Opium, Stability, and Conflict in Afghanistan
Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep. . . . "If we leave her here she will die," said the Lion. “The smell of the flowers is killing us all.
— The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Opium, in addition to being the milky white liquid found inside the capsule of the opium poppy flowering plant papaver somniferum, is also the lubricant for the Afghan war economy, which fuels a four decade long conflict that has killed over two million people. Over the last three decades, poppy has become a pillar of the national economy, an adhesive binding the insurgent Taliban to their rural support base, a cancer hobbling the Afghan government’s legitimacy, and a representation of a failed NATO counterinsurgency campaign. As long as top-down policies seeking to curb poppy cultivation fail to interact with the highly localized political economy of the opium market, Afghanistan will continue to face significant threats to national and human security.
Despite its highly local origin as a subsistence crop, opium underpins a vast transnational market steeped in geopolitics and economic globalization. Opium is harvested across rural Afghanistan, namely in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where farmers use small curved blades to ‘mine’ the liquid, which then solidifies to be sold in bulk to local trafficking networks. During the second stage of production, traffickers transport raw opium to laboratories in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia for refinement. These supply networks grew out of the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) when the American and Pakistani intelligence agencies identified the cross-border opium trade as a channel to deliver funds and arms to the anti-Soviet mujahideen. At the peak of the conflict, Pakistan accounted for 70% of the world’s heroin supply. However, the resulting corruption, instability, and public health crisis prompted a government crackdown in the 1990s. Widespread law enforcement action generated the ‘balloon effect,’ a widely observed phenomenon whereby efforts to disrupt supply while keeping demand constant simply ends up exporting illicit markets to neighboring regions with lower production costs. Refinement shifted to Afghanistan and the Former Soviet Union (FSU), where the Russian mafia proved to be an eager partner. Today, chemical firms based in India, China, and the European Union (EU) export the necessary precursors to these labs, such as acetic anhydride, to convert raw opium into opium base, white heroin, and varying degrees of brown heroin. From there, the refined product moves overland towards the Pakistani coast and Turkey, or by air to Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, before reaching cities like London and New York.
Opium is a high value-added industry. According to the UNDP, farmers harvesting poppy receive less than 1% of the profits, with the remaining divided between 2.5% to local dealers, 5% spread across transshipment routes, and more than 90% to established criminal networks in the global north. While the selling price for heroin in a city like Washington, D.C. is fifty times greater than the value received by Afghan farmers, the revenue still represents a crucial lifeline for Afghanistan’s rural poor. In 2000, around one million Afghans generated US$100 million by cultivating poppies. In fact, poppy generates between one third to one half of total GDP, with benefits accruing to both the rural poor who harvest the crop and urban traders who are involved in transshipment. Poppy is much more than a simple economic industry. It stems from a weak formal market, poor post-conflict infrastructure and irrigation (the Soviets devastated agricultural infrastructure during their counterinsurgency operations to deny the mujahideen a sustainable rural support network), weak value-added chains, and an absence of micro-credit strategies. To this day, informal money lenders in rural areas, who provide much needed credit to the agricultural sector, demand guarantees in the form of opium stocks, and many rural households keep their savings in raw opium. Therefore, the Afghan poppy economy represents a complex socioeconomic phenomenon with far-ranging political impacts.
As an important symbol of socio economic issues in Afghanistan, the opium economy was bound to become involved in the country’s many conflicts. In his seminal work, On Guerilla Warfare (论游击战), Mao Tse-Tung defines revolutionary warfare as the combination of guerilla tactics and political ideology, with broad popular support underpinning both. While the Taliban have not always operated as a purely guerilla force, they have used classic insurgent tactics for most of their existence and therefore maintain a complex but deep relationship with their rural Pashtun support base. Despite their conservative zeal and hardline form of governance, the Taliban are major proponents of the opium economy. While the production and use of hashish is strictly forbidden and punished harshly, opium production is justified since heroin is allegedly only “consumed by kafirs [unbelievers] in the West and not by Muslims or Afghans,” according to Abdul Rashid, former head of the Taliban’s anti-drug force in Kandahar province. A cursory glance at heroin addiction rates in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan dispels this claim, and the true reason for the Taliban’s embrace of the poppy industry is likely a strategic necessity rather than an ideological choice.
