War and Drugs in Afghanistan

by Vanda Felbab-Brown

Since 2001, Afghanistan has become synonymous with the term “narcostate” and the associated spread of crime and illegality. Though the Afghan drug economy peaked in 2007 and 2008, cultivation this year still amounted to 325,000 acres, and the potential production of opium reached 6,400 tons (.pdf). Narcotics production and counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan are of critical importance not only for drug control there and worldwide, but also for the security, reconstruction and rule of law efforts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many of the counternarcotics policies adopted during most of the past decade not only failed to reduce the size and scope of the illicit economy in Afghanistan, but also had serious counterproductive effects on the other objectives of peace, state-building and economic reconstruction.

In a courageous break with 30 years of counternarcotics policies that focused on ineffective, forced eradication of illicit crops as a way to reduce supply of drugs and bankrupt belligerents, the Obama administration wisely decided in 2009 to scale back eradication in Afghanistan and prioritize interdiction and rural development. But if security is not increased and stability not anchored in the country, both of which continue to be major question marks as of late-2011, poppies will continue to bloom in Afghanistan.

Opium and Heroin Production Emerges in Afghanistan

The cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan is nothing new. Although the drug economy diversified and became more vertically integrated after the fall of the Taliban, it had already emerged and deeply penetrated the politics and economics of Afghanistan several decades before. In the 1950s, major structural changes in the international opium and heroin market created the opportunity for the initial expansion of drug production and trade in Afghanistan. One of the market conditions allowing for the shift of opium production to Afghanistan was the change in Iran’s policies toward drugs. Although opium had been cultivated in Iran since the 11th century, its usage became a major problem in the 1950s, when the country had an estimated 1 million addicts. This rapid increase in the addiction rate led the Shah’s government to ban poppy cultivation in 1955. As Iranian supplies of opium disappeared, entrepreneurial Afghans stepped in, exploiting traditional smuggling routes.

Yet it was the tremendous increase in external demand for opiates in the 1970s that enabled Afghanistan to emerge as one of the big-league producers and traffickers of illicit narcotics. Until the 1980s, the two major international markets for opiates, North America and Western Europe, were supplied by the Golden Triangle countries of Southeast Asia as well as by Mexico. The fall of the governments in Vietnam and Laos disrupted the supply from the Golden Triangle to the United States. Moreover, a prolonged drought in the late 1970s and early 1980s further reduced the ability of the Golden Triangle to provide enough heroin to satisfy world demand. The disruption of these traditional sources of supply thus created an opportunity for the Golden Crescent countries, mainly Pakistan and Afghanistan, to enter the market.

The nature of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan significantly contributed to the explosion of poppy cultivation there. The Soviet forces adopted a policy of starving the mujahedeen by applying a scorched-earth policy and destroying food crops. By 1987, Afghanistan’s agricultural output was only a third of what it had been in 1978. The Soviet policy of systematic agricultural destruction left large segments of the population with no alternatives to the cultivation of poppy and the production of opium as means of subsistence. Suddenly, not only was there an opportunity to penetrate the international heroin and opium market, but such an agricultural switch became a matter of survival for large segments of the population.

The Taliban and Poppy

In early 1995, when the Taliban began spreading in southern Afghanistan and first encountered large-scale poppy cultivation in Helmand province, its first impulse was to prohibit the crop. After all, opium was “haram” (forbidden) under Muslim law, and the Taliban sought to purify the country by instilling their very backward and doctrinaire interpretation of Islam. But the Taliban prohibition alienated the population in Helmand, where the locals were fundamentally dependent on the illicit economy for basic economic survival. Not only was the opium trade fairly lucrative, but more importantly, and unlike legal agricultural production, it did not require the infrastructure, irrigation and marketing access that had been destroyed by the Soviet counterinsurgency campaign in the 1980s as well as by the subsequent civil war of the 1990s and the Taliban’s neglect of the economy. Moreover, by the mid-1990s, access to land and microcredit had become tied to opium production. Without microcredit, poor farmers were not able to obtain essentials such as food, clothes and seed (.doc).

By 1996, therefore, the Taliban adopted a laissez-faire approach to poppy cultivation that progressively evolved into taxing the farmers as well as providing security for and taxing the traffickers. The new edicts of the Taliban forbade the cultivation and trading of cannabis, used for hashish, as well as the consumption of opiates and the manufacture of heroin. But the production and trading of opium were not forbidden. In practice, however, heroin laboratories were not busted and heroin trafficking was not interdicted. The 10 percent “zakat” (tax) on opium, formerly paid to the village mullahs, was now directed to the Taliban’s treasury, earning an estimated $9 million in 1996-1997, from the south’s regular output of 1,500 tons of opium. A 10 percent tax was also levied on the traffickers. As the 1990s progressed, these taxes were increased to 20 percent, bringing in between $45 million to $200 million a year. By 1999, the Taliban also taxed heroin laboratories.

