Opium Poppy Growth Booming In Afghanistan

The U.S. has sent billions of dollars to Afghanistan for drug eradication, but to little effect. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko, who testified on the hill Wednesday about the future of counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Several Afghan officials have been suspended following an attack on the popular restaurant in Kabul, Afghanistan which left 21 people dead. It was the deadliest violence against foreign civilians since the war began. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for recent a airstrike that killed a number of Afghan civilians in a village north of the capital. The violence is the latest indication that the situation in Afghanistan is far from stable.

As the U.S. prepares to draw down forces after more than 12 years of war, a lot of the political unrest in Afghanistan is rooted in the opium industry. The U.S. alone has funneled billions of dollars into the country to fight the narcotics trade. But now, the man in charge of overseeing how U.S. dollars are spent in Afghanistan says there's very little to show for that investment.

John Sopko is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and he said exactly that to a Senate panel this past week. He joined us in our studios to talk about his findings. And I started off by asking him about the state of the drug trade.

JOHN SOPKO: They're growing more poppy now and introducing more opium than ever before.

MARTIN: How in the world is that possible? I mean, when you think of all the aid that has been put into that country specifically to address that particular issue - billions of dollars from the U.S. alone, let alone all the international partners who've been focusing on this.

SOPKO: Well, the big problem we have found is we really don't have a strategy and it's no longer a priority, and it hasn't been a priority for the U.S. or for Western governments for a number of years. And if it's not a priority and you don't have a strategy - a real strategy on how to do it - you're going to have failure, and that's what we've seen. Right now, our strategy is nothing other than a bunch of wish lists that we hope the Afghans can do something, but they're not able to.

MARTIN: But wasn't there a strategy before? I mean, early on, after the U.S. overthrew the Taliban, Afghanistan was full of civilian advisers from America and Europe who were there to help Afghan farmers figure out what else to grow.

SOPKO: Well, we've changed the strategy over time. And we've emphasized, like you said, crop substitution. We actually did interdiction. But we tend to do it for a month, a year or whatever, and then we go and do something else. We had a very successful program in Helmand, with the Helmand Food Zone. But that was part of the surge. Once the surge ended, once then we stopped the program, now Helmand is producing more opium then it was before.

MARTIN: This is the last year, as of yet, that U.S. combat troops are going to be on the ground. International assistance has been dramatically reduced. The number of civilians who are working on aid projects, like poppy eradication, have left the country. Does some of the impetus for change need to happen within Afghanistan itself?

SOPKO: Well, obviously this is not going to work unless the Afghans have a will to pursue this. That's what I'm really concerned about, is because we will have less mobility. So we look at reconstruction and our concern is, now more than ever, reconstruction and any gains we made in reconstruction are in peril.

Because the narco traffickers don't care about women's rights, they don't care about better health care, they don't care about better education for the Afghans. They don't care about rule law. They actually opposed the rule of law. And what is happening is this is a bigger threat now than ever.

MARTIN: At what point do you cut your losses and say, there is no way that we can fix this problem to a level where it makes sense to continue funneling U.S. taxpayer dollars in this direction?

SOPKO: Well, let me back up and answer that question. It's a difficult one. Remember, I don't do policy. We just look at the process and look at the programs. I can say the money that has been used so far, if the goal was to reduce cultivation, we failed. If the goal was to reduce opium production, we failed. If the goal was to reduce the amount of money going to the insurgency, we failed. If the goal was to break that narco trafficking nexus and the corrupting influence, we have failed. I can tell you that.

All you have to do is look at the data. All you have to do is look at the statements made even by the DOD itself in the latest report to Congress about the failures.

MARTIN: What makes you so sure if we have seemingly wasted $10 billion already, that we would have the capacity to use future monies differently and more wisely?

SOPKO: That is the question I asked in Afghanistan. And no one in the embassy, no one at our military ISAF headquarters could explain to me how we were going to do a better job, or how we were doing a good job right now on counter narcotics.

MARTIN: Have you met with people at USAID? Have you gotten honest conversations about what is failed?

SOPKO: Well, we don't always get honest conversations. Very few people, particularly at some of the higher levels want to talk about failure. I was not overly impressed with the explanations given to me by anyone at our embassy, or anybody at ISAF. As a matter of fact, when I interviewed the country team leader for AID, he couldn't even explain the counter narcotics program to me. So this indicates to me is this isn't a priority, and that's very disturbing because this is a national security issue.

Early on, we determined that we had to cut that nexus between the narco traffickers, and they're providing now 30 percent of the revenue to the Taliban and the other terrorist groups. Narcotics is, we haven't broken that.

MARTIN: John Sopko is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. He joined us in our studios here in Washington. Thanks so much.

Thanks so much for coming in.

SOPKO: You're welcome.

MARTIN: We reached out to the U.S. State Department for their response about Mr. Sopko's remarks. Larry Sampler, at USAID, said that the staff in Kabul is working very hard and at great personal risk. He went on to say, quote, "We all need to acknowledge it is a complicated problem with only long-term solutions."

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