When the Taliban first emerged in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in 1994, they opposed poppy cultivation on ideological grounds and banned the activity, resulting in a significant drop in local production. However, the resulting backlash threatened the nascent insurgent group as alienated Pashtun farmers increasingly turned to the powerful Akhundzada power-brokers for protection. The Taliban, fearing the loss of their support base, reversed course and began offering security to farmers in return for zakat, or religious taxes, of up to 20%. During the following years, they became deeply involved in the opium economy, raising revenues of between US$50-200 million annually. Their participation extended across the supply chain. Many fighters provided labor, working part-time as farmers before returning to fight after the spring harvest. Local commanders levied taxes in return for assurances of protection and transnational criminal groups paid a flat rate toll to ensure safe shipment.
The Taliban’s early embrace of the opium economy led to rapid market growth. Licit and illicit markets are fairly similar, and both require stability to operate, which the Taliban provided through harsh yet predictable rule. As they expanded across the country, the risk of predation by capricious warlords fell, encouraging farmers to invest in long term poppy cultivation and traffickers to develop new transshipment routes. This significantly affected the global opium market. From 1992 to 1997, poppy cultivation per hectare in Afghanistan grew by 25% annually. By 1997, Afghanistan surpassed Myanmar as the world’s largest opium producer, accounting for more than 50% of the global supply of heroin at a market value of US$3 billion. However, the Taliban abruptly reversed course in 2000. In a unsuccessful bid to receive international recognition from Western states, Mullah Omar declared a nationwide ban on poppy cultivation, resulting in a dramatic 75% drop in the global supply of heroin. While deeply unpopular, the long-term effects of this policy on Taliban control were interrupted by the 2001 U.S. invasion and removal of the Taliban government.
In post-American invasion Afghanistan, the Taliban, having returned to classic insurgent tactics, use the opium economy to financially and politically sustain their campaign of violence. Opium is their largest revenue stream, accounting for 40-60% of total funds. Beyond direct revenue, the political economy of opium provides them with crucial political capital. Using the same narratives adopted to delegitimize the abusive mujahideen warlords during the 1990s, the Taliban now contrasts itself against the highly corrupt and extractive ruling Afghan government and the overly harsh counternarcotics policies adopted by NATO forces. The Taliban’s shift between banning poppy, supporting it, re-banning it, and supporting it once more appears to be a response to varying degrees of their control over the country. When the Taliban wages insurgent warfare against dominant forces and lacks a comparative advantage in physical resources, it taps into local grievances to win popular support, which in the case of rural Afghanistan, is rooted in the poppy fields. However, once it maintains a monopoly on force and lacks immediate foes, it can afford to take controversial stances like poppy cultivation to achieve external benefits. Therefore, the Taliban’s stance on opium should be seen neither as a function of ideology nor profit seeking behavior, but rather a rational response to structural constraints. Simply put, if the Taliban needs resources and cracking down on the poppy economy is costly, the Taliban will embrace opium.
While the Taliban were quick to realize the importance of cooperating with the opium economy, NATO faced a far steeper learning curve. Early on, they correctly identified economic security as one of the two pillars needed to legitimize Hamid Karzai’s Western-backed transitional government. The opium economy threatened this due to its deleterious effects on good governance and its tradeoff with formal market activity. However, the resulting counternarcotics policies failed to address the importance of poppy cultivation to rural Afghans who as a result, would once again become a crucial support base for the Taliban.
During the initial years following the 2001 invasion, the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) initiated a massive poppy eradication campaign undertaken by DynCorp-trained Afghan security forces. Despite an initial 21% decrease in cultivation by hectare, total opium output only fell by 2%. Success was largely limited to Nangarhar province, while the rest of the country saw widespread unrest in response. In Kandahar province, local backlash put a halt to eradication efforts after only 217 hectares of poppy were destroyed. This pattern continued throughout the duration of the Bush presidency, generating alienation among rural Afghans. Under President Obama, counternarcotics policies were tailored to avoid this backlash by selectively focusing efforts on high-level, Taliban-linked trafficking instead of more widespread, subsistence poppy cultivation. Extremely high levels of corruption in local government doomed the policy from the start. Local power brokers who were assigned by ISAF to implement these strategies were often deeply involved in the opium market themselves and used their newfound power to target their competitors. As a result, the Afghan drug market vertically integrated as local elites consolidated their control over the market and increased their profits. Meanwhile, poor farmers, unable to pay bribes, watched their yearly production and household savings wiped out by eradication efforts.
