The Return of Afghanistan’s Drug Den

How the Obama administration turned its back on counternarcotics, and why the Taliban is laughing all the way to the bank.

Two months after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama gave a televised address that laid out sweeping goals for U.S. financial, military, and technical assistance to Afghanistan, among them developing an economy there "that isn't dominated by illicit drugs."

Since 2001, Washington has committed roughly $10 billion to its ambitious counternarcotics effort in the poverty-stricken country. But mostly due to reversals in the last two years, all that spending appears to have had little enduring impact, and Afghanistan's prospects for finding its financial footing outside the drug trade are now slim, an independent federal auditor told the Senate's Caucus on International Narcotics Control on Jan. 15.

"The situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told the caucus, recounting "the opinion of almost everyone I spoke with" about the growing role of narcotics in the country's economy during a November visit there.

In blunt testimony to the caucus chaired by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.), Sopko cited statistics that cast an unflattering light on the costly U.S. effort, which is now winding down as the Obama administration prepares to pull additional troops from the country.

From 2012 to 2013, the value of Afghanistan's narcotics trade increased 50 percent, and it now accounts for 15 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Poppy cultivation has reached record levels, with acreage now three times the level in 2002 and equivalent to plantings on land 12 times the size of the District of Columbia. Opium production alone increased nearly 50 percent in the last year. More than 5 percent of the Afghan populace is now addicted to opiates. Moreover, half of the existing poppy fields are now located in Helmand Province, the principal locus of the U.S. military's "surge" during Obama's first term.

This grim news is a boon to the Taliban, which is now drawing at least $155 million a year from narcotics-related activities, and investing the funds in insurgency, according to United Nations estimates. "The Taliban is involved in taxing opium poppy farmers; operating processing laboratories; moving narcotics; taxing narcotics transporters ... [and] providing security to poppy fields, drug labs, and opium bazaars," Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations James Capra said in written testimony to the caucus.

Sopko warned that this booming narcotics trade is undermining the country's stability, threatening the health of its people, eroding the rule of law, and adding further to official corruption -- essentially threatening much of what the United States has tried to accomplish there over the past decade, at a total cost of more than $70 billion and 2,300 U.S. military deaths.

The Obama administration seems uninterested in shifting course, however. Its spending on the Pentagon's office of counternarcotics for work in Afghanistan is slated to decline by 20 percent this year, and in-country staffing by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security is dropping by half.

The military airlift and protection that DEA officers need to operate are mostly evaporating, Capra and other witnesses acknowledged. A special Afghan air unit, created with nearly $1 billion dollars in U.S. funding, only has a quarter of the personnel it needs, and few pilots rated to fly with the night vision goggles considered essential to counternarcotics raids. Total Afghan drug seizures in the first 9 months of last year amounted to 121 metric tons, compared with an estimated 5,500 tons of opium alone produced over the entire 12 months.

The DEA's anguish is palpable.

Capra said the military drawdown and staffing decreases will "significantly impact the scope of DEA's operations." While the Afghanistan government is still not capable of doing what its foreign partners have done to combat narcotics, specialized Afghan units have acquired important capabilities "at great cost," after "years of great sacrifice by DEA personnel and an enormous expenditure of U.S. government resources," he said. The erosion of this capability, he added, "puts at risk the U.S. strategic objective of achieving a stable and secure Afghanistan."

Erin Logan, the Defense Department's principal director for counternarcotics and global threats, was not optimistic. In her written testimony, she said "the drawdowns in U.S. and coalition military forces will likely lead to increased drug production and corresponding instability in Afghanistan and the region."

Sopko was particularly critical in his testimony of the fact that -- despite Obama's lofty words in 2009 -- counternarcotics has been a steadily declining priority for the administration's policy appointees.  The boots-on-the ground experts he spoke to during his visit all "told me that they are very worried that the United States and its coalition partners are not sufficiently focused on counternarcotics," he said.

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent analysis group funded by aid donors in Kabul, seconded that view in a report last September. "Policymakers," it said, "seem to have lost all appetite for talking about the production and trade of opium."