Hoping to court international opinion and obtain recognition for its government in Kabul, the Taliban changed its policy in 2000 and issued a ban on opium cultivation, resulting in the largest reduction of opium poppy cultivation in a country in any single year. Cultivation fell from an estimated 203,000 acres in 2000 to less than 20,000 in 2001. Globally, this reduction contributed to a 75 percent fall in the global supply of heroin for that year (.doc). However, the absence of viable alternative means of subsistence and income drove the majority of landowners and sharecroppers heavily into debt. Unable to repay their debts, farmers were driven to borrow even further or abscond into Pakistan. By the spring of 2001, fed up with the Taliban regime and struggling to feed their families, many farmers began violating the ban. The international intervention in the fall of 2001 removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, but did little to address the structural conditions that drove the poppy economy there.

The Evolution of Counternarcotics Policy in Afghanistan Since 2001

The initial objective of the U.S. intervention in 2001 was to degrade al-Qaida’s capabilities and institute regime change in Afghanistan. Dealing with the illicit economy was not considered to be integral to the military objectives. Thus, until 2003, U.S. counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan was essentially laissez-faire. The U.S. military understood that it would not be able to obtain intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaida if it tried to eradicate poppy. Meanwhile, it relied on key warlords, who were often deeply involved in the drug economy since the 1980s, not simply to provide intelligence on the Taliban, but also to carry out direct military operations against them and al-Qaida.

Under a concept of “lead nations” for the international assistance mission in Afghanistan, whereby a specific country was responsible for reconstruction in a specific sector, Britain was tasked in 2002 with counternarcotics. Sensitive to the political problems of eliminating the rural population’s livelihood, Britain at first deployed a compensated eradication program. Thus during the 2002-2003 poppy-growing season, Britain promised to pay $350 to the farmers for each jerib (roughly 2.5 acres) of poppy they themselves eradicated(.pdf). But from the outset, the policy was plagued by numerous problems, including corruption and moral hazard, and it was aborted in less than a year.

By 2004, increased interdiction was undertaken instead, with the goal of targeting large traffickers and processing laboratories. Immediately, however, the effort was manipulated by local Afghan strongmen to eliminate drug competition and ethnic/tribal rivals. Instead of targeting the top echelons of the drug economy, many of whose members had considerable political clout, interdiction operations were largely conducted against small, vulnerable traders who could neither sufficiently bribe nor adequately intimidate the interdiction teams and their supervisors within the Afghan government. The result was a significant vertical integration of the drug industry in Afghanistan.

Another undesirable effect of interdiction was that it allowed the Taliban, now regrouped in Pakistan, to integrate itself back into the Afghan drug trade by providing needed protection to traffickers targeted by counternarcotics efforts.

Alarmed by the spread of opium poppy cultivation, some public officials in the United States in 2004 and 2005 also started calling for a stronger poppy eradication campaign,including aerial spraying (.pdf). Thus, between 2004 and 2009, manual eradication was carried out by central Afghan units trained by the U.S. contractor Dyncorp as well as by regional governors and their forces. Immediately, the efforts were met with violent strikes and social protests. Another wave of eradication that took place in 2005 successfully reduced poppy cultivation, with most of the gains due to cultivation suppression in Nangarhar province, where production was slashed by 90 percent (.pdf) through promises of alternative development and threats of imprisonment.

However, for many growers, alternative livelihoods never materialized. The Cash-for-Work programs reached only a small percentage of the population in Nangarhar, mainly those living close to cities, and the overall pauperization of the population in the province was devastating (.pdf). Unable to repay debts, many farmers were forced to sell their daughters, sometimes as young as three years old, as brides or else abscond to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the refugees have frequently ended up in the radical Deobandi madrasas and have begun refilling the ranks of the Taliban. Apart from incorporating the displaced farmers into its ranks, the Taliban also began to protect their opium fields, in addition to protecting trafficking. In fact, the antagonized poppy farmers came to constitute a strong and key base of support for the Taliban, denying intelligence to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and instead providing it to the Taliban. Just like interdiction, eradication has been plagued by massive corruption problems. Powerful elites have been able to bribe or coerce their way out of having their opium poppy fields destroyed or to direct eradication against their political opponents, leaving the poorest farmers -- that is, those most vulnerable to the Taliban’s mobilization -- to bear the brunt of eradication (.pdf).

Moreover, the reductions in poppy cultivation due to eradication have not been sustained. By 2007, cultivation in Nangarhar had returned to almost the same level as before the 2005 eradication campaign (.pdf). Since then, Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai has managed to keep cultivation negligible by a combination of buying off influential “maliks” (tribal elders), promising alternative livelihoods and threatening to eradicate poppy crops and imprison violators. Farmers close to the provincial capital, Jalalabad, have often managed to cope by switching to crops such as vegetables, increasing dairy production and working for wages in reconstruction programs. However, farmers away from the provincial center, such as in the districts of Achin, Khogyani and Shinwar, have suffered great economic deprivation. With their income slashed by as much as 80 percent and no alternative livelihoods programs made available to them, their political restlessness has steadily grown (.pdf). Those areas have seen great levels of instability; intensified tribal conflict over land, water and access to resource handouts from the international community; rebellions of young men against the local maliks supporting eradication; physical attacks on eradication teams; intense Taliban mobilization; and increased flows of militants into and through the province from Pakistan.

