Foreign Relations & International Law

Where’s the U.S. Strategy for Counternarcotics in Afghanistan?

Tia Sewell
Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 8:01 AM

The drug trade presents a critical challenge to security and stability in Afghanistan. Why hasn’t the U.S. revised its counternarcotics strategy since 2012?

Marines patrol an opium poppy field in Marjah, Afghanistan in April 2010. (Puckett88,; CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Back in September, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing examining the Trump administration’s strategy in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, and David Helvey, the official performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, testified before the committee. Representatives questioned them on a variety of important issues: the status of women and girls in Afghanistan, the Russian bounty program, and the continuation of humanitarian aid following U.S. withdrawal.

One subject, however, merited not a single word: Afghanistan’s booming drug trade.

The omission may not have been an accident. As the Taliban and the Afghan government have commenced peace talks and Afghanistan has reentered the national spotlight, President Trump appears more eager than ever to use his last few months in office to fulfill his campaign promise to bring the Afghan conflict to a close. Just yesterday, the new acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, announced that the U.S. will withdraw thousands of American service members from Afghanistan by Jan. 15, 2021. Meanwhile, contrary to Trump’s declarations, many senior military officials worry that a rushed exit could be the downfall of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal forged earlier this year.

Against this background, the illicit drug trade is a bit of an embarrassing subject, one that brings to the foreground the dire situation in Afghanistan today. And with President-elect Joe Biden set to take office on Jan. 20, 2021, it’s worth thinking more about how the U.S. may choose to approach counternarcotics strategy in the region moving forward.

It’s not that nobody is talking about the threat the Afghan drug trade poses. Facing pressure from the U.S. envoy to release a final round of 400 prisoners from the Taliban’s list—a precondition to get intra-Afghan negotiations going—Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has sounded repeated alarms that such releases would worsen the country’s drug crisis. He argued that the release of these prisoners (many of whom were involved in the Afghan drug trade) posed a grave risk, not just to Afghanistan’s stability but also to international security writ large. As the British newspaper The Times reported:

“If drugs go through the roof in the United Kingdom and Europe, all your leaders have been part of this,” Ghani told The Times in one August 2020 interview. “If amphetamines reach the shores of the United States we should know that these are the consequences, and if these people commit crimes, there’s shared international responsibility.”

Despite such concerns, the U.S. continued prodding Ghani to make the concessions necessary for the Taliban to come to the table.

In a conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations on Aug. 13, the Afghan president conceded:

The request for release came from the United States. Without that, we would not have convened the Loya Jirga. But the decision on the release is made by the people of Afghanistan. And it shows a very strong national consensus for moving. Until this issue, there was a consensus on the desirability of peace, but not on the cost of it. We’ve now paid the major installment costs and that means this will have consequence. The list is likely to pose a danger, both to us and to you, and to the world, because it has drug dealers and hardened criminals. That has been shared with all our allies and friends. But again, this is a step that we’ve considered a necessity. (emphasis added)

Ghani may have a political motivation for these warnings, which stress the pain of the concessions he is making with the releases—perhaps overly so. Then again, a number of commentators have argued that his warnings are not wrong.

Prior to the Loya Jirga decision in August to release the remaining prisoners, Kimberly Dozier of Time magazine wrote a scathing condemnation of the U.S. envoy’s push to get the Afghan government to negotiate. She claimed that “the moves demonstrate the Trump Administration’s willingness to unleash potentially dangerous Taliban actors back into the country in order to get the next round of peace talks started” and therein satisfy domestic political demand for a reduction of U.S. troops in the country. Dozier argued that releasing drug kingpins back into Afghanistan, already the world’s largest heroin supplier, could have a disastrous impact on the country’s illicit drug trade moving forward.

On Sept. 4, Andrew North wrote a similar argument for Nikkei Asia, claiming that the U.S.’s “rushed exit from Afghanistan will reward Taliban drug barons.” North noted that crystal meth production in Afghanistan has soared over the past few yearsa development that has significantly boosted the Taliban’s multimillion-dollar narcotics revenues. He concluded with a warning, stating that “with the prisoner release now back on track, those talks may now happen. … But the result could yet be Afghanistan turning into a narco superpower.”

Afghanistan is already a narco superpower. Afghanistan has accounted for about 84 percent of global opium production over the past five years. Despite a cultivation decline in 2018 due to low prices and drought, the country’s opium production has increased rapidly and consistently since 2001 and has remained stable at high levels in 2019 and into 2020.

