Down the Opium Rathole

By Roger Simon

October 29, 2014 6 min read

If you spent 13 years pounding money down a rathole with little to show for it, you might wake up one morning and say, "Hey, I'm going to stop pounding money down this rathole."

Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not think this way.

The U.S. government wakes up every morning and says: "The rathole is looking a little empty today. Let's pound a few more billion dollars down there."

And when that rathole is Afghanistan, the billions are essentially without end.

Even though our combat troops are leaving Afghanistan, our money will continue to flow there, billion after billion.

The National Priorities Project says that "$753.3 billion has been allocated for the war in Afghanistan since 2001, including $89.1 billion in fiscal year 2014."

President Barack Obama hopes to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan to just 9,800 troops next year. But the money spigot will not be turned off.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. In Asia, only Bangladesh is poorer. According to the World Food Programme, half the population lives below the poverty line; Afghanistan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world; and more than half the children younger than 5 are chronically malnourished.

Yet at one thing Afghanistan succeeds superbly: Afghanistan illegally produces and exports opium, morphine and heroin in such quantities that, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is "practically the exclusive supplier of the world's deadliest drug (93 percent of the global opiates market). Leaving aside 19th century China, that had a population at that time 15 times larger than today's Afghanistan, no other country in the world has ever produced narcotics on such a deadly scale."

The United States has spent billions trying to stop this trade, but it has failed utterly. In fact, under U.S. occupation, drug production has increased.

Opiates come from opium poppies, which are planted in profusion in Afghanistan. More than eight years ago, we decided to spray the poppy fields with herbicides, but this was unpopular with the Afghan government, which didn't want its illegal drug profits to stop. And even some counterinsurgency experts feared that killing the opium poppies would drive angry poppy farmers into the arms of the Taliban.

Lots of people get confused between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, by the way. A military expert once explained it to me this way:

Counterinsurgency is when you try to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Counterterrorism is when you kill the people and then try to win their hearts and minds.

The United States has tried both policies in Afghanistan for years.

And while the Taliban have become adept at fighting counterterrorism, the Afghan government has become adept at exploiting counterinsurgency.

Take narcotics. How does a country such as Afghanistan, which has few and terrible roads, get 93 percent of the world's opiates out of the country?

One way is by air. And in January 2013, the U.S. government said it would no longer grant contracts to a private Afghanistan airline because the U.S. military's anti-corruption unit said the airline "was involved in bulk opium smuggling."

But the Afghan government howled, and the U.S. lifted its ban.

There are other examples, but there's only one conclusion. As Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict, said in a letter Oct. 7, "the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort."

But over 12 years, the U.S. government pounded $7.6 billion down the drug eradication rathole in Afghanistan.

In a report last week, John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said: "By every conceivable metric, we've failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan."

To our government, the solution was clear: Pound more money down the rathole.

As The Washington Post recently reported, "the State Department requested $137.5 million in funding for counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan for fiscal year 2014, a $31 million increase over fiscal year 2012."

Further, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently wrote a report saying we should give Afghanistan "between $5 billion and $8 billion annually for at least a decade" even though most U.S. troops will (supposedly) be long gone by then.

So we have spent $7.6 billion on a drug eradication program that increased drug production. And now we are planning to pour $50 billion to $80 billion into that same country over the next 10 years.

And you know what worries me? Pretty soon we are going to be talking about real money.

Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist. His new e-book, "Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America," can be found on, and iTunes. To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

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