WASHINGTON – The Trump administration says it's on the brink of signing a deal with the Taliban that could pave the way for an end to America's longest war.
But despite the zeal to reach a political settlement with the militant Afghan group, the White House has neglected to address a major source of instability in the country – opium production – according to a government watchdog.
The Trump administration does not have a counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan, the special investigator who oversees U.S. spending in Afghanistan has found, even though that country is the source for 90% of the world's heroin and the Afghan drug trade fuels a deadly insurgency against American troops.
The drug trade is the Taliban’s cash cow. It finances the Islamic fundamentalist group's fighters and pays for the bombs and weapons used to kill U.S. and Afghan security forces. Some fear that if the opium trade is not snuffed out, any U.S.-brokered peace deal could unravel – and Afghanistan could once again become a haven for terrorists.
“It’s important that the United States have a clear, robust counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, because its drug trade constitutes a high-risk threat to our reconstruction and security goals there,” John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Afghanistan’s opium trade undermines our goals in several ways – by financing insurgent groups, fueling government corruption, eroding the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and exacting a devastating human and financial toll.”
Richard Olson, a former State Department special representative for Afghanistan, said the problem must be part of the Afghanistan peace talks going forward.
"The substantial revenue stream from narcotics production, which mostly flows to the Taliban right now, is actually one of the main drivers of the conflict," Olson said at a Feb. 18 forum on the emerging U.S.-Taliban deal. "And so it is absolutely an issue that will have to be addressed."
'A problem that has defied us'
Olson, a senior adviser with the U.S. Institute of Peace, expressed hope that Taliban and Afghan officials will determine how to deal with that problem in their negotiations, which are set to begin after a U.S.-Taliban agreement is formalized.
"If it’s not dealt with, it’s bound to impact the stability of Afghanistan over time – its domestic stability and its international stability," Olson said in a follow-up interview.
The U.S. government has already spent more than $8 billion to combat the drug trade in Afghanistan since 2001, and yet the country remains the world’s top producer of heroin, the resin obtained from opium. So some argue that the Trump administration may be right to throw up its hands.
"It has been a problem that has defied us – for all the time we’ve been engaged in Afghanistan," Stephen Hadley, a national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said at the Feb. 18 forum, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace. "At the end of the day, the Afghans are going to have to decide what is the right kind of counternarcotics strategy for themselves."
Trump administration officials have not disclosed whether or how the opium trade will factor into the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which is tentatively set to be signed Feb. 29. But officials have described it as a relatively narrow deal in which the Taliban will agree not to let terrorists use Afghanistan as a training ground for attacks, and the U.S. will set a timetable for withdrawal.
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. had reached an "understanding with the Taliban on a significant and nationwide reduction in violence across Afghanistan." That seven-day truce is scheduled to begin on Friday. If it holds, it could lead to the broader deal and a phased U.S. withdrawal.
"The United States and the Taliban have been engaged in extensive talks to facilitate a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan, reduce United States and Allied Forces presence, and ensure that no terrorist group ever uses Afghan soil to threaten the United States or our allies," Pompeo said in a statement Friday.
As top State Department officials pursued that political settlement, the diplomatic agency quietly shelved efforts to come up with a new plan to curb opium production in that war-torn country, according to a letter Sopko sent to key members of Congress Jan. 10.
The State Department "has not revised, and has no plans to revise," an 8-year-old Obama-era counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan, the inspector general said in his letter.
Sopko reviewed the counternarcotics question at the request of Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
In a letter in September 2018, the senators said "a stable and peaceful Afghanistan requires a dedicated and effective counter-narcotics strategy that includes military, law enforcement, and civilian agency efforts, and has the support of the Afghan government’s leadership."
A spokesperson for Feinstein declined to comment on Sopko's findings. Grassley and Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Senate's caucus on international narcotics control, said there's no question that to date, U.S. efforts have been expensive and ineffective.
But "even if we are not hitting a home run, I think we need to keep the pressure up," Cornyn said. He said he planned to respond to the inspector general's letter but did not specify how or when.
Taliban's cash cow
Trump administration officials told Sopko's office that its counternarcotics efforts were outlined in the administration's South Asia policy. But the inspector general said that document doesn't address the country's rampant drug production at all.
"We reviewed the South Asia Strategy," the inspector general concluded. "The South Asia Strategy ... does not mention narcotics."
Cornyn said the inspector general's findings were concerning.
Opium is "a major source of revenue for the Taliban and the Haqqani network," Cornyn said, referring to the sophisticated militant group that has launched deadly attacks on U.S. and NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan. An estimated 18 terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan now.
"I just don't think we can give up," Cornyn said.
Top advisers to President Donald Trump defended the administration's approach to Afghanistan and said they have not abandoned efforts to curb opium production.