And despite Ghani’s warnings about the threat posed specifically by the Taliban with regard to the drug trade, his own government is permeated with political elites and law enforcement agents who profit from the illicit drug industry. Ghani himself dissolved the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics in 2019, for reasons unknown to the United States. It’s unclear how much impact the Taliban prisoner releases will have on the illicit economy. As many Afghans are quick to point out, the Taliban is not the only player in the country’s drug problem.

What’s more, given Afghanistan’s current economic crisis and its struggles to cope with the coronavirus, it’s reasonable to expect that all actors involved in the illicit industry will become more reliant on drug revenues over the coming months. And in any event, Ghani’s state is stretched thin, so counternarcotics efforts are not likely to be leaders’ top priority as the country faces a storm of governance challenges.

Yet U.S. policymakers seem to be turning a blind eye to Afghanistan’s drug issues—perhaps because U.S. efforts to crack down on the drug trade have proved fruitless in the past and prospects for counternarcotics look even worse today.

It’s not just opium. Since 2018, Afghan methamphetamine production has ramped up considerably and developed into an emerging industry, though one that remains in its infancy. Solutions to quell this rising illicit methamphetamine production have so far proved elusive. Yet as some experts note, it remains unclear just how far Afghanistan’s methamphetamine wave will go and who exactly is reaping the profits from this illicit business.

One thing is for certain: Afghanistan’s drug problem is not going away anytime soon. Even amid the disruption of the coronavirus, the drug supply has shown no signs of slowing.

It’s hard to imagine the Afghan economy without the drug trade. For much of the Afghan rural population, revenue from illicit crops is an essential source of basic livelihood and economic security. It’s not just about drug baron profits—large segments of the rural population in Afghanistan would face economic immiseration without the illicit market.

The story gets worse.

Over the past decade, a humanitarian crisis has erupted within the country’s borders as domestic drug abuse rates have soared. In 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that there were about 200,000 regular opium and heroin users in Afghanistan. That figure reached an estimated 1.9 million to 2.4 million people—about 12.6 percent of the adult population—just 10 years later. Further, addiction in Afghanistan is showing no signs of slowing down, with women and children falling into this cycle at alarming rates. The rate of addiction is among the highest documented worldwide.

Illicit economies, of course, generally thrive under the same conditions as belligerent, anti-government groups do, from terrorist organizations to insurgencies—themselves a huge problem in a country that has been at war continuously since the late 1970s.

As Vanda Felbab-Brown summarized in 2016:

In short, the illicit drug economy exacerbates insecurity, strengthens corruption, produces macroeconomic distortions, and contributes to a vast increase in drug use and addiction in Afghanistan. But it also provides a vital economic lifeline for many Afghans and enhances their human security. It thus produces political capital for those who sponsor opium poppy cultivation and it is politically explosive for those who sponsor eradication.

Put simply, if Congress is interested in protecting the integrity of the Afghan state, not mentioning the drug trade—however hopeless the subject may seem—is irresponsible.

Yet both Congress and the White House presently seem inclined to steer clear of the matter. The administration doesn’t have a comprehensive counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan, according to the U.S.’s top watchdog for Afghanistan policy, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), John F. Sopko.

In November 2019, Sopko claimed that the counternarcotics effort in the country “has just been a total failure.” And this year, SIGAR has criticized the U.S. State Department repeatedly for failing to address Afghanistan’s narcotics problem. As it turns out, the United States hasn’t revised its counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan since 2012.

In a letter to the Senate written in January, Sopko stated that the Department of State “has not revised, and has no plans to revise, the 2012 U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan.” The inspector general also noted in the document that his team “faced difficulties obtaining information related to the U.S. government’s [counter threat finance] strategies and activities in Afghanistan due to the National Security Council’s (NSC) lack of cooperation.” According to SIGAR, the NSC was not willing to provide “relevant and necessary” documents requested by the watchdog, nor to make agency officials available for interviews.

The SIGAR letter explains that, in 2014, lawmakers recommended that “all U.S. agencies carrying out counternarcotics work in Afghanistan” revise existing policies to create a “long-term, coordinated counternarcotics strategy that recognizes the limitations of a smaller U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, clearly outlines future counternarcotics goals, and includes metrics to measure progress.”

But in the letter, Sopko claims that the State Department’s bureaus have failed to comply with this request.

According to SIGAR’s letter, senior officials in the State Department told Sopko’s team that the decision in December 2016 to halt a revision of the 2012 “U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy in Afghanistan” was the result of Trump’s election to office. Officials apparently wanted to give the new administration more time to review policy options for Afghanistan.

He further states that government officials told his team that the Trump administration’s August 2017 “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” was serving as “overall guidance for U.S. strategic priorities in Afghanistan and, specifically, counternarcotics efforts.”

