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Afghanistan: Another Failure of the Drug War

Afghanistan: Another Failure of the Drug War

Jeffrey Miron, Erin Partin

Security, Middle East

These papers do not look good…

The Washington Post has just published a deep dive into the war in Afghanistan, including the war on opium. These newly released documents expose in stark terms the dramatic failures of our century-long war on drugs. Of all the aspects of the Afghan quagmire, the war on opium has been among the most indefensibly foolish. Metaphorical wars against inanimate objects (drugs, alcohol, etc.) or vague ideas (crime, poverty, etc.) have an extensive history of failure. Continuing to pursue them is nonsensical at best, and deadly at worst.

U.S. opium poppy eradication efforts have cost nearly $9 billion since 2001. In 2001 US airstrikes targeted “a network of clandestine opium production labs that U.S. officials said was helping to generate $200 million a year in drug money for the Taliban,” but aerial efforts were abandoned after “many of the suspected labs turned out to be empty, mud-walled compounds…[and] the U.S. military concluded it was a waste of resources to keep blowing up primitive targets with advanced aircraft and laser-guided munitions.”

American officials struggled with the question of how to address Afghanistan’s status as the world’s leading opium supplier. According to the Washington Post article, military leaders under the Bush administration “saw [fighting opium production] as a distraction or hindrance to their primary mission of fighting terrorists.” Under the Obama administration officials began recognizing the role of opium profits in funding insurgents but were also concerned that acting “could alienate poppy farmers…or U.S.-friendly warlords who profited from opium trafficking,” which would alienate US allies on the ground.

The tipping point in the war on poppies came when US military and intelligence officials began to perceive drug trafficking as a financial boon for terrorists. The drugs themselves were not a cause of terrorism, but prohibition made them a highly profitable and lucrative source of income for the US’ enemies. Therefore, in the eyes of US officials, fighting opium and fighting terrorism were intrinsically linked.

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