"The U.S. government has invested millions of dollars over the last several years (on counternarcotics initiatives)," Lisa Curtis, Trump's top national security adviser for South and Central Asia, told USA TODAY in a forum this month.
She said the Trump administration recognizes that the drug trade is a source of funding for the Taliban, "so we have tried to get at that issue and cut off that ability."
"But, frankly speaking, this is a major, comprehensive problem that is intertwined with criminal networks, corruption, shortfalls in the legal system," Curtis said. "It's a very complicated issue."
Alice Wells, the State Department's principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, said the U.S. has had success in building specialized law enforcement investigative units in Afghanistan that are focused on counternarcotics, among other initiatives.
"But the fundamental fact is that 85% of opium production takes place in areas that are controlled or contested by the Taliban," she said during the forum, hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation. "And so fundamentally you're going to have to address the security issue through a peace process that allows you then to tackle the root causes."
The drug trade's tangled history
The narcotics trade and U.S.-led efforts to tame it have a tangled history.
Before toppling the fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell lauded the Taliban for virtually eliminating the opium trade in one season.
But the poppy crop, which provides desperately needed cash for impoverished farmers, rebounded after the Taliban’s ouster.
The Taliban’s shadow government, which controls large parts of rural Afghanistan, now relies on the drug trade to finance its insurgency. In 2018, the U.S.-led coalition estimated that as much as half of the Taliban’s estimated $500 million budget came from opium.
As the U.S. troop presence grew from hundreds in 2001 to nearly 100,000 by 2011, the military increasingly trained its sights on opium trafficking. The poppy crop is the source for an estimated 90% of the world’s heroin. In 2008, during the last month of the George W. Bush administration, the U.S.-led NATO coalition agreed to target the drug trade.
But the vast scale of poppy and marijuana farming – and the more immediate threat of roadside bombs and insurgent attacks – rendered the anti-drug effort a secondary mission for U.S. troops. In Helmand province in 2009, Marines who had poured into the region dodged gunfire and explosions as they patrolled fields teeming with marijuana crops and stacks of freshly picked poppies.
Attacks on the labs that process poppies continued through the Obama and Trump administrations with marginal effect. In 2018, the coalition announced a campaign that targeted 73 drug labs, estimating that it had cost the Taliban $42 million in revenue. That's a fraction of the nation’s $1.6 billion drug trade.
First, an Afghan peace deal
The administration seems to be focused on reaching a peace deal first and then relying on the Taliban to help reduce opium production. State Department officials told Sopko that “a political settlement could significantly improve the effectiveness of counternarcotics efforts by improving security and increasing access to areas under Taliban control where a large portion of narcotics production occurs.”
But experts say the U.S. won't be able to achieve a viable peace deal without addressing Afghanistan's opium production.
"The drug trade is a cash cow for terrorists," Matthew Reid, a Marine Corps colonel who served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province from 2017 to 2018, wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article.
Drug profits make up 65% of the Taliban’s revenues "and line the pockets" of several other U.S.-designated terrorist organizations, Reid wrote in the piece, co-written by Cybele Greenberg, an international economics expert. Fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is "inseparable" from moving the country away from its drug-based economy, they said.
There are about 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Esper said in January. Trump has said he wants reduce the U.S. presence to 8,600.
Since the Bush administration, U.S. efforts have focused on bolstering the Afghan government so it can prevent the growth of havens for terrorists intent on attacking American interests at home and abroad. It's feared that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would threaten the Afghan government's stability.
“The Trump strategy is not really a strategy," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and Middle East expert now with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Trump can’t decide what he wants to do anyway – except get out in a way that makes him look great. That’s his goal.”
Rubin said Trump administration officials are correct to say the counternarcotics problem cannot be addressed while the country is still in the grip of a bloody conflict.
“You have to try," he said. But "you should not fool yourself into thinking it’s possible to really change the situation while the level of security is so low."
Afghan heroin not driving US opioid epidemic
In an April 2019 estimate, the Trump administration said poppy cultivation and potential opium production in Afghanistan decreased in 2018 but remained at a near record high. The drop was the result of a drought in Afghanistan and lower opium prices, according to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
That statement conceded it would be difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan without thwarting the opium trade. "The continued large-scale Afghanistan poppy cultivation and opium production further complicates the government of Afghanistan’s ability to maintain rule of law and promote a road to peace," the drug office stated.
Government officials say heroin from Afghanistan is not the driving force behind the U.S. opioid epidemic. That crisis has been fueled by legal painkillers, heroin from Mexico and Colombia, and an even more lethal drug, fentanyl, from China.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: Watchdog says Trump lacks strategy to fight drug trade