On April 15, 2013, the New York Times reported that opium cultivation was continuing to rise in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium. The UNODC also recognizes the impact of the Afghan opium trade as well as its expansion into China.
So, why we still have troops in Afghanistan? The list of reasons are endless, depending on whom you ask. One might even say the United States is keeping troops in Afghanistan as a way of maintaining leverage over China due to our, somewhat, recently acquired debt. No one is suggesting that the U.S. take over the supply of opium to China. Rather, by controlling (or eliminating) the majority of opium or poppy-producing crops, you automatically assume a powerful position over those seeking to obtain such products. It is an age old story of supply and demand. We have a large military presence in an area that is the largest producer of the main product that China wants. Meanwhile, we are indebted to China. Some might say this is as simple as schoolyard antics. So basic, in fact, that it just might be working as a strategy against China abruptly calling in their loan and further bankrupting the United States.
This also calls into question the motives for the Afghan-China oil extraction project. While it may put to rest some suspicions that the United States entered Afghanistan solely with the goal of obtaining their resources, it certainly raises additional questions about both Afghanistan and China. If the U.S. entered Afghanistan to "help" the nation stabilize, why would Afghanistan give the contract to China as opposed to the United States? Further, China has exhibited a great deal of reluctance to engage in the project until all U.S. military troops are gone. Perhaps it is the jaded New Yorker in me, but that screams something sinister is happening. Could it be the import/export of the necessary materials for this endeavor could include some opium too? Two barrels of oil, one barrel of opium, two barrels of oil, one barrel of opium...
The Wall Street Journal reported on March 20, 2013, "We are heading towards a transition at the end of 2014... heavy investments have been made to enhance the capability of our security forces with the active involvement of NATO and the U.S. government." However, while I oversimplified my example, I think it is safe to say that people have smuggled things in and out of various countries for many years and, if properly motivated, that is unlikely to change.
If the United States is maintaining a presence in Afghanistan as a means of retaining leverage over China, it may be in vain. Once the troops leave in 2014 and the oil extraction project proceeds, all will be for naught. China will have access to oil and opium alike. Regardless of our seemingly insurmountable debt to China, we will not have the money, the resources or the leverage to position ourselves successfully as a world leader.