Opium production is booming like never before in Afghanistan, threatening to turn the country into a "narco-criminal" state, a senior US official warned Wednesday.
Despite more than a decade of costly US and international counternarcotics programs, opium poppy harvests -- which also help finance the Taliban insurgency -- are at an all-time high, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko warned senators.
As a result, the growing opium trade could mean drug-trafficking networks might eventually come to totally dominate the country, he wrote in a report.
Afghanistan could develop into a successful modern state, a Taliban Islamist state or "a narco-criminal state" after the bulk of the NATO-led force withdraws at the end of year, Sopko said, citing the views of people working in Afghanistan.
"Absent effective counternarcotics programs and Afghan political will to seriously tackle this grave problem, that third outcome may become a reality," he wrote.
With 209,000 hectares (516,450 acres) under poppy cultivation representing 90 percent of the world's opium supply, Afghan farmers "are growing more poppies today than at any time in their modern history," Sopko said.
When US-led forces toppled the Taliban from power for their alliance with Al-Qaeda in 2001, only 8,000 hectares were under poppy cultivation.
"In the opinion of almost everyone I spoke with, the situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond," Sopko wrote to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.
"Neither the United States nor the Afghan government seems to have a clear, prioritized strategy to effectively combat the narcotics trade today much less after 2014."
Despite $7 billion spent since 2002 on counter-narcotics projects and another $3 billion on agricultural programs designed to provide alternatives to farmers, Washington still lacks a coherent strategy to tackle the problem, he said.
In the early years of the coalition mission, the United States favored eradicating the poppy crop before a shift in approach in 2010 that focused on combating corruption and preventing opium money from reaching the Taliban.
But rampant opium and heroin trafficking is "poisoning" the Afghan financial sector and undermining the Afghan state's legitimacy by stoking corruption while "nourishing criminal networks," he said.
"There are already signs that elements within the Afghan security forces are reaching arrangements with rural communities to allow opium poppy cultivation, or even encouraging production."
The Taliban insurgency profits directly from the opium trade, with the militants earning an estimated $100 million to $400 million a year from drug trafficking, extortion, taxation, kidnapping and other smuggling, according to US and international estimates.
At the height of the US-led war effort in Afghanistan, top military officers and senior officials touted efforts to clamp down on the narcotics trade, calling the campaign crucial to weakening the Taliban and its associates.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]