Rep. Turner: Obama’s Afghan drawdown could spawn revival of opium industry

President Obama’s plan to remove 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by next September could revitalize that nation’s opium industry, which has been a cash cow for the Taliban, says Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).

American and NATO commanders have for nearly a decade tried various tactics in the war on Afghanistan’s narcotics industry -- and fought mainly a losing battle.

Data compiled by both the Congressional Research Service and the Gen. David Petraeus-led NATO command in Afghanistan shows opium production rose from about 3,400 metric tons in 2002 to 4,200 two years later.

Production then shot up to 8,200 metric tons in 2007. Production dropped steadily to 6,900 metric tons in 2009, according to the CRS and NATO data.

After Turner referenced those figures during a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Petraeus sent Turner an updated chart, which was obtained by The Hill. It shows Afghan opium production fell to around 3,500 metric tons in 2010, a 48 percent drop from 2009.

That NATO data also shows the number of seizures by alliance forces rose 341 percent between the first quarters of 2010 and 2011.

And to the lawmaker, there’s no coincidence that that progress occurred as the Obama administration was inserting tens of thousands more troops into Afghanistan.

Thursday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing examining Obama’s withdrawal plan, Turner said, “With our reduction in troops, my concern is we’re going to go back to a period where we take our eye off the ball and again see a surge in narcotics.”

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the lawmaker that U.S. and NATO troops “will continue to press on this issue.”

But Mullen cautioned that for many Afghans there is no other option to put food on the table but raise and sell opium.

“The long-term goal is to produce a better way to provide for one’s family,” Mullen said. “I think that happens over the long-term based on the security environment and having profitable crops that are able
to do that. That doesn’t mean we’re going to dry it up overnight.”

Mullen said it is difficult to determine just how much of the Taliban’s funding comes from Afghanistan’s narcotics industry, but said it is a “substantial” amount.

“From an overall strategy standpoint, my view would be we’d have the conditions in the south,” the chairman said, “where they couldn’t sustain that kind of production over the long term.”