The State Department this week announced more than $18 million in awards to provincial governments in Afghanistan in the fight against the illicit opium industry in that country. The award comes after news this past November that countrywide there was an "alarming" 18 percent increase in 2012 in poppy growing. On top of this, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, presented testimony to Congress on Wednesday regarding the hazards of direct assistance to the government of what Chairman Jason Chaffetz of the House Subcommittee on National Security called "one of the most corrupt nations in existence."
The State Department press release on the awards begins as follows:
U.S. and Afghanistan Announce $18.2 Million in Good Performers Initiative Awards for Provincial Counternarcotics Achievements
On February 12, 2013, Afghanistan’s Minister for Counter Narcotics Zarar Moqbel Osmani and U.S. Embassy’s Coordinating Director for Rule of Law and Law Enforcement Ambassador Stephen G. McFarland announced $18.2 million in Good Performers Initiative (GPI) awards. GPI awards are given to provinces that achieved or retained poppy-free status, reduced net poppy cultivation by more than 10 percent over the previous year, or made other exceptional counternarcotics efforts during the cultivation season. Twenty-one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces received GPI awards, including 17 provinces that earned $1 million awards for being poppy-free.
Total awards are down from $19.2 million in 2011 and $25.7 million in 2010. In 2008, over $39 million was awarded. Despite these and other efforts to make a dent in the opium trade, the area of land dedicated to poppy growing from 2006 (the year before the award program began) to 2012 fell by only six percent, from 164,000 hectares to 154,000. Perhaps even more discouraging is that increase from 2011 to 2012 came despite a 154 percent increase in verified poppy eradication by the Afghan government.
There is good reason for concern for the future of opium reduction efforts as the U.S. "winds down" (in the words of President Obama) its involvement in Afghanistan. The United Nations report from November 2012 unsurprisingly found that the vast majority of the opium is coming from those regions of the country that are the least secure.
This year saw 95 per cent of cultivation concentrated in the southern and western provinces where insecurity and organized crime are present: 72 per cent in Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Day Kundi and Zabul provinces in the south, and 23 per cent in Farah, Hirat, and Nimroz provinces to the west. This confirms the link between insecurity and opium cultivation observed since 2007, says the Survey.
Special Inspector General John Sopko, in the broader context of providing direct aid to the Afghan government, expressed his concern about the impending increase in the difficulty of providing accountability for the use of funds precisely because of the ongoing drawdown of U.S. forces:
Ultimately, however, the question will be how far and where U.S. personnel can safely travel. As the area in which we are unable to conduct oversight grows, many of our programs may be exposed to increased risk of fraud, waste, and abuse–especially if we increase direct assistance to the Afghan government without first imposing strict pre-conditions on the Afghan government to permit effective oversight of these funds by U.S. personnel.
Follow-up on the State Department's Good Performers Initiative Awards certainly will be similarly impacted. The press release notes the source of the funds and the method of administration:
The Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs funds GPI, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics works with each province to design and implement development projects using GPI funds.
As John Sopko also noted:
[A]ccording to the Afghan Coalition of Transparency and Accountability, the budget submitted by the Ministry of Finance this quarter contained no allocations for combating corruption despite the international community’s demand that the ministry make governmental integrity a priority.
If the Afghan government resists accountability and fighting corruption while the U.S. still has tens of thousands of troops on the ground in the country, there is little reason to believe that the situation will improve as the troop numbers dwindle. As the U.S. war winds down, it seems likely opium production will quickly wind back up.