In late 2017, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan launched Operation Iron Tempest, a storm of airstrikes by B-52 bombers, F-22 Raptors and other warplanes. The main target: a network of clandestine opium production labs that U.S. officials said was helping to generate $200 million a year in drug money for the Taliban.
“This is a new war, and the gloves are off,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch said during a swaggering news conference in Kabul. “That is our new strategy going forward, and it’s definitely been a game-changer and the Taliban is definitely feeling it. . . . The war has changed.”
But within a year, Operation Iron Tempest had fizzled out. Many of the suspected labs turned out to be empty, mud-walled compounds. After more than 200 airstrikes, the U.S. military concluded it was a waste of resources to keep blowing up primitive targets with advanced aircraft and laser-guided munitions.
Of all the failures in Afghanistan, the war on drugs has been perhaps the most feckless, according to a cache of confidential government interviews and other documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Since 2001, the United States has spent about $9 billion on a dizzying array of programs to deter Afghanistan from supplying the world with heroin. In dozens of interviews, however, key players in the anti-narcotics campaign acknowledged that none of the measures have worked and that, in many cases, they have made things worse.
Mohammed Ehsan Zia, a former Afghan cabinet minister in charge of rural development programs, told U.S. government interviewers that the United States and other NATO countries never settled on an effective strategy and just threw money at the opium problem. He said they constantly changed policies and relied on a carousel of consultants who were ignorant about Afghanistan.
“Foreigners read ‘Kite Runner’ on [the] plane and believe they are an expert on Afghanistan and then never listen,” Zia said, referring to the best-selling novel about an Afghan boy haunted by oppression and ethnic strife. “The only thing they are experts in is bureaucracy.”
Afghanistan dominates the global opium markets. Last year, it produced 82% of the world’s supply, according to estimates by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Defying U.S. efforts to curtail it, Afghan opium production has skyrocketed over the course of the 18-year war. Last year, Afghan farmers grew poppies – the plant from which opium is extracted to make heroin – on four times as much land as they did in 2002.
With business booming, the opium industry has tightened its stranglehold on the Afghan economy, corrupted large sectors of the Afghan government and provided the Taliban a rising source of revenue, U.S., European and Afghan officials said in the interviews.
“Drugs was a nasty thing that had to be contended with,” Douglas Wankel, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who led a federal counternarcotics task force in Kabul from 2004 to 2007, told government interviewers. “The biggest problem was corruption in Afghanistan and drugs was part of it. You couldn’t deal with one without dealing with the other.”
The United States and its closest NATO ally, Britain, tried all sorts of strategies to shrink opium production. They bribed farmers to stop cultivating poppies, hired mercenaries to invade poppy fields and drew up plans to spray defoliants from the sky. But the poppies spread anyway.
The State Department and DEA have led most of those efforts for the United States. For most of the war, the U.S. military has struggled to make up its mind about how involved it should get in the opium wars.
During the George W. Bush administration, most U.S. generals wanted nothing to do with the battle over opium. According to the interviews, they saw it as a distraction or hindrance to their primary mission of fighting terrorists.
During the Obama administration, as evidence mounted that drug money was financing the insurgency, the generals began to see opium as a military threat. Because the generals’ war strategy hinged on winning the support of the Afghan people, however, they were reluctant to take action that could alienate poppy farmers – a large chunk of the population – or U.S.-friendly warlords who profited from opium trafficking.
Andre Hollis served as the Pentagon’s top civilian official for drug issues from 2001 to 2003 and later as a senior adviser to the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry. He said the U.S. Defense Department “fundamentally didn’t understand what getting involved in counternarcotics entailed.”
“Everyone was focusing on traditional roles. They would only talk to those in their battle space. From a DOD perspective, it was tactical, and about finding and killing al-Qaeda,” he told government interviewers. “Everyone had [their] own agenda and counternarcotics was way down the list.”
The previously undisclosed interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2018 by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, for a special project called “Lessons Learned.”
In June 2018, SIGAR published a 270-page report that documented the failure of the war on Afghan opium and made policy recommendations – in flat, bureaucratic jargon – for dealing with the problem.
“A whole-of-government U.S. counternarcotics strategy should be developed to coordinate various agencies around shared, long-term goals,” the report concluded. “The goals of a U.S. counternarcotics strategy should be aligned with and integrated into the larger security, development, and government objectives of the United States and the host nation.”
