Afghanistan Is Home to 400,000 Football Fields Worth of Opium

A boy works in 2013 at a poppy field in Jalalabad province, Afghanistan. Parwiz/Reuters

Afghanistan has the equivalent of 400,000 football fields of opium fields, despite significant efforts and money spent by the United States on curbing the development of the country's drug supply.

The country's enormous drug reserve is one of several issues holding back the U.S.'s Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, according to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Sopko made the comments last week at a speech at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

The U.S. isn't winning the war on drugs in Afghanistan or domestically, said Sopko.

"Many of you here today are no doubt painfully familiar with the human consequences of those dual failures," said Sopko.

The United Nations estimates Afghan opium cultivation increased by 7 percent last year and accounts for 90 percent of the world's supply. Both the U.N. and U.S. say Afghanistan has around 500,000 acres, or 780 square miles, of opium-growing land, which is the same as 400,000 football fields, including the end zones.

"This enormous acreage devoted to opium feeds a huge tragedy-fostering heroin addiction and crime around the world, including here—as well as a strategic threat. Taxes on opium are a major revenue source for Afghan insurgents and a powerful prod to corruption among Afghan officials," said Sopko.

The rising level of opium production continues despite an $8.4 billion investment in counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan. Last year, the U.S. managed to reduce poppy-cultivation by only 1 percent, said Sopko.

Since 2002, the U.S. has spent more than $110 billion on Afghanistan's reconstruction, which, adjusted for inflation, is worth more than the entire Marshall Plan after World War II. Billions more dollars have been pledged. While there are some positives, like more schools, lower rates of maternal and infant mortality, and the construction of roads, power stations and irrigation facilities, the list of problems is numerous, said Sopko.

"SIGAR professionals have documented details of U.S.-funded clinics that lack staff or medicines, schools that can collapse on their occupants because of shoddy construction, contracts that weren't performed properly or at all, aircraft that the Afghans can't fly or even maintain, troop rosters that can't be verified, cash assistance that can't be traced and many other outrages," he said.