Opium in Afghanistan

Opium remains a key threat to peace and stability for Afghans

As the late spring brings the full swing of Commencement celebrations to Harvard every year, it also brings the annual opium poppy harvest in Afghanistan. In mountainous fields across the country, thousands of men score and scrape the poppy bulbs to extract the dark sticky resin that will be processed into heroin. Most of the heroin is trafficked across Afghan borders and sold, to be injected into the veins of addicts in the region and farther afield to Europe and the United States.

However as the United States and her NATO allies ready themselves for the 2014 drawdown of forces and transition of security responsibilities to the Afghans, the Afghan narcotics industry cannot be forgotten. It not only causes untold misery for addicts and their families, but also emboldens the insurgency, fuels corruption, and undermines governance and development. Today it remains one of the key threats to peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Elements of the Western media portray the Afghan drug problem as bearded, barefoot men with a few fields of opium poppies. However, in reality opium is a fully-fledged industry with, a complex production chain, sophisticated markets for raw and finished product, a futures market, large scale employment, cross border transactions, and a network of key players from the Government to the narcotics-lords to the criminal gangs and the Taliban. Although the equipment and methods used may be primitive, this is no small village farming operation.

In 2011, Afghanistan produced a staggering 5,800 metric tons of opium grown on 131,000 hectares of land across half of the Provinces in the country. The United Nations recently released preliminary figures on the size of this year’s crop, and the news was not good. The size of the 2012 crop will undoubtedly increase. For the Afghan opium farmer everything points to a bumper season; a plant disease that stunted the crop in 2010 has disappeared and prices are again high.

The farmers, however, will only receive a fraction of what their crop will eventually be sold for. Last year the value of the crop to farmers was in excess of $1.4 billion; by the time it reaches the border the value is in the order of $5 billion. Leaving Afghanistan the risks for traffickers increase exponentially, but so do the profits. It is estimated that importers into the countries of use will pay in excess of $25 billion for the goods, which will in turn be sold to addicts for an estimated $60 billion plus.


In a very poor Afghanistan, it is opium money that assists the Taliban in their operations. The insurgents maintain a symbiotic relationship with the narco-lords. The narco-lords require protection and labor for their operation and the Taliban need money for theirs in order to pay fighters and buy weapons and ammunition. Fees paid for protecting heroin labs and convoys, as well as providing large-scale employment for off duty fighters to help with the harvest, are estimated to be between $100 and $500 million according to the Afghan Government.

The power and money flowing from the narcotics industry is also the lifeblood of corruption, undermining good governance that allows officials to profit from the facilitation of deals, free passage through border checkpoints, and appointment of a key official in strategically important posts.

The issue is complex and the solutions are even more complex. Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, it has been demonstrated time and time again that there are no silver bullets able to deliver a short-term solution. The bottom line is that where there is insecurity in Afghanistan there is usually opium cultivation. Moreover, development assistance has helped to break the opium cycle with farmers. Therefore, a comprehensive suite of programs needs to be implemented: alternative livelihoods for farmers, targeted crop eradication, interdiction, institution building, and public awareness. Most of these initiatives are underway, but progress is slow, if at all, and very costly in terms of funding and, at times, lives.

And how long will these changes take? If experience in former opium producing countries such as Thailand, India, and Turkey shows, it can take 20 or more years to drive and implement sustainable progress, progress which was achieved without an insurgency raging and with better established governance.

With fewer international troops on the ground and, potentially, expensive counter narcotics programs being dialed back, the threat of the Afghan drugs industry exploding beyond record levels and unraveling any gains made over the last decade is real. As 2014 approaches it is an issue that the West cannot afford to allow to fall off the radar. Progress is guaranteed to be slow and costly, but necessary in order to prevent Afghanistan from slipping into a state fully owned, run, and funded by narcotics.

Rodney D. Cocks is a MPA student at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Dubin Fellow at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. He served for nearly five years in Afghanistan with the United Nations and the British Government.


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