Afghanistan is the biggest producer of opium in the world. Opium trade and cultivation are among the main challenges facing a country already burdened by decades of war and slow economic development.
Opium has become an increasingly complex issue as it is intrinsically linked to the deteriorating political and social structures of Afghanistan. It fuels criminality and insecurity and sustains patronage systems and corruption. The drug also has a direct impact on the Afghan people as an estimated two million people in the country suffer from addiction.
The opium issue constitutes a challenge to President Ashraf Ghani in his attempts to rebuild the country and strengthen the foundations for a sustainable peace, economic development and constitutional democracy. During the recent opening of one of the biggest rehabilitation centers in Afghanistan, President Ghani stated that addiction is one of the five major problems facing Afghanistan, along with poverty, unemployment, displacement and immigration. He called for action to stop producers and smugglers who are involved in this trade.
The sheer scale of opium trade in Afghanistan makes it a major policy priority in the country but successful action against opium will need to answer two questions: What leads farmers to cultivate poppies and why are anti-narcotic campaigns failing?
THE SCALE OF OPIUM CULTIVATION IN AFGHANISTAN
It is estimated that Afghanistan produces 85 percent of the worldwide drug market. The total area used for opium poppy cultivation in the country was estimated at 183,000 hectares in 2015, a 19% decrease from the previous year. This was the first decrease since 2009 but nonetheless it is still at its fourth highest level since the beginning of estimations in 1994.
In 2015, 97% of total estimated opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan took place in the Southern, Eastern and Western regions of the country, which include the country’s most insecure provinces. The Southern region alone accounted for 66% of total estimated cultivation, while the Western region was responsible for 24% and the Eastern region for 7%.
Poppy cultivation and illicit trafficking of opiates encourages drug addiction and fuels insecurity and criminality. It has also made some rural communities economically dependent on the illicit market and prevents the implementation of sustainable social and economic development plans.
Today, it is estimated that there are around 3.6 million Afghan people who use opium. This constitutes 11% of the population of Afghanistan. 55% of those using opium are addicted. This has serious social and economic consequences including the spread of violence and unemployment.
Opium cultivation finances a patronage system, warlords and insurgents. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNDOC), more than half of poppy farmers in the East and West indicated that they paid monetary contributions from their poppy income, which accounted for at least 10% of the poppy earnings. The major recipients of these contributions were reported to be armed militias. It is estimated that 20–40% of the Taliban’s income comes from drugs. Some of the warlords benefiting from drugs are connected to the government, tribal elites, and the police.
OPIUM: A VALUABLE OPTION IN ECONOMIC CRISIS
The Afghan economy has been suffering from years of conflict and instability. Despite the relative economic progress since the fall of Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan remains extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages in housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs.
The vast majority of Afghan farmers are living below the poverty line. Many depend on opium revenue for survival. Indeed, according to a socioeconomic study produced by UNDOC, the reduction in opium cultivation in 2015 led to increasing vulnerability of farming households. Because of the strong link between opium cultivation and many Afghans’ economic wellbeing, it is also closely linked to the decaying political and social structures of Afghanistan.
Among the conditions that drive farmers to be involved in poppy cultivation is the lack of access to reliable and sustainable sales markets for alternative, high quality products. This issue could be addressed by building adequate infrastructure, such as roads, and collection and processing facilities for agricultural produce. Without this structure, development interventions that aim to help Afghan businesses and diversify their incomes will prove unsustainable and eventually fail.
Awareness of these economic pressures while designing responses to the drug trade is crucial as is a deep understanding of the complex nature of power relations in Afghan society. Today opium production and trade have been embedded in various aspects of Afghan politics, and play an important part in patronage relations and corruption.
Counter-narcotic operations have been viewed as an important component for peace-building, state-building, and economic reconstruction. However, policies adopted to eradicate opium have not only been a failure but also, more often than not, counterproductive. These policies did not take into account the rampant corruption and power relations around opium. They were viewed as unfair as they hit mainly poor farmers who are unable to bribe their way out. In many cases, these policies provoked unintended consequences including the empowerment of insurgents and warlords, which jeopardize the very goals they had set out to achieve.
Britain was the first to work on counter-narcotic operations in 2002. It was the first to adopt compensated eradication plans in which Britain pays for each unit of area of poppy destroyed. However, this policy did not work as monitors say that the millions of pounds dedicated to compensating the farmers were siphoned off by the warlords and local tribal chiefs who were themselves in charge of the policy. By 2004, increasing interdiction plans were adopted in order to hit the opium cultivation and trafficking. This was also manipulated by local Afghan strongmen, who used these laws to eliminate drug competition as well as ethnic, tribal and other political rivals. ‘Interdiction operations’ ended up only targeting vulnerable farmers who could neither bribe nor intimidate interdiction teams.
One of the most counterproductive outcomes is increasing the political leverage afforded to the Taliban, as these polices allow it to engage more heavily in the drug market by providing protection to those targeted by interdiction. In Nangarhar province, a reduction of cultivation was achieved through promises of alternative development and threats of imprisonment. Yet, alternative livelihoods never materialized for many, leading to devastating consequences for the local population.
Since 2009, US policy has shifted towards middle-ground tactics that aim to encourage cultivating alternative crops without intimidating farmers who are increasingly dependent on opium to survive. While this approach is less confrontational and more suitable for the government in Kabul, it also proves to be ineffective. Cultivation and addiction continue to be rampant in Afghanistan and the years 2013 and 2014 witnessed the highest levels of opium cultivation recorded.
The poppy problem is a symptom of frail governance and a rooted patronage system. Eradicating opium requires the strengthening of state institutions, systemic transparency and accountability, strengthening the rule of law, a growing economy and opportunities for employment. Households need viable income alternatives to illicit drugs. Strengthening rural economic strategies through agricultural support and infrastructure is key in this process.