that came with support of the U.S. The ban also drastically inflated the price of opium, allowing the Taliban and other traffickers to liquidate existing stockpiles at a premium.
The ban marked the only time in modern history that any government has stopped poppy farming in Afghanistan, the world’s top supplier of plant-based heroin and opium. U.S. taxpayers spent $8.6 billion on eradication, counter-narcotics and “alternative” economic development campaigns, but opium production in Afghanistan soared during most of the U.S. occupation. Opium production increased by 37 percent between 2019 and 2020 alone, and the area under cultivation was one of the largest ever recorded, according to the United Nations. Like the global drug war, experts say the drug war in Afghanistan only made heroin and opium more lucrative for warlords and traffickers — including the Taliban.
The drug war in Afghanistan was enmeshed within a larger nation-building project and plagued with the same corruption and cultural incompetency that ultimately doomed the $145 billion attempt at forcing the country to become a Western-style democracy. For years, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has served as the government’s watchdog and meticulously documented the unraveling of the U.S. mission in regular reports to Congress. In 2018, SIGAR reported that not a single counter-drug program undertaken by the U.S., the Afghan government or coalition allies resulted in a lasting reduction in opium production.
The Afghan anti-drug campaign also mirrored drug wars waged in countries such as Colombia, where U.S.-led efforts to eradicate coca devastated poor farmers and encouraged corruption but did little to snuff out cocaine production, according to Sanho Tree, the director of drug policy at the Institute for Policy Studies.
“With the drug war and the war on terror, members of Congress don’t tend to be vocal critics of these things, they always vote to support the troops and law and order,” Tree said in an interview.
Tree and other experts argue that supply-side military and police interventions have never prevented people from selling and using drugs such as heroin and cocaine. A growing movement of activists and reformers say policymakers should focus on making drug use safer and providing resources to users instead. Today, the vast majority of Americans agree that the drug war has failed, and two-thirds say criminal penalties should be removed for all drugs, not just marijuana.
Opium Returns as Taliban Retreats
Tree said the Taliban’s opium ban backfired as the U.S. invaded in late 2001. The ban devastated rural areas suffering under severe drought, leaving farmers desperate for international relief. The price of opium plummeted as traffickers rushed to empty warehouses full of drugs before U.S. airstrikes and ground troops could reach them.
After the U.S. military overran the Taliban, farmers quickly planted opium again. The British military began paying farmers to destroy their opium crop, an eradication strategy that proved ineffective. Most of Afghanistan’s opium is sold in Europe and Asia, not the U.S., and the U.S. military was initially wary of undertaking a large-scale opium eradication effort. But by late 2003 it became clear that the Taliban and other insurgents raised revenue from narcotics, and drug trafficking was increasingly seen as a threat to stability. The U.S. appointed a “drug czar” for Afghanistan and took a lead role in counter-drug efforts, effectively launching a drug war within a military occupation.
Turning farmers away from opium was seen as crucial for establishing the stable, function democracy the U.S. envisioned. However, Tree said prohibition always drives up drug prices, and the crackdown boosted the value of opium for traffickers willing to risk being targeted by the U.S.-led coalition.
“When President Bush went after their opium, he made it much easier for the Taliban to fund their war effort,” Tree said. “They would have to tax less opium to make more money, because the price went up.”
Congress soon demanded action on opium, and by 2005, the State Department’s narcotics division aggressively pushed the Afghan government to accept the aerial spraying of the crop-killing herbicide glyphosate on poppy fields. The State Department’s plan sparked bitter opposition in the Afghan government and at the Department of Defense, which feared the spraying would turn the countryside against the U.S. coalition.
Debates raged between competing federal agencies, with military leaders arguing that opium eradication weakened counterinsurgency efforts to win “hearts and minds.”
Tree has traveled to Colombia multiple times and observed the U.S.-sponsored aerial spraying campaign targeting coca farms, which he said fueled corruption and was largely ineffective. The U.S. and Colombian governments hoped to eradicate the cocaine supply for narco-traffickers and anti-government guerillas, but rural farmers were devastated and often turned against the government. The Colombian government suspended aerial spraying in 2015 after the World Health Organization declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen.
“What I saw on the faces of these farmers, the rage and frustration and anguish in their eyes, I will never forget,” Tree said. “What the hell am going to do now, how do I feed my children next week or next month or next year?”
Aerial spraying never occurred on a large scale in Afghanistan, but the plan created deep divisions between the coalition’s various counter-drug efforts and damaged relations with the Afghan political leadership for years, according to SIGAR. For the remainder of the occupation, debates raged between competing federal agencies, with military leaders arguing that opium eradication weakened counterinsurgency efforts to win “hearts and minds.” At the same time, drug trafficking and taxes on farmers were fueling the Taliban’s insurgency, and U.S. contractors and narcotics agencies wanted in on the action.
Air Raids and “Zombie Metrics”
Under President Obama, the U.S. paused mandatory opium eradication without the consent of local and regional Afghan leaders. The U.S. poured millions of dollars into failed “alternative development” efforts to replace opium with another crop, but SIGAR reports that the programs lacked oversight and even encouraged opium farming in some cases. Tree said much of the funding was sucked up by military contractors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in a country where the economic and legal systems run on grift and bribes.
“The money never reaches the people it’s supposed to reach, it reaches a lot of contractors with deep pockets and NGOs.… The drug wars in Colombia and Afghanistan turned NGOs into a four-letter word,” Tree said.
Opium production reached new heights in 2017, and the Trump administration began aerial strikes on suspected drug labs. More than 200 structures were destroyed across the Afghan countryside, but the bombing campaign once again proved the futility of fighting a war on drugs. Mud huts that housed drug labs were easily recreated elsewhere, and an independent forensic analysis concluded that the campaign achieved little besides putting civilian lives at risk and further alienating villagers as the Taliban campaign to retake the country intensified.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency trained two Afghan law enforcement agencies to combat drug trafficking and organized crime, but the elite outfits failed to make a meaningful dent in the drug trade. The amount of opium seized by drug agents since 2008 amounts to only 8 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan in 2019 alone, according to SIGAR. Lawmakers have taken note; funding from Congress for Afghan drug interdiction programs dwindled in recent years until finally reaching zero in 2021.
Tree compared the drug war in Afghanistan to the Afghan security forces that were trained by the U.S. but quickly folded as the Taliban rapidly took control of the country in the past week. The U.S. military and its contractors could report back to Washington that they successfully trained and equipped a certain number of soldiers, but in reality, many chose to strike amnesty deals with the Taliban rather than stay and fight.
“What struck me was the metrics they use to monitor to report success in training the Afghan military are very similar to the bullshit metrics that drug warriors use, in that they want metrics that are easy to meet, that are divorced from reality and of little consequence,” Tree said.
Such “zombie metrics” and a revolving door of contractors and personnel help, Tree said, explain why Congress continued funding drug war operations in Afghanistan even as they failed year after year. The global war on drugs has cost the U.S. $1 trillion over the past four decades; the war on Afghan opium alone has cost billions of tax dollars — and failed to reduce the supply. Instead, it made the drug trade much more lucrative, which worked out well for the Taliban.