According to most estimates, Afghanistan’s opium production provides about 90% of the world’s heroin. It fuels the insurgency, enhances government corruption, and tends to further instability in remote provinces. The political economy of drugs is therefore of great importance to the future of Afghanistan.
Until recently, the war on drugs was yet not a priority for the coalition forces present in Afghanistan. For a long time, it has profited strongmen and government officials who were deemed as important to the United States and its allies. In the context of a counterinsurgency strategy, where government legitimacy matters, the corruption produced by the drugs economy is increasingly seen as a liability. The problem when fighting drugs is that everything is intertwined. Corruption goes all the way up to the ministries, and all the way down to traffickers and villagers. Border guards and insurgents sometimes work together; villagers and traffickers pay taxes to the Taliban. That way, everybody has a stake. And no one is willing to give it up. Confronted with intimidation and coercion, farmers will not stop growing poppy unless they are provided with security and an alternative source of income.
Opium is also seen as a problem because it contributes to financing the insurgency (although it is hard to really know to what extent). So far, coalition forces have relied on poppy eradication. It has failed. Grounding eradication is ineffective; aerial eradication is counterproductive. It causes civilian casualties and creates tensions with local farmers, who, deprived of their source of income, have more incentives to join the insurgency. Providing farmers with alternative crops to grow could theoretically be the solution. On the long term, yes of course. But how this can be done in insecure areas controlled by the Taliban is hard to picture. Especially considering the high price of opium compared to other crops. Also, opium gives farmers access to creditors (who, not surprisingly, use this opportunity to trap those farmers in debt and buy their harvest at a lower price). Licensing Afghanistan’s opium for pharmaceutical purposes is often mentioned as THE solution. Again, it is hard to see how this would solve the problem.
On a more theoretical level, we spent some time in class discussing the relationship between drugs and political (dis)order. The drugs economy is often depicted as fuelling instability. In “Corrupting or Consolidating the Peace? The Drugs Economy and Post-conflict Peacebuilding in Afghanistan,” (International Peacekeeping Vol.15, n°3) Goodhand shows that it is not always the case. He points out that as far as growing poppy is concerned, “illegality does not mean that such activities are regarded as illegitimate” (Goodhand, 2008: 417). As we will see next week, it is also true for some aspects of patronage and corruption. Goodhand argues that in the North, because the rulers were also involved, the drug trade actually helped cementing center/periphery political relationships. On the contrary, in the South, a private extraction regime has fuelled the insurgency and furthered insecurity. The Afghan example shows once again that state formation processes are very complex and not as smooth as Western liberals would like them to be. Food for thoughts…