The official U.S. disdain may stem partly from the sheer magnitude of the task and the endemic obstacles to its achievement in one of the poorest nations on Earth, where poppy-growing has long been a cultural and financial mainstay. As William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, cautioned in his written testimony for the hearing, "there is no silver bullet" to solve the narcotics problem, which surged amid chaotic conditions after the US intervention.

But the Obama administration seems aware -- without specifically acknowledging it -- that its vaunted "whole of government" approach to the problem, adopted in 2010 and meant to cultivate good governance practices and enhance counterinsurgency efforts in lieu of outright poppy eradication, hasn't yet turned the corner on the drug trade and isn't likely to anytime soon.

That approach was formulated after a 2009 visit to Afghanistan by the Pentagon's policy chief Michelle Flournoy, who warned Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that only a more integrated and comprehensive civilian-military aid program would work. Counternarcotics, she said in a memo to Gates that he quotes in his new book, Duty, was only one of four "competing -- and often conflicting -- campaigns" during the Bush years.

There is some evidence that the surge -- the addition of 21,000 U.S. troops and increased development investments at the beginning of Obama's first term -- made a difference. In Helmand, poppy cultivation declined by nearly 40 percent from 2008 to 2011, a circumstance attributed by experts mostly to the heightened foreign presence, Sopko said.

But by 2012, Gates had become convinced, he states in his book, that counternarcotics was a specialized mission that should be reexamined in light of declining resources. A U.S. troop pullout that began in 2011 accelerated in 2012, roughly the period when international experts and the Defense Department itself said the narcotics market expanded again.

Since then, Sopko testified, seizures of both narcotics and illicit chemicals have declined and counter-drug operations have dropped by nearly a third. He suggested that soon, DEA agents will be confined to Kabul, and decried what he called the administration's decision to cut DEA personnel arbitrarily and then tailor its strategy to the number of agents remaining, rather than pick a proven strategy first and then decide how many to retain.

"No one at the [U.S.] Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the U.S. government counternarcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact," Sopko said, adding that he was surprised to learn that little effort had been made over the past decade to examine carefully what worked and what didn't among the Western programs. How can the program succeed with fewer personnel if it has failed up to now? he asked. He raised the possibility that Afghanistan will become a "narco-criminal state" if a more sound strategy is not pursued.

Sen. Feinstein told the witnesses that "there is little good news" and cautioned that the grim statistics will be ignored "at our peril." She also said "we're looking for ideas," and urged in particular that the DEA find a way to collaborate with its counterparts in Russia and Iran, where a significant portion of Afghanistan's heroin moves.

The task of defending the administration's policies fell mostly to Brownfield, who cautioned that counter-drug strategies can take years to bear fruit, and said "I do not share" the pessimism expressed by so many others. He said that while he cannot promise success this year or next year, the United States and its partners have put in place "a sustainable and adaptable" program to keep building the Afghanistan government's ability to handle its drug problems.

I wish, Brownfield added, that it was a simple matter of writing up a strategy and having a checklist.

First published by the Center for Public Integrity

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Man to Watch

Is Burma's top general maneuvering for a run at the presidency?

People in Burma are accustomed to keeping a close eye on their generals. It seems like a reasonable habit when you consider that the military ruled Burma for more than the last half-century, relinquishing its absolute control over politics only recently. Even today, despite three years of liberalizing reforms, high-ranking officers retain considerable sway.

So you can hardly blame people for sitting up and taking notice earlier this week, when a local weekly published details of a speech made by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (pictured above). In the speech, he declared, among other things, that the military is "afraid of no one." Just in case someone didn't get the message, he also noted that "the Tatmadaw [Burma's armed forces] will always follow policies set by retired Senior General Than Shwe." Than Shwe was, of course, the head of the ruling military junta in Burma from 1992 to 2011.

His remarks, which were supposedly given during a closed meeting with officers on Nov. 29 and not published in the state-run newspapers, were accompanied by several highly provocative comments about the simmering ethnic conflicts that have plagued the country for decades. Strikingly, the general pinned the blame for Burma's long-running civil war on the leaders of ethnic groups who have been fighting for greater autonomy and a bigger share of the country's national wealth.

