The United States spent more than $7 billion in the past 14 years to fight the runaway poppy production that has made Afghan opium the world’s biggest brand.
Tens of billions more went to governance programs to stem corruption and train a credible police force.
Countless more dollars and thousands of lives were lost on the main thrust of the war: to put the Afghan government in charge of district centers and to instill rule of law.
But here in one of the only corners of Helmand province that is peaceful and in firm government control, the green stalks and swollen bulbs of opium were growing thick and high within eyeshot of official buildings during the past poppy season — signs of a local narco-state administered directly by government officials.
In the district of Garmsir, not only is poppy cultivation tolerated, the local government depends on it.
Officials have imposed a tax on farmers practically identical to the one the Taliban use in places they control. Some of the revenue is kicked up the chain, all the way to officials in Kabul, the capital, ensuring that the local authorities maintain support from higher-ups and keeping the opium growing. And Garmsir is just one example of official involvement in the drug trade.
Multiple visits to Afghan opium country over the past year, and extensive interviews with opium farmers, local elders, and Afghan and Western officials, laid bare the reality that even if the Western-backed government succeeds, the opium seems here to stay.
More than ever, Afghan government officials have become directly involved in the opium trade, expanding their competition with the Taliban beyond politics and into a struggle for control of the drug traffic and revenue.
At the local level, the fight itself can often look like a turf war between drug gangs, even as U.S. troops are being pulled back into the battle on the government’s behalf, particularly in Helmand, in southern Afghanistan.
“There are phases of government complicity, starting with accommodation of the farmers and then on to cooperation with them,” said David Mansfield, a researcher who conducted more than 15 years of fieldwork on Afghan opium. “The last is predation, where the government essentially takes over the business entirely.”
The huge boom in poppy production that began a dozen years ago was strongly identified with the new Taliban insurgency, as the means through which the militants bought their bullets, bombs and vehicles. In recent years, the insurgents have committed more and more working hours to every facet of the opium business.
The administration of President Ashraf Ghani has made fighting corruption a central promise. A spokesman for his government, asked about official involvement in opium trafficking, including in Garmsir, insisted that there was “zero tolerance” for such behavior.
But in Garmsir and other places in the Helmand opium belt, the system is firmly in place and remarkably consistent.
It relies on a network of village leaders and people employed by farmers to manage the water supply, men known as mirabs. These men collect money on behalf of officials, both in district-level government and in Kabul.
The connections run deeply into the national government, officials acknowledge privately. In some cases, the money is passed up to senators or assembly members with regional connections.
But the real money often stays local, with provincial and district officials. In the case of Garmsir, the district governor and police chief reaped the largest share of the rewards, according to local officials and farmers. The local police were also included in the profits.
Farmers said they paid about $40 for each acre of poppy under cultivation. In 2015, that meant nearly $3 million in payments from the district of Garmsir alone, according to officials familiar with the process.
Garmsir is just one of several districts in Helmand province, the heart of poppy country and the center of the 2010 U.S. troop surge, where the government has built local opium alliances with farmers.
The district of Marjah has a similar system to the one in Garmsir, in which locals pay a flat rate based on how much poppy they grow. In the district of Nad Ali, the same conditions exist to a lesser extent.
And the money to be made is only increasing. Already, experts say, satellite imagery from the past growing season across southern Helmand showed that opium cultivation was occurring openly within sight of military and police bases.
“Over the years, I have seen the central government, the local government and the foreigners all talk very seriously about poppy,” said Hakim Angar, a former two-time police chief of Helmand province. “In practice, they do nothing, and behind the scenes, the government makes secret deals to enrich themselves.”
By the most basic metric, the international effort to curb poppy production in Afghanistan has failed. More opium was cultivated in 2014, the last year of the NATO combat mission, than in any other year since the United Nations began keeping records in 2002.
One elder in Marjah, who collects money from villagers who cultivate poppy in his block of 44 acres, said poppy was simply too alluring to ignore.
In 2015, the elder said, the group’s final profit for all 44 acres was roughly $59,000. By comparison, the average income for an Afghan is $681 a year.