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Watchdog: $7 Billion U.S. Effort Doesn't Dent Afghan Poppy Production

Poppies bloom in a field on the outskirts of Kandahar on April 27, 2014. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has some more bad news for U.S. taxpayers: The $7.6 billion the United States has spent on its counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan has done little to reduce poppy production.

In fact, quite the opposite has happened because in 2013, the cultivation levels of poppy in Afghanistan hit an all-time high.

In a letter to top U.S. officials, John Sopko explains what's going on:

"Despite the significant financial expenditure, opium poppy cultivation has far exceeded previous records. Affordable deep-well technology has turned 200,000 hectares of desert in southwestern Afghanistan into arable land over the past decade. Due to relatively high opium prices and the rise of an inexpensive, skilled, and mobile labor force, much of this newly-arable land is dedicated to opium cultivation. Poppy-growing provinces that were once declared 'poppy free' have seen a resurgence in cultivation. Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, considered a model for successful counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts and deemed 'poppy free' by the UNODC in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in opium poppy cultivation between 2012 and 2013. The UNODC estimates that the value of the opium and its derivative products produced in Afghanistan was nearly $3 billion in 2013, up from $2 billion in 2012. This represents an increase of 50 percent in a single year."

Sopko says that U.S. efforts in the country have led to temporary declines in the level of opium production. But in the long term, those declines are erased and reach record highs.

"The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long- term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts," Sopko wrote in the letter. "Given the severity of the opium problem and its potential to undermine U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, I strongly suggest that your departments consider the trends in opium cultivation and the effectiveness of past counternarcotics efforts when planning future initiatives."

The SIGAR report also included this response from the U.S. embassy in Kabul:

"Despite recent record increases in opium cultivation, Embassy Kabul claimed that its ongoing counternarcotics efforts are yielding results. The response highlighted the success of specialized Afghan interdiction units as well as the implementation of a network of drug treatment programs in Afghanistan. The response went on to say: '[t]here is no silver bullet to eliminate drug cultivation or production in Afghanistan or to address the epidemic of substance abuse disorder that plagues too many Afghans...Our counternarcotics goals can be accomplished only when these are also Afghan counternarcotics goals. We look forward to the new Afghan government assuming a leadership role in this regard.'"

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