But the Lessons Learned report omitted the names of the vast majority of those who were interviewed and left out their toughest criticisms. The Post sued SIGAR in federal court to force it to release transcripts and notes of the interviews under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
To supplement the Lessons Learned interviews, The Washington Post obtained several oral-history interviews that the nonprofit Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training conducted with U.S. officials who served in Afghanistan, as well as confidential memos that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote about the Afghan drug trade.
Together, the documents reveal that many people involved in the war on opium thought the policies they were carrying out made no sense.
“I was convinced we were doing the wrong things and history would come to judge” those in charge, an unnamed British official said in a Lessons Learned interview in June 2016. The official said the outcome was “a legacy that shows what we did was harmful. Partly because people are stupid and partly because they actively choose not to listen.”
An unnamed U.S. official gave a similar account of foolishness and blamed bureaucratic infighting for many of the problems.
“There was violent competition in Washington not only within Congress, between the Hill and the administration but also between different parts of the administration,” the U.S. official told government interviewers in May 2016. “It was sad to see so many people behave so stupidly.”
Hardscrabble Afghan farmers have been growing varieties of the opium poppy – Papaver somniferum – for generations. With a little irrigation, the plants thrive in warm, dry climates and are especially bountiful in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the heart of the insurgency.
In full bloom, the flowers look majestic in incandescent shades of white, pink, red or purple. After the petals fall away, the stem is capped by a seed pod the size of an egg. At harvest time, farmworkers slice open the pods to drain a milky white sap that is dried into a resin.
Once the opium resin is transported to drug labs or refineries, it is processed into morphine and heroin. Afghan opium feeds the demand for heroin in Europe, Iran and other parts of Asia. One of the few markets it does not control is the United States, which gets most of its heroin from neighboring Mexico, according to the DEA.
Ironically, the only power that has demonstrated an ability to cripple the Afghan drug industry is the Taliban.
In July 2000, when the Taliban controlled most of the country, its reclusive one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, declared that opium was un-Islamic and imposed a ban on growing poppies.
Much to the surprise of the rest of the world, the ban worked. Afraid to cross the Taliban, Afghan farmers immediately ceased planting poppies. The United Nations estimated that poppy cultivation plunged by 90% from 2000 to 2001.
The edict stirred tumult in global heroin markets and disrupted the Afghan economy. But even today, Afghans recall the moment with awe and say it demonstrates the comparative haplessness of the current Afghan government, the United States and their allies in the opium wars.
“When [the] Taliban ordered to stop poppy cultivation, Mullah Omar could enforce it with his blind eye. No one cultivated poppy after the order was passed,” Tooryalai Wesa, a former governor of Kandahar province, said in a Lessons Learned interview. “Now, billions of dollars came and were given to the Ministry of Counternarcotics. It actually didn’t decrease [anything]. The poppy even increased.”
The Taliban had hoped the 2000 opium ban would win favor in Washington and entice the United States to provide humanitarian aid. But those hopes collapsed when al-Qaida – which had been given sanctuary by the Taliban – launched the 9/11 attacks.
As soon as the U.S. military invaded and toppled the Taliban in 2001, Afghan farmers resumed sowing their poppy seeds. According to the interviews, U.S. officials were concerned about a rebound in opium production but focused on other priorities, such as hunting for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
President Bush asked the United Nations and NATO allies to tackle the problems of opium production and trafficking. Britain agreed to take charge but got off to a disastrous start, according to the interviews.
In the spring of 2002, British officials floated an irresistible offer. They agreed to pay Afghan poppy farmers $700 an acre – a fortune in the impoverished, war-ravaged country – to destroy their crops.
Word of the $30 million program ignited a poppy-growing frenzy. Farmers planted as many poppies as they could, offering part of their yield to the British while selling the rest on the open market. Others harvested the opium sap right before destroying their plants and got paid anyway.
In a Lessons Learned interview, Anthony Fitzherbert, a British agricultural expert, called the cash-for-poppies program “an appalling piece of complete raw naivete,” saying that the people in charge had “no knowledge of nuances and [I] don’t know they really cared.”
U.S. officials said the British wanted to be seen as doing something, even though they had little confidence the program would work. Michael Metrinko, a former U.S. diplomat who served in the embassy in Kabul at the time, said the results were predictable.
“Afghans like most other people are quite willing to accept large sums of money and promise anything knowing that you will go away,” Metrinko said in an oral-history interview. “The British would come and hand out sums of money and the Afghans would say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we’re going to burn it right now,’ and the Brits would leave. They would then get two sources of income from the same crop.”
