I’m a little late to the story because I’ve been on the road, but the most recent United Nations report on drug cultivation in Afghanistan should be cause for concern about what happens in Afghanistan as transition looms. Afghanistan already produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, and the UN now reports that opium cultivation is up by around 50 percent, while land being used for cultivation is at record levels. The situation is more worrisome because opium prices are already high and because the cultivation is not only in areas from which U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn, but also in locations theoretically under NATO control.
Because the United States military believes—correctly—that opium cultivation funds insurgency and lawlessness, the fact that the trajectory of Afghan cultivation is upwards bodes poorly for stability as transition looms. Nor should Americans take solace in the fact that some provinces which previously grew tons of opium—Badakshan, for example—no longer do, because many of these supposedly poppy-free northern provinces have simply turned to marijuana, which can be just as profitable. Afghans further say that they believe the opium crop in the coming year—planting is already under way—will be even higher.
There is a tendency among Afghan policymakers to treat missions individually rather than holistically. I’ve sat through discussions of planning for Afghanistan’s April 2014 elections, and other discussions addressing the logistics of moving equipment out of Afghanistan. Drug cultivation and “green-on-blue” violence are another topic, planning for which often fails to take into account other topics.
One thing is certain: pundits can debate the merits of the surge, and diplomats can praise the transition plans underway, never mind that both the surge and the transition seem to be ripped right out of the Soviet Union’s 1988 and 1989 playbook. The White House and Pentagon can praise the understanding reached with President Karzai, never mind that the miniscule numbers of troops won’t be able to do much beyond secure the capital, if that. The facts on the ground—of which opium cultivation is one of many—give very little reason to be optimistic about Afghanistan’s future and stability once the NATO presence is reduced to the point of ineffectiveness.