© Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in a poppy field in the Khogyani district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, in May.
The United States is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan
having lost its battle against the country's narcotics industry, marking one of the starkest failures of the 2009 strategy the Obama administration pursued in an effort to turn around the war.
Despite a U.S. investment of nearly $7 billion since 2002 to combat it, the country's opium market is booming, propelled by steady demand and an insurgency that has assumed an increasingly hands-on role in the trade, according to law enforcement officials and counternarcotics experts. As the war economy contracts, opium poppies, which are processed into heroin, are poised to play an ever larger role in the country's economy and politics, undercutting two key U.S. goals: fighting corruption and weakening the link between the insurgency and the drug trade.
The Afghan army opted this spring for the first time in several years not to provide security to eradication teams in key regions, forgoing a dangerous mission that has long embittered rural Afghans who depend on the crop for their livelihoods.
Experts say that, in the end, efforts over the past decade to rein in cultivation were stymied by entrenched insecurity in much of the country, poverty, and the ambivalence - and, at times, collusion - of the country's ruling class.
With a presidential election just months away, political will for anti-drug initiatives is weak among members of the Afghan elite, many of whom have become increasingly dependent on the proceeds of drugs as foreign funding dries up, said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan. "Money is less and less available within the licit economy," he said. "The real danger is the weakened resistance to corruption and to involvement in a distorted political economy, which weakens your resistance to collusion with the enemy."
As U.S. forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan - roughly 51,000 American troops are left, down from a peak of 100,000 - insurgents have fought particularly hard to reclaim lost ground in Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan's poppy industry, U.S. military officials have said.
In its latest progress report on Afghanistan to Congress
, the Pentagon warned that the 2013 poppy harvest was expected to be "considerably" bigger than 2012's, citing warmer early-season weather, the drawdown of NATO troops and the high price for poppies.