As Afghan farmers plowed more soil to grow poppies and the British struggled to cope with the opium problem, the Bush administration debated whether and how to get involved.
Yet the bureaucratic dysfunction was just as bad in Washington as it was in London, according to the interviews and other documents. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, was supposed to take charge of U.S. policy. But the Pentagon largely called the shots on what happened in Afghanistan, and it was unsure about what to do.
In a confidential October 2004 memo, Rumsfeld reported to several senior Pentagon officials that the French defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, had recently told him she was worried the opium trade was getting out of control and could weaken Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s grip on power.
“She thinks it is important to act soon, to avoid having a situation where drug money elects the Afghan Parliament, and the Afghan Parliament then opposes Karzai and corrupts the government,” Rumsfeld wrote.
Rumsfeld had no ready answer. “I told her I’d get back to her,” he added.
One month later, Rumsfeld sent another confidential memo to Doug Feith, the Pentagon’s policy chief, to complain about the Bush administration’s aimless approach.
“With respect to the drug strategy for Afghanistan, it appears not to be synchronized – no one’s in charge,” Rumsfeld wrote. “Department of State has to develop a strategy. Other countries in the region want to get involved – Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, along with Afghanistan. Why don’t you see what you can do about that.”
The Rumsfeld memos were disclosed by the Pentagon in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed in 2017 by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute at George Washington University. They are among hundreds of pages of memos, known as “snowflakes,” that Rumsfeld dictated about the Afghan war between 2001 and 2005.
Around the same time, anxieties over opium were rising at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, other documents show.
In a September 2005 diplomatic cable, then-U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann warned the White House and the State Department that “narcotics could be the factor that causes corruption” to consume Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.
“Many of our contacts correctly fear that the burgeoning narcotics sector could spin Afghan corruption out of anyone’s control,” Neumann wrote in the cable. “They fear that the sheer mass of illegal money from growing, processing, and trafficking opium could strangle the legitimate Afghan state in its cradle.”
But Bush administration officials could not agree on a course of action.
“Some groups said, ‘Let’s go in and rip out the opium poppies, let’s spray the opium poppies, let’s treat this as a criminal act,’ ” Patrick Fine, who served as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission director for Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005, said in an oral-history interview.
But Fine said others replied “that these are just poor peasant farmers, ‘If we treat them like enemies then we are just making enemies. If we are trying to stabilize the country we don’t want to turn the populace against us. They’ve been growing poppies for a thousand years here and if we rip out their fields we are impoverishing them.’ “
Wankel, the former DEA agent, said the Pentagon and the British government were slow to recognize that narcotics were fueling the insurgency.
“The U.S. military didn’t want to deal with the drugs issue – better to be an ostrich – had to take them kicking and screaming,” he said in a Lessons Learned interview. “[It] created a whole new problem that the military didn’t know how to deal with.”
Prodded by Congress to do something, in 2004 the INL took a hard line.
The agency hired a small army of 1,200 security contractors to crack down against poppy farming, including mercenaries from South Africa, veterans of the Balkan wars and Gurkha soldiers from Nepal, according to Ronald McMullen, who served as director of the agency’s Afghanistan-Pakistan office from 2006 to 2007.
In an oral-history interview, McMullen said that when he took charge of the office he was baffled by some of the tactics the contractors and Afghan counternarcotics police were using.
“I was shocked to learn that the American-funded anti-poppy police unit was eradicating Afghan poppies by hand,” he said. “We’d send a truck of counternarcotics police out to a field of blossoming opium poppies, the police would hop out of the truck, pick up sticks and walk through the field whacking poppies with their sticks.”
There was immense political pressure from Washington and London to show that anti-opium programs were working. In a Lessons Learned interview, an unnamed former British government contractor said that U.S., British and U.N. officials exaggerated data to make it appear that they had destroyed far more poppy fields than they really had from 2005 to 2007.
“There was systematic over-reporting and intimidation but no one wanted to hear it,” the former British contractor told U.S. government interviewers. “We ended up with absurd numbers.”
Neumann, who had been the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, told government interviewers that there was “desperate pressure for short-term results.”
In a 2015 Lessons Learned interview, Neumann said the flawed eradication programs were “driven by Congress wanting to see something tangible,” even though it was clear there was no simple solution. He added that “Washington did not understand that a successful counternarcotics effort was going to be a function of a massive rural development effort.”
