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…

About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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5 Responses to Poppy!

  1. Kredox says:

    I just want to point out a little history of the opium trade in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been the world’s primary producing country of illicit opium since 1991. It stimulated country’s economy for decades, for both Taliban regime and Karzai government. The lowest production of opium was in 2001 due to Taliban’s effort to prohibit the trade, even counterproductively to their economy. Today, because of American intervention and general instability in the region, opium production is very high (2006-6,100 tones and 2007-8,200 tones).
    I think that due to current situation in Afghanistan, opium production is necessary for the economy. People do not have alternate income and imposing strict rules on the farmers will only create more alienation and opposition from local population.
    First of all, we need to stabilize the country, try to rebuild its economy and only then slowly (very slowly) impose regulation on drugs. For Afghan people opium is not a drug its a source of income. I don’t think many of the common people actually use opium as much as they make money out of it for living. At the same time cutting production of opium will involve the major war against drug trafficking because of the scale of Afghanistan opium production. They sell this drug all over the world therefore by simply stopping the production will create tensions and bloody circumstances for Afghan population.

  2. Valkyrie says:

    Kredox is right about the need to stabilize the country and to have an alternative source of income that is actually economically viable.

    Also, just a note that this poster’s personal position is NOT pro-drugs. A lot of times, it is the users who are most enthusiastic about legalization/decriminalization, but aside from caffeine, I have never thought fondly of mind-altering substances (Sangria or Chardonnay are exceptions!).

    OK. So, arguing from a purely analytical standpoint, and having taking a course in political economy at Northwestern, in the past, I would say that the War on Drugs has been an absolute failure (within the United States), precisely because making drugs illegal creates a black market for them, thus benefiting drug dealers in terms of high profits.

    I will concede, of course, that it does create a need for police officers, as in the less violence-prone areas of the suburbs, there is some drug use, and so there are entire teams of police officers who work on drug enforcement (it’s often a job for the good guys where they’re not dealing with nightly homicides). Didn’t mean to make it sound like I missed that this situation creates a need for law enforcement jobs, even outside of the more problematic areas, such as the inner cities.

    That said, when something in demand is made illegal, it ups the price that others will pay to obtain it, thus also creating jobs (I use that term sarcastically in this instance) for drug dealers, drug runners and producers. In short, criminalization is part of the problem when looking at the income that illegal drugs generate for those involved with them. It also creates a cycle of poverty and crime for many users who are not wealthy (example: rich rock stars), because everyone knows that people engage in desperate acts to get money to obtain desired drugs; they can engage in everything from theft to prostitution (which is a public health hazard, obviously).

    On a more global scale, the situation is the same, as we can clearly see in Afghanistan, and so I agree that an alternative use of poppy crops (example: pharmaceutical use, which is legal, but regulated) would seem to be solution. In the readings, however, it was argued that demand for legal and regulated pharmaceuticals was just not high enough and profitable enough to make a dent in current black market profits. This is very problematic, indeed.

    What I would argue, instead, is that Afghan farmers need multiple legitimate crops to grow, and that combined, the price obtained for all of them should negate the need to engage in illicit production of opium. Therein lies the problem, of course; we’re right back to square one, which is that Afghanistan needs a legitimate government and an economy based on more than just cultivation of poppy as a source of income.

    It was pointed out in the blog entry that everything was “intertwined,” that corrupt government officials were also involved in the opium production business, and so the problem runs all the way to the top of the power hierarchy.

    How to Cure Chaos? That is the eternal question in Afghanistan.

    Side note: It would be very helpful if the addicts of the world got treatment. That might reduce demand (another impossibly difficult feat, knowing what’s known about the biology of drug addiction in the brain).

  3. I am curious about two parts of the whole poppy-growing enterprise:
    1 – How come the farmers need to sell one of the most lucrative commodities on the market, just to get by? Does that mean cost of living is very inflated in Afghanistan or that they barely get 10% of what they grow for themselves. If it is the latter, government could institute schemes for farm credit that would be hinged on growing something else but at the same time, let the farmers keep a larger percentage, thus giving them more money in their hands at the end of the day.
    2 – This is similar to what Valkyrie mentioned. I have not heard anywhere about the plight of Afghan drug addicts: people who resorted to drugs due to the terrible security and living conditions and are now addicted. Considering how powerless the whole conflict must make them feel, I am surprised with that kind of access to drugs, there isn’t an addiction epidemic there yet. Perhaps Islamic values have something to do with it?

    On a side note, here is a treasure trove on US-Pak relationship in the past 10 years:

    • Valkyrie says:

      Perhaps Islamic values have something to do with it?

      I think EE is probably right on that. Islam is a more conservative religion.

      I was reading some of the stats on family breakdown (TIME magazine currently has an issue out asking if marriage is obsolete, especially where children are concerned), but in Islamic societies, it is very difficult for followers to deviate from religious and cultural norms without being ostracized (it’s not a libertarian, live-and-let-live type faith). That social pressure might, indeed, have a lot to do with it, which makes it seem all the more paradoxical that Afghanistan is kind of like Drug Central for the rest of the world.

      A strange contradiction, indeed.

      By the way, since I missed the War on Drugs discussion, if anyone wants to post their opinions from the discussions some of us may have missed that one week, do post them here. It sounded like the discussion was rather interesting. Would love to know what others thought about the readings.

  4. Afghanopoly says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that Islamic values have anything to do with it. Afghanistan faces a huge addiction problem. And so does Iran.

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