The trouble, as SIGAR found, is that the South Asia strategy “does not prioritize counternarcotics efforts or provide any goals, objectives, methods, or tactics related to countering narcotics in Afghanistan.” Sopko’s letter in fact states that this South Asia strategy does not even contain the word “narcotics.”

The 2017 “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” instead prioritizes a political settlement in Afghanistan. As such, State Department officials told SIGAR that the department’s bureaus “started aligning [international narcotics and law enforcement] activities towards this new priority and away from revising State’s 2012 counternarcotics strategy.”

State department officials, in reviewing the SIGAR letter, added 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.”

The letter further details that, according to officials, “U.S. counternarcotics activities in Afghanistan have continued despite the lack of an updated strategy.”

Later, in Jan. 28 testimony before a hearing of the House Oversight Committee on risks to a sustainable peace in Afghanistan—the last time the committee heard testimony on the subject—Sopko emphasized that the country’s illicit narcotics trade remains a “high-risk area” that “finances drug-trafficking organizations and antigovernment groups, undermines the government’s legitimacy, and feeds corruption, benefiting insurgent groups and corrupt government officials alike.” He also noted that countering the country’s illicit economy “appears to have fallen off the international agenda in recent years” and posed three critical questions for policymakers to consider:

  • Given the poor performance of many U.S. counternarcotics programs over the past 18 years, can the U.S. government support effective counternarcotics programs after a peace accord?
  • Can capacity-building programs strengthen Afghan government institutions to prevent the country’s collapse into a narco-state?
  • How would a potential peace accord with the Taliban impact opium cultivation and production in Afghanistan?

Unfortunately, Sopko’s questions remain unanswered and largely unconsidered.

It may be true that they can’t be answered. The drug trade in Afghanistan presents a critical, yet inordinately complicated (and somewhat impossible) policy challenge—a challenge that only grows more difficult by the day, as options for drug interdiction are narrowed due to dwindling territorial control and persisting violence between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In the absence of peace, experts will point out, there is simply no way to have a truly effective comprehensive counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean leaders should cast aside the issue altogether in the meantime.

After all, peace, too, may be precluded in large part by the corruption and humanitarian crises that are exacerbated by the drug industry in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s illicit economy warrants much more attention than it is currently receiving from either the executive branch or its legislative overseers in the United Statesif only to develop a more responsible policy than the one written in 2012. For now, a revised U.S. counternarcotics strategy remains nonexistent, six years (and counting) after lawmakers requested it.

I don’t mean to argue that the U.S. should now be doing more to crack down militarily on drugs in Afghanistan, as it has tried (and failed) to do in the past. It is important to recognize the severely ill prospects for supply-side counternarcotics tactics in today’s Afghanistan. Nonetheless, there are ways to mitigate civilian suffering on the demand side of the drug problem that merit more careful thought.

As Felbab-Brown noted in testimony to the U.K. House of Lords on Oct. 29, the Afghan stateand the success of counternarcotics policy in the region—hang on the continuation of foreign aid and the reduction in violence between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In her statement, Felbab-Brown delivered an extensive illustration of the ground realities, policy options, implications and prospects for strategy in countering perhaps the strongest illicit economy the world has yet seen—all of which a Biden administration should critically consider in working for a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Since 2008, the U.S. has provided about $156.9 million to drug treatment facilities and programs in Afghanistan—a figure dwarfed by the nearly $9 billion that has been appropriated to counternarcotics efforts in total over the course of the war. The drug supply in Afghanistan is not slowing. In current conditions, a revised strategy may put more emphasis on curbing addiction, both through investment in treatment programs in Afghanistan’s cities and through increased international cooperation to reduce drug demand globally.

In the current void of dialogue about the Afghan drug trade, the U.S. is missing an opportunity to publicly consider the lessons of the past and outline either a long-term development plan in the event that Afghan peace talks are successful or, in the interim, a strategy geared toward minimizing harm for the Afghan population if war in the region persists.

As David Mansfield, who has worked in drugs and development issues for three decades, put it, “what is needed is a slow, deliberative and cautious path” that recognizes true progress “will take years of rural economic growth, improved governance and the slow extension of the central government’s authority into rural areas … and that significant achievements in the field of illicit drugs and transnational organised crime will be generational.”

With the U.S. rushing to exit Afghanistan, neither slowness nor deliberation seem to be in the cards—and a large price will be paid by drug users both in and out of Afghanistan as the country’s most powerful drug barons continue to reap the profits.

Tia Sewell is a former associate editor of Lawfare. She studies international relations and economics at Stanford University.

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