Nor are these the only statements by the general that have attracted notice recently. Three weeks ago, on Dec. 21, a state-run newspaper, the Mirror, surprised readers by devoting almost its entire front page to four separate stories on the most recent activities of the commander-in-chief. To be sure, flattering coverage of top generals is hardly unusual in a country where the military still holds significant power. Yet these latest publications have drawn attention precisely because of the message they seem intended to convey.

The paper devoted a full page, no less, to one of the stories, which covered Min Aung Hlaing's appearance at the graduation ceremony of the Military Medical University. In his speech at the event, the general noted: "When it comes to implementing state security, unconventional measures should be taken into account as well as conventional ones." He then elaborated on what he meant by "unconventional measures," speaking at some length about the concept of "human security." This, he said, is a category that includes economics, food security, health, the environment, individual personal security, and national security. Particularly striking is the fact that the military strongman used the phrase "human security" in English.

So what's going on? Can we learn anything useful from reading between the lines here? In fact, that there are at least two important conclusions we can draw from Min Aung Hlaing's speeches. First, his remarks signal an important shift in the development of military doctrine, one that entails a major change in the style of the leadership of the armed forces. Second, his statements strongly suggest that the commander-in-chief is considering the possibility of entering politics, perhaps by running for president in the next national election scheduled for 2015.

Over the past 25 years, since the military seized power in 1988, the Tatmadaw (armed forces) has professed to follow an ideology based on "Three National Principles" -- namely, the preservation of the union, the maintenance of national solidarity, and the defense of sovereignty.

Based on these principles, the armed forces developed a doctrine they called "total national defense," which is included in Burma's 2008 constitution. This was the third phase of doctrinal development in the recent history of the armed forces. The Tatmadaw announced its first official doctrine in 1950, followed by a second in 1958. While some of the details have changed, the ideological program articulated in all three cases revolves around the notion of state security. As experience has shown, the armed forces take these statements of doctrine very seriously. In the past, even when these ideological guidelines were kept secret from the public (right up into the 1990s), the armed forces nonetheless used them as the basis for civil-military relations and its interventions in civil politics. In the doctrine developed in the late 1950s, for instance, the Tatmadaw expanded its role from defense to public administration and business. The military then proceeded to put these principles into practice, seizing state power for two years starting in 1958 and establishing military conglomerates in late 1950s.

The military staged its coups in 1958, 1962, and 1988 in the name of state security -- the same rationale cited by the successive juntas to justify economic autarky and self-imposed isolation in foreign policy. The coup leaders continued to cite state security needs to legitimize their expansion of the army at the expense of education, economic welfare, and health care. The military built roads, bridges, dams, and even a new capital deep in the jungle. The former military leaders I've interviewed in the course of my studies placed supreme emphasis on state security, despite their clear awareness that the public has entirely different priorities, such as democracy and social welfare. Members of the military dismiss such views as "populist" or "short-sighted."

In this historical context, Min Aung Hlaing's explicit embrace of "human security" represents a dramatic departure from the norm. If his statements are to be taken seriously, they indicate an attempt by the military to win the people's hearts and minds by re-defining the armed forces as the defenders of democracy and social welfare.

And what about the possibility that the commander-in-chief is positioning himself for the 2015 elections? According to several sources inside the military, Min Aung Hlaing, who will reach retirement age that same year, is quietly preparing a run for the presidency. Some of Burma's military lawmakers have stated that the armed forces will nominate Min Aung Hlaing as a presidential candidate in 2015. If this is the case, Min Aung Hlaing's "human security" rhetoric might well resonate with the public's aspiration, and he could present himself as a statesman with a clear political vision, perhaps enabling him to profit from intense personal rivalries among the other contenders, including the incumbent president Thein Sein, the parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In any event, it's quite clear that observers of Burma's political scene will find themselves paying even closer attention to the doings of Min Aung Hlaing in the months to come.