Has the US abandoned its war on drugs in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the world's opium and 95 per cent of Europe's.

By Austin Bodetti

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Published: Tue 8 Oct 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 8 Oct 2019, 10:53 PM

Negotiations for a political settlement between the Taleban and the United States to end the war in Afghanistan, a once-promising process, all but collapsed in early September. Many analysts have mulled over what the conclusion of the longest foreign military engagement in American history might have meant for the War on Terror. A question of equal importance: How would these developments affect the war on drugs?
Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the world's opium and 95 per cent of Europe's. The Taleban earns as much as $400 million every year from its own role in the illegal drug trade. Though the United States dedicated an impressive array of resources to combating narco-trafficking at the height of the war in Afghanistan, an American withdrawal from the Central Asian country could mark the end of any American role in the Afghan arena of the war on drugs. For their part, the Taleban and other Afghan militants, earning millions, have little incentive to fight the illegal drug trade. If the United States wants to keep narco-trafficking from ballooning as soon as its soldiers leave Afghanistan, its diplomats must address this problem with the Taleban.
Before the United States launched peace talks with the Taleban, American policymakers viewed tackling the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan as a method of weakening the insurgents. In the rush to conclude a peace treaty with the Taleban, the Trump administration appeared to abandon its bid to curb the illegal drug trade. While American generals announced a new strategy of employing Afghan and US warplanes to destroy Taleban drug labs to much fanfare in November 2017, the United States canceled the programme in February 2019. Peace talks between American diplomats and Taleban negotiators began the same month. The decline of the US commitment to counternarcotics in Afghanistan started far earlier, however.
The United States also cut $100 million in funding and suspended another $60 million just a week before Afghanistan's September 28 presidential election. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, advised the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the administration of US President Donald Trump had profound concerns about "corruption, government malfeasance, record-high opium production, and criminalisation of the economy." While no one knows the winner of Afghanistan's election for the time being, counternarcotics seemed far from the minds of all top candidates.
Like the war on terror, the war on drugs achieved limited results in Afghanistan. Still, the United States and its Afghan partners have an obvious interest in preventing the Central Asian country from descending into lawlessness and turning into a greater hotbed of narco-trafficking. When the United State departs Afghanistan, a possibility that seems no less likely with the implosion of peace talks, a larger share of responsibility for law enforcement in Afghanistan will fall to the Afghan authorities, who will have little choice but to compromise with the Taleban in the name of any peace treaty. If Afghan and US diplomats choose to revive the peace process and include a discussion of the insurgents' role in the illegal drug, the United States may even find an opportunity to salvage what remains of its counternarcotics campaign and undermine narco-trafficking in Afghanistan.
The Taleban could prove willing to surrender its involvement in the illegal drug trade if the United States decides to return to the negotiating table in addition to offering enough concessions. As much as the insurgents profit from narco-trafficking today, they once enforced the only successful ban on the illegal drug trade in the history of Afghanistan.
During negotiations with the Taleban about the likely schedule for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, US diplomats proposed that the country could leave a task force of commandos in the Central Asian country to pursue Al Qaeda and requested a binding pledge from the Taleban that terrorist groups would never again use Afghanistan as a launch pad for anti-US attacks. A similar arrangement might guarantee the future of Afghan-American counternarcotics efforts. The United States could push the Taleban to allow a skeleton crew of DEA special agents and INL experts to stay in Afghanistan as advisors to their Afghan counterparts, and American negotiators could also ask that the Taleban reenact its ban on the illegal drug trade.
Only negotiations could decide what the United States would have to promise in return, but the Taleban would likely demand that the US provide an alternative source of income for Taleban warlords reliant on narco-trafficking. No matter the urgency of limiting further bloodshed in Afghanistan, the US must remember the havoc wrought by the illegal drug trade in the Central Asian country. Peace talks presented one of the best chances in years for the US to realise its counternarcotics goals in Afghanistan. With the apparent failure of the peace process, American diplomats have turned their attention to Iran, North Korea and others. Unless the US moves to reinvest itself in the Afghan front of the war on drugs, Afghan and American officials will likely be dealing with the consequences of the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan for decades to come.
-Yale Global
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture and politics in Africa and Asia

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