Combating Opium in Afghanistan

Article excerpt

Key Points

Opium continues to pose one of the most serious threats to stability and good governance in Afghanistan. Proceeds and protection fees from trafficking are funneled to terrorist and insurgent groups, including the Taliban and al Qaeda. Insurgents have successfully leveraged poppy eradication efforts to increase popular resistance to both the government in Kabul and the presence of coalition forces. Despite major increases in counternarcotics programs and resources over the past year, production has shot up 59 percent.

Opium production and trafficking in Afghanistan are multifaceted problems with no simple solutions. To achieve real progress in the fight against illegal drug production, targeted efforts will be necessary on several fronts. The first of these is strengthening the rule of law, with emphasis on building the judiciary. Traffickers and other criminals at all levels of government must be prosecuted, sentenced, and incarcerated. Equally important is combating corruption. Afghanistan's leaders must set an example by dismissing corrupt high-level officials.

The international community must continue to provide training to the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army to professionalize and modernize these forces. The efficacy of existing programs should be reviewed and adjusted to reflect local requirements.

Countertrafficking and interdiction efforts should be increased throughout the region, particularly in countries neighboring Afghanistan. Eradication efforts must continue but in a more transparent manner to offset potential downsides.

Another essential element in the counternarcotics effort focuses on alternative livelihoods. A long-term approach to ensure a lasting shift away from narcotics production is essential. Farmers should be offered the carrot of training, materials, and marketing assistance for alternative crops, to accompany the stick of eradication, which on its own cannot be effective.

A Narco-economy

Opium poses an enormous threat to stability and good governance in Afghanistan. (1) President Hamid Karzai put it well: "If we don't destroy poppy, it will destroy us." (2) However, the counternarcotics challenge is not one that the government of Afghanistan has been prepared to meet thus far.

The opium trade in Afghanistan is highly profitable. Of the total sales on the international market, only about 10 percent remains within Afghanistan, with 1 percent going to the farmers who grow poppy and the remainder to foreign dealers and trafficking networks. Afghanistan produces 87 percent of the world's opium, comprising over half of its gross domestic product. It supplies three-quarters of the illicit opium used in Europe and almost all of that used in Russia. (3) Rates of usage and addiction are increasing in neighboring countries, notably Iran, as well as in Afghanistan itself.

Approximately 10 percent of the Afghan population grows poppies as a subsistence crop. It is by far the most lucrative option for farmers, even when factoring in necessary bribes to officials and usury by traffickers. Farmers who claim that they would prefer a licit income protest that they have no option but to grow poppy to support their families.

Although drug usage is forbidden under Islam, opium and heroin use is surprisingly common and increasing significantly within Afghanistan itself. This habit exacerbates the severe poverty that many experience, with some addicts selling all their possessions to feed their addiction. Many farmers cite personal use as a contributing factor to their continued poppy production. Medical facilities are grossly inadequate, and the majority of addicts receive no treatment for their problem.

In the absence of a functional banking system, opium and heroin create a narco-economy for farmers. Blocks of heroin serve as currency and may be used to purchase goods or serve as bribes; they also act as savings and investment accounts, as blocks are set aside until needed or until the price of heroin rises. …