NATO planners have yet to find a sustainable counternarcotics policy. While poppy cultivation grew significantly under the Taliban government, it boomed following the U.S. invasion. Rare successes occurred when popular local leaders credibly partnered with outside support to suppress poppy cultivation. In Nangarhar province, Governor Haji Din Muhammad and Police Chief Hazrat Ali credibly threatened farmers with jail time to ensure large-scale eradication of poppy fields, resulting in a 96% drop in cultivation. However, coercion is only one side of successful eradication, as provinces with the highest reductions in cultivation, including Nangarhar and Badakhshan, also received the highest amounts of alternative development funds. Even within the development side of counternarcotics, major problems remain. Alternative livelihoods programs, designed to replace poppy cultivation with legal crops, are extremely limited and give little relief to farmers who can see their incomes drop by up to 80%. These programs are designed to start out as quick-impact, cash-for-work projects before evolving into long-term development, but rarely pass the first stage due to insecurity and local corruption. Since many Taliban fighters are part-time laborers, the (overwhelmingly male) workers recruited are no less likely to lay down their arms permanently. High levels of local corruption worsen this trend, since spending on alternative development programs increased in response to upcoming elections, with few incentives to see the projects to completion. Under NATO administration, a lack of engagement with local political economy and power structures resulted in failed counternarcotics policies across rural Afghanistan with opium production growing steadily as Kabul’s legitimacy plummeted.
At the heart of these problems is government corruption, as Afghan officials are deeply involved in the opium economy. Corruption goes all the way to the top. Until his assassination in 2011, Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of former President Hamid Karzai, was widely seen by the U.S. government as the key facilitator of the Afghan heroin trade. Government bodies designed to fight drug trafficking, like the Ministry of the Interior, are fully compromised, with one police commander in eastern Afghanistan receiving US$400,000 monthly from heroin smuggling. This widespread graft explains how locally tailored eradication campaigns become tools for criminal expansion. While criminality and corruption can be sources of stability in some parts of the world, as power brokers use their profits to fund public goods, Afghan warlords and government officials are extremely abusive, even by international standards. Afghan elites use the resulting instability for personal benefit. Foreign actors operating in insecure provinces are more dependent on local power brokers while local instability provides a convenient cover for violent criminal expansion. Before his death, Ahmed Wali Karzai and then Governor of Nangarhar province, Gul Agha Sherzai, blamed the Taliban for the wave of assassinations targeting local officials and businessmen, creating a front for the bloody power struggle between them for control over provincial-level illicit networks. Massive government corruption, bolstered by drug trafficking, seriously undermines conflict stabilization efforts by weakening government legitimacy, hobbling the emergent legal system, and leeching off development funds. Worryingly, Afghan populations that report the highest levels of local and national government corruption also exhibit significantly higher support for the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban have recalibrated their messaging in post-invasion rural Afghanistan with a focus on government corruption, promising justice and proper governance in return for support.
Without successful alternative development programs, the security implications of eradication are extremely worrying. Alienated farmers halt intelligence sharing with NATO forces and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). With their economic base eroded, rural communities witness increased competition and conflict over land, water, and humanitarian assistance. When security forces destroy opium stores, representing household savings, deeply indebted farmers resort to selling their daughters as child brides for income or fleeing to Pakistan. Economic refugees fleeing deep rural poverty often end up in camps near the Pakistani border where young men are easily recruited to local madrassas, which serve as crucial recruitment hubs for the Taliban. Therefore, poorly planned eradication campaigns undermine both state and human security.
The international communities’ misfires on counternarcotics policy sacrificed an important opportunity to promote economic development, engage with rural Afghans, and bolster Kabul’s credibility. If the Taliban and the Afghan government reach an agreement under current peace talks, and NATO forces withdraw, the international community has a vested interested in promoting human security in Afghanistan. Even if elites agree to a political compromise, the recent history of the opium economy shows that successful transitions away from poppy require stability at the local level and a broader understanding of local corruption. Colombia’s peace process provides some lessons for how peace agreements can positively transform illicit economies. The international community must walk a fine line between substantial support for rural development and avoid exacerbating corruption at the local level. Here, working on a community-level to engage in visible development could help test models of alternative livelihoods that are gender-inclusive and sustainable before being reproduced at the provincial or national level. Crop substitution must be voluntary and provide ample time for farmers to fully transition. Given the role of local corruption in preventing such policy solutions, the international community must prioritize anti-corruption as part of any development initiatives. All of these require careful considerations of local dynamics, as past initiatives highlighted the perils of well-intentioned national campaigns that backfired spectacularly at the local level. The most important steps to take may begin at home, with Western governments working on reducing heroin demand to drive down profits for trafficking networks and increasing the attractiveness of legal crops. The international community has a strong interest in addressing the severe security and public health threats posed by the global heroin trade. In doing so, security and development experts must keep in mind the overused but relevant adage by Rep. Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local,” and ensure that efforts to eradicate Afghan poppy cultivation be rooted in broader development and anti-corruption initiatives.