THE BLOG
05/05/2016 01:54 pm ET Updated May 05, 2017

The War on Opium in Afghanistan

"Their [the international community's] focus was only on terrorism and other sector development, but counter-narcotics was an isolated and marginalized agenda in their programs." -Haroon Sherzad, Afghanistan's acting minister of counter narcotics

The U.S. opioid problem has been named the worst drug crisis in America's history. Overdoses from heroin, an opium derivative, and other opioids kill more than 27,000 people each year. The Center for Disease Control recently announced that the rates of heroin abuse quadrupled in the U.S. in the last decade. Where are these drugs coming from? How are the war on terror and the war on opium connected? The opium problem is not just America's problem. The war continues in Afghanistan, and the two struggles are intimately connected.

Opium in Kabul

Since the U.S.-led invasion, Afghan opium production has increased 35-fold. Drug users in Afghanistan doubled from 1.6 million in 2012 to 3 million in 2015. Other estimates indicate that 11 percent of the population uses drugs. The increase in drug use coincides with the increase in poppy production.

In an economic crisis due to years of war, farmers have turned to a lucrative livelihood-- cultivating opium. The Taliban buy opium crops from farmers and sell to drug dealers in Pakistan and Iran. Farmers who choose to grow opium make as much as four times their former income. Additionally, facing unemployment, many Afghans turned to drug use. This produces a vicious circle of dependence on the Taliban and on the drugs.

Money earned from the crop is used to buy weapons and support the Taliban's terrorist acts. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban earns between $100 million to $700 million annually from opium sales -- enough to support their entire operation in Afghanistan.

The opium and heroin problem persists for three reasons -- easy access to drugs, lack of legal action against dealers, and unemployment. Throughout Kabul alone, heroin and other illicit drugs are easily accessible. Drug users comment that obtaining heroin is child's play because it is so accessible.

Afghanistan's national government must be held accountable for the lack of counter-narcotic policies. When former President Hamid Karzai took office in 2004, he failed to mention the opium problem in his inaugural address. Current President Ashraf Ghani did not discuss the opium problem in his inaugural address, either . So far, the Ghani administration has issued no firm policies regarding drug trafficking in Afghanistan. The Afghan government remains unstable and incapable of managing the drug crisis by itself. Government corruption remains widespread because the Taliban bribe officials. Administrative corruption also exists in the counter-narcotics court established by international forces. The international community could come together to promote sustainable development in Afghanistan by teaching them counter-narcotic techniques, but so far, has spent millions of dollars on a flawed poppy field eradication strategy.

Since the U.S. invasion in 2001, unemployment in Afghanistan has increased dramatically, from 25 percent in 2014 to 40 percent in 2015, due to increased security concerns of international and national companies. Companies and investors have pulled out of the country, creating even more economic instability.

Afghanistan's poppies supply American habits

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan supplied the world with 90 percent of the heroin in 2015. Despite the $7 billion effort by the U.S. to stop poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the problem persists. Illegal poppy field cultivation is at an all-time high. The international community has attempted to solve the problem through a focus on law enforcement and alternative livelihood projects for farmers in affected regions. Still, the rise in opium production in Afghanistan demonstrates the failure of the international community's attempt to solve this crisis.

For the past ten years, the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in patient admissions to opioid abuse programs. Approximately 900,000 pounds of heroin from Afghanistan end up in the U.S. every year. Afghanistan is the only country on earth that can supply enough opium to feed America's opioid appetite.

Is the U.S. responsible? 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops

NATO has provided military support for the counter-narcotics efforts since 2005. In December 2014, NATO withdrew from Afghanistan after a 13-year operation. NATO left too soon, making international NGOs to solve the opium crisis vulnerable to the Taliban. To address its opium problem, Afghanistan build its educational and counter-narcotics programs. But the Afghan government doesn't have the resources to work alone to defeat the multi-billion dollar opium industry.

Finding a solution

In addition to international support, the Afghan government must take a stronger stance on the opium drug trade. If Afghanistan truly wants to diminish Taliban control, the Ghani administration must initiate policies to eliminate opium production. The first step is to encourage and subsidize farmers to grow non-opium crops in the Taliban-controlled southern provinces of Afghanistan. The second is to develop an educational curriculum for the Afghan people on the harms of opioid addiction.

The effort to resolve the opium crisis needs to be addressed by NATO, the U.S., and Afghanistan.