Many U.S. lawmakers and Bush administration officials wanted to adopt an aggressive approach that Washington had backed in Colombia to combat cocaine trafficking. A core part of that program, known as Plan Colombia, was the aerial spraying of herbicides to eradicate coca plants – despite concerns that the chemicals could cause cancer.
The Bush administration touted Plan Colombia as a success, but some U.S. officials said it was a mistake to think it could work in Afghanistan.
John Wood, a National Security Council staffer in the Bush White House, told government interviewers that Colombia’s then-president, Álvaro Uribe, was a reliable ally who supported aerial spraying: “Uribe was a credible leader and linked insurgency and drugs. The Colombian military was competent. There was U.S. commitment, as the final product [cocaine] was going to the United States.”
In contrast, the Afghan security forces were much weaker and Karzai, the Afghan president, had deep reservations about spraying.
According to the Lessons Learned interviews, some senior Bush administration officials leaned hard on Karzai to allow spraying. But other Americans were opposed.
U.S. military commanders, worried about the potential health risks to their troops, had flashbacks to the Vietnam War, when U.S. forces sprayed Agent Orange – a toxic defoliant – over tropical jungles. British officials also disliked the idea of aerial spraying and lobbied Karzai against it.
The dissension made Karzai even more suspicious about U.S. motives. He rejected the spraying plan and reacted coolly to other proposals to restrict poppy farming and prosecute suspected opium traffickers.
“Urging Karzai to mount an effective counternarcotics campaign was like asking an American president to halt all U.S. economic activity west of the Mississippi,” McMullen, the former INL director, said in his oral-history interview. “That was the magnitude of what we were asking the Afghans to do.”
The U.S. policy changed immediately after Barack Obama’s election in 2009. The State Department’s new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had written an op-ed in The Post a year earlier blasting the Bush administration’s poppy eradication efforts as “the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy.”
Upon taking office, Holbrooke brought eradication to a standstill. The U.S. government shifted its focus to programs that tried to persuade Afghan poppy farmers to switch to other crops or adopt other livelihoods altogether.
But those efforts mostly backfired. In Helmand province, the epicenter of the poppy belt, USAID and the U.S. military paid Afghans to dig or renovate miles of canals and ditches to irrigate fruit trees and other crops. But the canals worked just as well to irrigate poppies – which were much more profitable to grow.
Similarly, USAID invested millions of dollars to entice Helmand farmers to start wheat-growing operations. While wheat production increased, farmers relocated their poppy fields to other parts of the province. Between 2010 and 2014, poppy cultivation across the country nearly doubled, according to U.N. estimates.
Some U.S. officials suggested part of the problem was that Washington fundamentally misunderstood Afghanistan and mistakenly viewed opium as just another crop.
“Afghanistan is not an agricultural country; that’s an optical illusion,” Barnett Rubin, an academic authority on Afghanistan who served as a senior adviser to Holbrooke, said in a Lessons Learned interview. The “largest industry is war, then drugs, then services,” he added. “Agriculture is down in fourth or fifth place.”
U.S. military commanders were relieved by the Obama administration’s decision to abandon poppy eradication programs. They saw them as unnecessary irritants to Afghan villagers whose loyalty they were trying to win, according to William Wechsler, who served as the Pentagon’s top civilian in charge of drug issues from 2009 to 2012.
At the same time, military officials were growing concerned that the opium trade was providing a major revenue stream to the Taliban, which imposed taxes on farmers and traffickers. U.S. commanders wanted badly to deprive the Taliban of drug money but were not sure how to do it, Wechsler told government interviewers.
“The military attitude – ‘so what do we do?’ That was more uncertain,” he said. Commanders were open to integrating law enforcement, drug interdiction and even economic development programs into their counterinsurgency strategy but never received clear marching orders from the Obama administration, he said.
“I am not aware of any civilian effort that told the military what they should do in counternarcotics,” Wechsler added. “The military would have been happy with a civilian counternarcotics strategy.”
But Todd Greentree, a former State Department official who served as a political adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2012, said it proved impossible to develop a coherent strategy for all arms of the U.S. government.
“There was contradiction between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency, because so much of the rural population depended on income from opium production,” he said in an oral-history interview. “Counterinsurgency operations that relied on support of the population would be disrupted by counternarcotics operations that were intended to eradicate opium.”
“We were always debating and discussing it,” he added. “But at the level of policy, it was a contradiction that was left unmanaged.”