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U.S. Watchdog Says 'No Unified Strategy' For Afghan Counternarcotics

  • Luke Johnson

A member of the Afghan security forces destroys an illegal poppy crop in the Noor Gal district of eastern Kunar province earlier this year.

A member of the Afghan security forces destroys an illegal poppy crop in the Noor Gal district of eastern Kunar province earlier this year.

WASHINGTON -- The United States' watchdog for Afghanistan is warning that the country's lucrative opium economy is threatening reconstruction efforts, and the United States is not adequately addressing the problem.

The quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released on October 30, says that counternarcotics has "largely fallen off the Afghan agenda" of the U.S. government and international community.

In an interview with RFE/RL on October 28, SIGAR head John Sopko said, "They don't have a unified strategy. I think you could also reach out to the Afghans and make certain they're part of this strategy."

Sopko criticized the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the counternarcotics unit of the State Department. "There is nothing that they have said to me or my staff that would indicate that there's any idea of how to improve the situation," he said.

Sopko said Washington has "wasted" over $7 billion on counternarcotics.

He told RFE/RL, "Has anyone had their job performance -- in the State Department, Department of Defense or [US]AID -- affected by the fact that they failed over the past 13 years to do anything on counternarcotics? No."

The report said that nearly $3 billion had been spent on law enforcement efforts for counternarcotics, despite Defense Intelligence Agency reports suggesting that the U.S. is seizing only about $12.7 million in heroin annually.

Using the U.S. State Department's $695.3 million 2004-2009 contract with the private defense contractor DynCorp as the basis for its calculations, the report also noted that the average cost for eradicating a hectare of poppy was $73,608

The report points out that opium provides up to 411,000 jobs -- more than the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) -- and is the country's most valuable cash crop. The UN estimated in November 2013 that cultivation had reached a record high.

"The sine qua non of narcotics trafficking is corruption," said Sopko. "You cannot have one without the other."

Sopko pointed to comments made by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in 2003 when he was Finance Minister that, without international aid, Afghanistan risked becoming a "narco-mafia state" as evidence that Ghani is aware of the problem.

"If a narco-mafia starts running the countryside, they don't care about women's rights, they don't care about children's rights, they don't care about democracy, they don't care about feeding and helping the poor -- they just care about making a profit," said Sopko. He added that the narcotics trade has a "direct funding link" to the insurgency.

The report's findings did not stop at counternarcotics. It also noted that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had made the decision to classify data which allows the public to evaluate the "single most costly" feature of reconstruction -- the training, equipping, and sustaining of the Afghan National Security Forces.

"We are always concerned when out-of-the-blue, for no apparent reason, stuff is classified that for years and years and years has been unclassified," said Sopko. "The information we're asking for cannot be used by terrorists, it cannot be used by the Taliban because it's generic information."

Sopko also said that he was concerned over the U.S.military's refusal to exclude supporters of the insurgency from receiving government contracts.

"I remain troubled by the fact that our government can and does use classified information to arrest, detain, and even kill individuals linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan, but apparently refuses to use the same classified information to deny those same individuals their right to obtain contracts with the U.S. government," he wrote in the report.

Sopko said the corruption problem in Afghanistan was serious, and urged both the U.S. and Afghan governments to address it.

"We can't address these problems by ignoring them. I almost feel sometimes like I'm dealing with an alcoholic in AA. The first rule of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first rule of any addiction problem is: recognize that you have a problem," he said. "The narcotics problem is not going to going to go away. Corruption is not going to go away. If we don't address it, if we don't face the fact then it's going to overwhelm that poor little country."

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