Opium and the lucrative network of terror groups and drug traffickers who profit off the heroin trade pose one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan and the nearly $100 billion the U.S. has poured into the country since 2002, the top watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction warned Wednesday.

"All of the fragile gains we have made over the last twelve years on women's issues, health, education, rule of law, and governance are now, more than ever, in jeopardy of being wiped out by the narcotics trade, which not only supports the insurgency, but also feeds organized crime and corruption," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, according to prepared testimony.

In the opinion of almost everyone I spoke with, the situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond.

Cultivation of poppies, the origin of opium and heroin, is actually most prevalent in areas where the U.S. has invested most. Helmand Province, for instance, was a key focus of the counterinsurgency effort, and now contains almost half the poppy fields in the country. And in Nangarhar, a "model province" declared poppy-free in 2008, cultivation has increased dramatically.

In fact, more land is dedicated to poppy growing today than any other time in Afghanistan's modern history, Sopko said. Poppy fields take up 800 square miles, or 12 times the size of the District of Columbia.

The drug trade strengthens insurgent groups vying for control as the U.S. troop drawdown and a weak Afghan government leave a power vacuum. Not only does the Taliban get more than one-third of its income from opium, but drug trafficking fuels the relationship between unstable communities, insurgents and corrupt officials — what Sopko called the “narcotics-insurgency-corruption nexus."

800 square miles

The area being used to grow poppies for opium in Afghanistan is equal to:
• The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
• Four-fifths the size of Luxembourg (998 square miles; 800 square miles is 81% of it)
• The entire size of Lawrence County, S.D.
• 12 times the size of the District of Columbia
• Nearly twice the size of New York City (468 square miles)

"The narcotics trade is poisoning the Afghan financial sector and fueling a growing illicit economy. This, in turn, is undermining the Afghan state's legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups," he said.

In addition to funding insurgents, the drug trade also encourages the Afghan National Security Forces to turn a blind eye to poppy growing as a way of currying favor with communities — and to profit off the industry.

The U.S. has poured more than $7 billion into counternarcotics efforts, and $3 billion more into agriculture and stabilization programs designed to get farmers growing other crops. But while Afghanistan's drug problem gets worse, U.S. efforts to stop it are falling short.

"On my last trip to Afghanistan, no one at the embassy could convincingly explain to me how the U.S. government counternarcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after the 2014 transition," Sopko said.

U.S. agencies have helped train Afghan counternarcotics teams and support their efforts, but those programs are ineffective, according to SIGAR's audits.

The Defense Department has spent almost $1 billion on the Afghan Special Mission Wing, which provides air support for anti-drug and counterterror missions. DOD plans to purchase 48 new aircraft for the SMW and support their operation for $109 million each year despite a SIGAR audit that found the SMW can't operate and maintain its existing fleet on its own.

"In the opinion of almost everyone I spoke with, the situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond," he said.

Most experts describe the country's two possible futures as a successful modern state or an insurgent state, he said. But if the drug trade isn't stopped, Sopko warned, a "narco-criminal state" is a distinct possibility for post-2014 Afghanistan.