Tuesday was an ominous one for news about Afghanistan. While much of the media’s attention has recently been focused on Syria, Iraq, and Ebola, NATO is still facing challenges as it tries to withdraw from Afghanistan in a way that ensures 13 years of war there have not been for nothing.
First, the United States’ Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that Afghanistan’s illegal opium industry has boomed to record levels despite $7 billion being spent by the U.S. government on anti-narcotics there over the course of the last decade.
Total land dedicated to poppy harvesting reached an all-time high of more than 209,000 hectares in 2013 while revenues from opium poppy production peaked at nearly $3 billion, a roughly 50-percent increase from 2012, according to SIGAR. Much of this money is alleged to fund the Taliban and associated criminal organizations.
The “deteriorating” security situation in the country means that opium poppy production will likely keep growing, noted John Sopko, the special inspector general, in an Oct. 14 letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the head of the US Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah.
Sopko also noted that cheap drilling technology is making it easier than ever for farmers to turn desert into farmland:
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 [UN Office on Drugs and Crime] in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in opium poppy cultivation between 2012 and 2013.
Meanwhile, some accounts credit the Taliban with fielding units of up to 1,000 men in combat against the Afghan security forces during the April to October fighting season that just ended, pointed out Yale University’s Jason Lylall in the Washington Post. Mass groupings of Taliban fighters like these have not been seen on Afghan battlefields since the Taliban’s push to take control of Kabul in 1996. While some have expressed their doubts about these numbers being accurate, Lyall notes that a Taliban emboldened by the withdrawal of NATO forces has managed to launch attacks across Afghanistan, and “on the doorstep” of nearly every major city in the country during the 2014 fighting season. The intensity of this combat prompted NATO — which has handed responsibility for major ground combat operations to the Afghan security forces — to dramatically ramp-up airstrikes against the Taliban toward the end of 2014, with US aircraft alone flying 660 close air support missions in September.
Western troops have largely withdrawn while the Taliban’s drug revenue and battlefield confidence appears to be on the rise. All of this hints at a war that is far from over, whether the US and NATO want it to be or not. It’s likely that the 10,000 US troops slated to remain after 2014 will be there for a long time, watched over by armed aircraft, in an attempt to at least keep an eye on Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from effectively returning to power over the country.