WASHINGTON, DC — The United States must tackle the Taliban’s top source of funding in Afghanistan – deadly opium and its heroin derivative – whether there is a peace agreement or not, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko told Breitbart News on Thursday.
Sopko’s assessment of Afghanistan’s insidious narcotics problem came soon after he delivered a speech at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) about the watchdog agency’s 2019 High-Risk List report, which identifies significant threats to America’s $132 billion reconstruction effort.
Breitbart News asked, “What happens if the United States fails to push the Taliban to cut its ties to the cultivation and trafficking of opium in Afghanistan during the peace talks?”
The SIGAR chief replied:
I can’t discuss the peace talks, so maybe they are doing it, I don’t know, but as we highlight [in the high-risk list report], the Taliban are intimately involved with the narcotics problem so what we just highlighted is you have to deal with that. If there is a peace treaty or not, how do you get the Taliban out of the narcotics trade?
And that’s a complication to [the] reintegration [of an estimated 60,000 Taliban jihadis into Afghan society] and so on. Again, I don’t know I can’t discuss the peace because we’re not part of it, but obviously, it’s a big issue because we’ve identified the narcotics as a major source of funding for the Taliban.
SIGAR stressed that the illicit narcotics trade in Afghanistan is a significant menace to America’s nation-building efforts. Sopko acknowledged that some reconstruction efforts have benefited the opium trade.
The watchdog agency cast doubt on whether or not a peace agreement will “translate into the collapse or contraction of the illicit drug trade,” noting the opium trade plays a significant part in feeding the ailing Afghan economy.
The report declared:
A truce or peace settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government may not necessarily lead to a decline in the illicit narcotics trade…With or without a peace agreement, Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming a ‘narco-state’ and has already been described as such by former officials from the U.S. government and international organizations. …The country requires a growing economy or favorable economic conditions to provide farmers and former insurgents with legitimate employment and a reliable income to replace opium poppy cultivation.
Despite nearly $9 billion awarded by the United States for anti-drug operations since the war began in October 2001, Afghanistan remains the top producer of opium and heroin in the world. The U.S. Drug Enforce Agency (DEA) confirmed to Breitbart News earlier this year that a small amount of Afghan heroin is fueling the historic number of lethal drug overdoses in the United States.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) — which oversees the intensified peace-seeking efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration — indicated that it is unclear whether or not the United States is urging the Taliban to stop cultivating and trafficking opium as part of the peace negotiations.
SIGAR did report that at the February 2019 peace talks hosted by Russia in February 2019 — a separate ordeal from the U.S. efforts — the Taliban delegation vowed to “reduce poppy cultivation and drug trafficking to zero throughout the country” and work with neighboring countries to combat the illicit narcotics trade once the war ends.
Sopko told Breitbart News the United States must “trust and verify,” echoing former Republican U.S. President Ronald Reagan, adding in the report:
It is possible that the Taliban may be amenable following a peace agreement to reducing poppy cultivation in return for foreign assistance… However, it remains to be seen whether a future government in which the Taliban is a part would be willing or able to follow through with such promises.
Besides the Taliban, SIGAR has linked corrupt Afghan government officials and members of the country’s security forces to the lucrative opium business.
Citing the United Nations, SIGAR reported on Thursday:
In 2017, the poppy crop generated approximately $1.4 billion for Afghan farmers, plus billions more for refiners and traffickers, amounting to the equivalent of 20% to 32% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product—a share about the size of the country’s entire licit agricultural sector and far exceeding licit exports of goods and services in 2016.
“A peace agreement is unlikely to change that dynamic, as shown by the record of other countries at peace which continue to produce large quantities of narcotics,” the watchdog agency continued, citing Colombia, which is producing unprecedented amounts of cocaine following the domestic government’s deal with the U.S.-designated terrorist group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Sopko reported that that the opium trade could reverse the gains achieved by the hundreds of billions of dollars in American taxpayer funding devoted to the war, noting:
The illicit opium trade hinders the Afghan government’s efforts across numerous sectors, including security, governance, and economic and social development. The cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs finances drug trafficking organizations and antigovernment groups, undermines the government’s legitimacy, and feeds corruption, benefiting insurgent groups and corrupt government officials alike.
The war in Afghanistan has come at a tremendous cost of blood and treasure to the United States — nearly $1 trillion or about $3 billion per month, 2,280 American military deaths, and more than 20,430 injuries.
Taliban narco-jihadis have rejected a Trump administration proposal to leave behind a residual U.S. counterterrorism force that could ensure the terrorist group keeps its promises. While the Taliban wants all foreign forces out in months, the United States has reportedly proposed pulling out its military troops within three to five years.
Sopko warned against keeping the flow of U.S. assistance going post-a peace deal-linked American military withdrawal, something that the Taliban wants.