As the United States prepares to wind down military operations in Afghanistan, we must not withdraw support for one of the most critical efforts to ensure security and stability in the region: the decade-long effort to curtail the Afghan drug trade.
Very little product from the Afghan drug trade, namely heroin, is actually consumed in the United States. The majority of heroin consumed here originates in Mexico and Colombia.
So why does the cultivation of poppy -- the plant used to produce heroin -- in a faraway land matter? Simply put, the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan finances terrorist activities of the Taliban.
The Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, of which I am chairman, released a report in July 2010 on Afghanistan arguing the Taliban's financial involvement in the drug trade poses a threat to our national security.
Sadly, the drug trade makes up a significant portion of the Afghan economy, and much of that money trickles down to the Taliban. The United Nations estimated the Taliban earned approximately $100 million from the drug trade in 2011 alone.
The Taliban collects this money by taxing farmers, bazaar shopkeepers and drug traffickers transporting heroin out of Afghanistan, in turn providing protection to these traffickers.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, drugs and bribery are estimated to be the largest income generators in the country, accounting for $2.8 billion and $3.9 billion a year, respectively. That's approximately one-fifth of the nation's GDP.
U.S. government data show a 57 percent increase in Afghan poppy cultivated for heroin--from 115,000 hectares in 2011 to 180,000 hectares in 2012. The labor-intensive process of harvesting poppy employs approximately 1.8 million Afghans per year.
The United States and our allies have had some success in curbing drug trafficking in Afghanistan.
With the support of the United States and international donors, the Afghan government implemented the successful Helmand Food Zone program. This program has helped reduce poppy cultivation in that province by eradicating poppy crops, providing alternative crops to farmers, supporting local drug demand reduction efforts and carrying out a robust public information campaign.
Since the program's inception in 2008, poppy cultivation in the Helmand Food Zone area has been reduced by 66 percent.
Replication of the Helmand Food Zone program in other high poppy cultivation provinces must continue in order to strengthen Afghanistan's economy and weaken the Taliban. But to succeed, these efforts require sustained international support to help Afghans secure domestic and international markets for alternative crops.
The United States must also continue to target, investigate and convict Afghan drug kingpins who finance terrorism.
A minimal U.S. military footprint will be essential to airlift highly vetted Afghan units to pursue these traffickers. These vetted units receive training and support from Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
Last year, following a DEA investigation, Afghan heroin kingpin Haji Bagcho was sentenced to life in prison in the United States on drug trafficking and narco-terrorism charges. In 2006 alone, Bagcho conducted heroin transactions worth more than $250 million and used a portion of his profits to provide cash and weapons to the Taliban.
As the Obama administration plans its military presence in the country, counternarcotics must not be relegated to the back burner.
The war against the Taliban is far from over, and a positive outcome for our 12-year investment in blood and treasure will increasingly depend on these critical counternarcotics efforts.