By 2009, eradication had amassed an unimpressive track record. To begin with, it had not bankrupted the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban had reconstituted itself in Pakistan between 2002 and 2004 without access to large profits from drugs, rebuilding its material base largely from donations from Pakistan and the Middle East, and from profits from the illegal traffic of legal goods between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rather, eradication strengthened the Taliban physically by driving economic refugees into its hands. Eradication also alienated the local population from the national government as well as from local tribal elites that agreed to eradication, thus creating a key opening for Taliban mobilization. Crucially, eradication critically undermined the motivation of the local population to provide intelligence on the Taliban to U.S. and coalition forces, while instead motivating the population to provide such intelligence to the Taliban. Moreover, the local eradicators themselves were in the best position to profit from counternarcotics policies, being able to eliminate competition -- drug business and political alike -- and alter market concentration and prices at least in the short term and within their region of operations.

Meanwhile, the verdict was no better for alternative livelihoods programs, which had been slow to reach the vast majority of the Afghan population and had largely failed to address the structural drivers of opium poppy cultivation. Although some areas, such as Helmand, had been showered with aid, much of it failed to reach ordinary farmers, while the lack of security and increasing insurgency in the south had halted many of the alternative livelihoods projects before they could have an impact. At the same time, economic development programs even in the more permissive environments, such as in northern Afghanistan, often simply did not materialize, even though bans on poppy had beensecured through promises of alternative livelihoods (.pdf).

Current Counternarcotics Policy and Its Implementation Challenges

Recognizing the counterproductive effects of eradication, the Obama administration broke with decades of U.S. counternarcotics policies and defunded centrally led eradication in Afghanistan (.pdf). Although the United States government continues to provide limited funding and technical assistance to Afghan governors who decide to proceed with eradication, the core components of the Obama administration’s counternarcotics policy have focused on the interdiction of Taliban-linked drug traffickers and the promotion of rural development. Scaling back eradication strongly enhanced the Obama administration’s new counterinsurgency emphasis on providing security to the rural population. However, success in reducing instability and the size of the drug economy depends on the operational implementation of the strategy and on whether security can actually be established. With the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan in 2014 on the horizon and the increasing focus on transition to Afghan ownership, both prerequisites give reason for concern.

The interdiction efforts have been geared exclusively toward Taliban-linked traffickers. ISAF has concentrated on reducing the flows of weapons, money, drugs, precursor agents and improvised explosive device (IED) components to the Taliban, with the goal of degrading the Taliban’s finances and physical resources. But so far, the cumulative effects of the narcotics interdiction effort to suppress financial flows do not appear to be affecting the Taliban at the strategic level. The strongest effect of focusing interdiction on Taliban-linked traffickers appears to be at least temporarily to disrupt its logistical chains, since many of its logistical operatives transport both IED materials and drugs. But the interdiction policy also has the negative side-effect of signaling to Afghan powerbrokers that the best way to conduct the drug business in Afghanistan is to be a member of the Karzai government, further undermining the domestic legitimacy of the Afghan government and rule of law in the country.

Meanwhile, economic development efforts by the international community in Afghanistan, including alternative livelihood efforts, continue to be plagued by a vacillation between two competing understandings of the purpose of such projects. One holds that their purpose is to buy off the population and wean it away from the insurgents, while another argues that they should be designed to produce long-term sustainable development. Both approaches have sought to keep Afghan males employed so that economic necessities do not drive them to join the Taliban, while also securing the allegiance of the population, which, ideally, will provide intelligence on the insurgents.

Although U.S. government officials emphasize that these stabilization programs have generated tens of thousands of jobs in Afghanistan’s south, many of the efforts have been unsustainable short-lived programs, such as canal cleaning and road building, or in the form of small grants, such as for seeds and fertilizers. Characteristically, they collapse as soon as the money runs out, often in the span of several weeks. Nor has adequate consideration been given to the development of assured markets, increasing the risk that produce cultivated under USAID-contracted programs does not find buyers and subsequently rots. There is also little evidence that these programs have secured the allegiance of the population to either the Afghan government or to ISAF forces, or that they have resulted in increased intelligence on the Taliban.


The Obama administration got the strategic design of the counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan right: defunding eradication to instead focus on rural development and interdiction. Such a counternarcotics strategy is finally in sync with the counterinsurgency effort. But persisting insecurity and often-problematic operational implementation of the overarching counternarcotics strategy on the ground have limited its effectiveness in reducing Afghanistan’s drug economy. Much of the strategy, such as rural development, ultimately depends on substantial improvements in security -- and even should that be accomplished, substantial reduction in the size and significance of the drug economy in Afghanistan will take several decades.

Vanda Felbab-Brown is a fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., and the author of  “Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs.” 

World Politics Review