Record Levels of Afghan Opium Production
Part of the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been centered on eradicating opium production and distribution in the war torn nation. Billions of dollars have been invested by the U.S. to achieve this end.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has objectively failed on all counts to realize this goal. Just this past year, Afghan opium was produced at record levels despite a hefty U.S. investment of $7 billion dollars.

Currently, the opium trade composes 15 percent of the Afghan economy. Its heroin production, derived from opium, accounts for over 75 percent of the entire world’s supply.

The prospects of significantly reducing poppy cultivation in Afghanistan seem slim at best due to its embedded nature within the culture as well as the extreme poverty most Afghans live in. The lucrative prices opium sells for can provide a decent living for Afghan families struggling to get by.

For example, just one kilogram of opium can sell for up to $200. This is significantly more money compared to the paltry 41 cents per kilogram one gets for selling wheat.

NPR profiled one farmer who makes $9,000 per year by producing 150 lbs of opium. No other opportunity in Afghanistan provides a comparable income.

Previous measures implemented by the Afghan government have been aimed at providing disincentives for farmers who desire to enter the drug trade. But, resources have become scarce in recent years, forcing the programs to be shuttered.

In one such program, the Afghan government subsidized alternative crops such as cotton. The subsidies inflated the price, making the move away from poppies more palatable for Afghan farmers.

The international community also attempted to provide disincentives by shipping seeds and fertilizer to farmers, but the program in no longer being implemented. Absent these programs, farmers simply return to the lucrative poppy trade.

One of the most disturbing consequences from the ubiquity of opium in the country is the presence of addicts in staggering numbers. Out of the total population of 35 million people, one million are currently addicted.

The treatment capacity to provide for these addicts is extremely limited. The government only has the ability to treat 20,000 people at any one time. Availability for treatment is limited depending on one’s location in the country.

Also, the ease at which one can obtain drugs in Afghanistan only adds to the problem. For instance, in Kabul, the price for heroin only amounts to $6 and to many is as easy to obtain as food.

The major security implications for the sale of these drugs lie with who directly benefits from the profits, namely the Taliban forces. The UK Daily Mail reports that in 2011 the Taliban is estimated to have earned up to $700 million dollars from the sale of opium and heroin.

The strategic importance of eliminating the opium trade in Afghanistan was typified by a comment made by former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, David Holbrooke. Holbrooke stated, “Breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential, or all else will fail.”

With the inevitable troop draw down coupled with the uncertain status of a residual counterterrorism force to stay behind post-2014 — the possibility of making major headways toward eradicating the Afghan drug trade is nonexistent.

Zachary Lindberg

Sources: NBC News, Daily Mail, NPR, Christian Science Monitor
Photo: GAIFF

Foreign agricultural experts and the United Nations are scrambling to control the growth of a lesser-known tool of the Taliban regime – the poppy.

Production of heroin’s precursor has increased forty-fold since the War on Terror began in 2001. Afghanistan produces an estimated 90% of the world’s opium, largely due to the economic stability it affords poor farmers who cannot cover production costs by cultivating other plants.

The drug trade perpetuates political instability and encourages violence, but also supports the livelihoods of local farmers, posing a curious catch-22 for U.S. and NATO officials for whom the approval and support of the local population is of paramount importance. Since 2002, the United States has spent over $7 billion to control the opium trade, in addition to providing troops to train local counternarcotics teams and sway local officials to eliminate poppy farming from their regions. At present, some 51,000 troops remain in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, British and American agricultural advisers who encourage alternative crops do not have economics on their side. Opium production yields ten times the profit of cotton, for example, and represents approximately 15% of Afghanistan’s Gross National Product. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s drug-related exports accrue U.S. $2.5 billion annually.  Since 2001, the opium trade has netted over $1 trillion dollars for organized crime (namely, the insurgency).

This “dirty money” is as addictive as the drug itself; the United States’ campaign against opium has failed to curb the market’s growth.  A spokesperson for the Afghanistan Counternarcotic Ministry, Qayum Samir, estimates that 154,000 hectares of poppies will be planted this spring, an increase of 18% from the previous season.  A sluggish economy has increased the income gap in Afghanistan, where the ruling elite has little interest in electing an anti-opium president in the coming election. As money becomes scarcer, cooperation with drug lords becomes a necessity for poor famers, who are further marginalized by the instability that results from increased power of insurgent leaders. What results is a self-perpetuating cycle of poppy production and corruption.

Critics of the West’s counternarcotics policies claim that previous anti-drug efforts have been “too little, too late.” Rampant poverty is the root of the problem; were poppy farmers economically self-sufficient, they could avoid manipulation by insurgents and produce other crops. Though the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” mentality cannot straighten out prior strategic missteps, going forward the U.S. could appropriate funding to fighting poverty in Afghanistan rather than controlling the opium issue from the back end.

The $7 billion doled out to the region by the Untied States in the last decade is nearly triple the entire operating budget of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The FAO emphasizes the necessity of sustainable food systems, public health and education as conduits for societal, economical and developmental change. Similarly, according to the Global Fund, this $7 billion would cover nearly half of the entire additional commitment needed to the reach the Millennium Development Goal to halve global poverty by 2015. Reaching this milestone would not only improve the livelihood of Afghanistan’s rural poor, but also provide them with the tools to resist coercion.

Recognizing the opium trade as a byproduct of deeper sociopolitical issues, namely widespread poverty, would allow the United States and other Western nations to develop targeted campaigns to nip Afghanistan’s poppy problem in the bud.

Casey Ernstes

Sources: BBC, Global Research, FAO, Seattle Times, UN, World Bank, UNICEF USA

Tijikastan_heroinEvery year, $33 billion worth of heroin is funneled into Russia and Western Europe from a few provinces in southern Afghanistan. This robust heroin trade in the countries of the former Soviet Union thrives in part because of the terrible economic conditions precipitated by the fall of the USSR. In this volatile economic environment, organized crime groups have flourished, facilitating a heroin trade that has seriously harmed nations in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2012 World Drug report, heroin is “the illicit drug most highly associated with a single source” with “90% of the world’s heroin coming from opium grown in just a few provinces in Afghanistan.”

Since 2006, Afghanistan has produced more than 12,000 tons of opium, which the UNODC amounts to two years’ worth of the global demand. It is very clear that drug lords in Afghanistan are making a lot of money through the production and export of heroin. There is also evidence suggesting that terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are reaping benefits of the trade as well.

Unfortunately, this illicit drug trade has affected the people of nations outside of Afghanistan’s borders. According to the UNODC, Tajikistan has suffered immensely because of its position on the Northern trade route that transports heroin to Russia. Heroin dependency has devastated the Tajik population and has resulted in the spread of lethal diseases such as HIV and hepatitis-C. In addition, the position of Tajikistan along a primary drug trade route has promoted the rise of organized crime groups and warlords in the fledgling nation.

In Tajikistan, the direct influence of Afghan heroin can be witnessed in its purest form. In a nation economically ruined by the demise of the Soviet Union, a single substance has threatened not only the social fabric of the society but also the entire governmental structure of the newly independent nation. Tajikistan illustrates the way in which the illicit trade of heroin has devastated Central Asia. The people of Tajikistan have all been affected by the adverse consequences of heroin addiction and the diseases that so often accompany intravenous drug abuse. In addition to addiction and disease, the very framework of the state in Tajikistan is threatened by warlords who have grown fat on the profits of the drug. As criminals get richer, however, Tajikistan’s people, especially its poor, are left even more vulnerable to violence and political instability.

– Josh Forgét

Source: UNODC World Drug Report 2012,Johan Engvall
Photo: RFERL