background_fid (1).jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

How The U.S. Has Been Working To Disrupt The Opium Trade In Afghanistan


The U.S. government estimates the street value of Afghanistan's opium trade at about $60 billion. 2017 looks like it will be a record for opium production in the country. That's despite years of U.S. efforts to combat the drugs in Afghanistan in one of three ways. At times, it's tried to eradicate poppy fields. At other times, it's encouraged Afghan farmers to grow alternate crops. And it's also tried to help Afghanistan enforce its laws. Kevin Hartmann is a former DEA special agent who's now president of the DEA Educational Foundation.

KEVIN HARTMANN: In the past, what they've tried to get to - and it took some time - was a whole-of-government approach. And that is to do all the above.

MCEVERS: And do you think that's the most effective?

HARTMANN: Well, at this point, because of the situation and the drawdown, we're not able to do all of the above. So what I think...

MCEVERS: You mean the drawdown of U.S. forces.

HARTMANN: Exactly. The drawdown of U.S. forces has limited capabilities. So have to do the best with the resources that we have.

MCEVERS: So with fewer U.S. forces on the ground, which of those three elements becomes more difficult?

HARTMANN: All three (laughter). But the ones they're focusing on now is obviously the taking out of heroin-processing laboratories that are run by the Taliban.

MCEVERS: Right. So it's not so much about the crops as it is the places where those crops are being processed into something else.

HARTMANN: Not so much about the crops. Manual eradication is very labor-intensive and involves a good amount of security. So it actually does make a little more sense to hit the processing labs at a point that's further along the heroin-processing procedure. And at that point, you really deny the most revenue from the Taliban, which is the ultimate goal.

MCEVERS: And then this idea of alternate crops - I mean, you said that's something that's been tried over the years. General Nicholson says that the military is trying that now. What has been your experience with that, and do you think it'll work going forward?

HARTMANN: There's been some successes, and there's been some failures. Crops like poppy are resilient. And they also, when you do harvest the opium gum, can be stored for years, unlike other crops that will perish if they can't get them to market.

MCEVERS: Right. So it's just more economical to grow poppies.

HARTMANN: It's more economical. Even if a farmer were to grow alternate crops, they're probably going to grow some opium and keep it hidden somewhere, so if their crops fail, they can go back and sell that opium to the Taliban. And it's kind of their money in the bank.

MCEVERS: Wow. Is there a way for the Afghan government to gain more control of the production of opium, perhaps, you know, to make something like medical morphine, which could, you know, be more of a legitimate export for the country?

HARTMANN: Medical morphine's been discussed. Unfortunately, with that, we'll have to have security. In other words, every single opium poppy bulb would have to be catalogued and made sure that that it wasn't used for other purposes.

MCEVERS: The way you're talking about it, it sounds like it's kind of a losing strategy here. Is it possible to get this under control with the resources that the U.S. has now?

HARTMANN: Well, let me just say that there's no one better versed on this issue than General Nicholson. And I think if he feels as though - that these Taliban heroin-processing labs will hurt their revenue, I think that's exactly what we should do. And we should support that.

MCEVERS: OK. But beyond that, I mean, you are talking about some pretty difficult circumstances.

HARTMANN: It's difficult terrain. It's difficult circumstances. But DEA has never left Afghanistan once we were asked to go back to Afghanistan since the '70s. We got back in there in the 2000s. And what we're focused on - I say were - my former agency now - was focused on is...


HARTMANN: ...The targeting of the top kingpins, so to speak, the highest-level Afghan heroin traffickers for prosecution.

MCEVERS: Talking about where the heroin ends up - 90 to 95 percent of heroin in Canada comes from Afghanistan. And the Defense Department says here in the U.S., it's just about 4 percent of the heroin. But that number is growing. I mean, is it just a matter of time before more Afghan heroin comes to the U.S.?

HARTMANN: We think it is. We think it's just a matter of time. Once the market saturated in Canada, which is the closest country that consumes Afghan heroin to us, it just makes sense that there's such a huge market here. And, unfortunately, our demand is so high that it makes sense that they will move into the U.S.

MCEVERS: As we mentioned in the introduction, you are now president of the DEA's Educational Foundation which is focused on drug prevention education. How could that help with reducing the opium trade in a place like Afghanistan?

HARTMANN: Simply put, if the demand for heroin goes down the revenue is denied to the Taliban and other groups. So our theory is to prevent addiction before it starts. It's the most cost-effective way to attack the problem. And it's the least resourced at this point. So we feel like that there should be additional resources, that the U.S. should lead the prevention effort, and others should follow.

MCEVERS: So instead of focusing on the end game - right? - which is having to spend a ton of money destroying heroin production facilities - right? - make it so that...

HARTMANN: It's both.

MCEVERS: Yeah, right.

HARTMANN: It's both. We want to be upstream in the end-user process. But, also, there has to be consequences to illegally processing heroin.

MCEVERS: Kevin Hartmann is a former Drug Enforcement Administration special agent and is now president of the DEA's Educational Foundation. Thank you so much.

HARTMANN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETER KULI AND ROGYR'S "DETACHED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.