Afghanistan’s opium production is through the roof—why Washington shouldn’t overreact

Raw opium from a poppy head is seen at a poppy farmer's field on the outskirts of Jalalabad, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Parwiz - GF10000075581

In 2017, opium cultivation in Afghanistan reached a record high, with multifaceted impacts on the country. Yet Afghan heroin is not fueling the deadly U.S. opiate epidemic to any significant degree. And there is very little the United States or other countries can do about the opiate production in Afghanistan. Given the precarious security situation there and the intensification of violent conflict, most policy tools are either ineffective or highly counterproductive. Solutions to the global problem of drug addiction lie within consumer countries themselves.

Birds of a different feather

From 2016 to 2017, the area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 63 percent, to 328,000 hectares (ha); the estimated total production of opium shot up by 87 percent to 9,000 metric tons (mt). That’s the most in Afghan history. Most of the expansion of took place in Helmand province, long the hub of Afghan opium production as well as Taliban insurgency. With 144,000 ha cultivated with poppy, that province alone surpasses production levels in all of Myanmar, the world’s second largest producer of opiates. But cultivation expanded throughout the country, including in the north, such as in Balkh and Jawzjan.

The current U.S. opioid epidemic is a distressingly deadly one. In 2016, it killed some 64,000 Americans, more than double the number in 2005. Curbing the epidemic is one of the most pressing public health priorities. But neither the addiction nor its death toll are primarily due to Afghan heroin. In fact, Afghan heroin constitutes only a small portion of U.S. opioid consumption. Most U.S. heroin comes from Mexico and Colombia, and lately also perhaps Guatemala. However, heroin itself is not the primary culprit of high rates of overdose. It is fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid mixed into heroin and cocaine, as well as used on its own. Fentanyl causes deadly overdoses, particularly if dealers do not disclose the presence of fentanyl in the hits they sell to users (so as to get them addicted to a more profitable drug). Though some fentanyl production appears to be developing in Mexico, most of U.S. fentanyl comes from China.  It is often sent through the mail or hidden in shipments from China that go to U.S. ports of entry. Thus, the wall that President Trump seeks to build along the U.S. southern border will not stop the flow of fentanyl into the United States, as I explained in a recent essay on “The Wall.”

The United States should work with China to cut down on the illegal flows of fentanyl. But the most important steps to reduce the opiate epidemic lie within the United States itself. The U.S. justice system can start prioritizing arrests and prosecution of dealers who mix fentanyl into their drug sales without informing users. At the same time, the U.S. should move away from imprisoning users. Instead, it should fund effective treatment and help addicts access it; emphasize harm reduction approaches, such as availability of overdose reversing medications; and mandate pain management education for medical professionals.

None of these effective policy measures has anything to do with supply-side counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan. Nor will supply-side policies there resolve addiction woes in the United States and elsewhere. But they can be determinative of whether the current political dispensation in Afghanistan survives or a full-blown civil war and intensified Taliban insurgency ensues.

Poppy Dynamics in Afghanistan

Though stunning in scale, the fact that opium poppy cultivation expanded in Afghanistan is not surprising. The country’s economy has been in a deep slump since 2013 when the United States and NATO radically drew down their troop presence, around which much of Afghan economy was built after 2002. Additional factors that hampered Afghanistan’s legal economy were the accompanying security failures, the intensification of the Taliban insurgency, the growth in other forms of insecurity (from crime to the Islamic State in Khorasan), and persisting problems with corruption and rule of law.

Although the legal economy has improved this year, the legal sector is too small, capital-intensive, and city-centered to be able to replace the labor-intensive rural opium poppy economy. In fact, Afghanistan’s illicit drug economy has been deeply entrenched since the 1980s. Temporary decreases in poppy cultivation and heroin production have not been sustained or sustainable. Structural drivers of the illicit drug economy—insecurity, political struggles, and a lack of economic alternatives—remain unaddressed and likely long-term. Although the illicit drug economy exacerbates insecurity, strengthens corruption, produces macroeconomic distortions, and contributes to drug use, it also provides a vital lifeline for many Afghans and enhances their human security. There is simply nothing in Afghanistan that produces more jobs than the opium poppy economy, or could do so in the foreseeable future.

There is simply nothing in Afghanistan that produces more jobs than the opium poppy economy.

For most rural households, the only livelihood alternative is to send their sons to join the Afghan security forces. But that is risky—far better to have the sons cultivate poppy and pay taxes to the Taliban or government-linked local powerbrokers. Given high casualty rates and poor retention, it’s been important to keep recruitment levels high—the Afghan security forces are already struggling to maintain enough of a territorial presence to hold areas.

Inevitably, opium poppy is deeply entwined in the socio-economic fabric of the country, and hence in its political arrangements and power relations. The Taliban is profiting massively from the drug trade. This year, the insurgency has become more sophisticated in its role in the trade, increasingly involved in processing opium into heroin within Afghanistan instead of beyond Afghan borders. The only surprise is how long it took the Taliban to do so. It has had three decades to learn it; other insurgencies around the world joined in much faster.

But the Taliban’s income goes well beyond drugs: it taxes timber, marble, gems, Afghan government spending programs, NATO trucks, Afghan cell phone operators, and families whose sons are in the Afghan forces. It also raises money in the Middle East and Pakistan. As I discuss in my new book The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It, the Taliban also makes money from facilitating poaching of houbara bustards for Saudi and Emirati sheiks. And as I and my co-authors Harold Trinkunas and Shadi Hamid show in our book Militants, Criminals, and Warlords: The Challenge of Local Governance in an Age of Global Disorder, taxation is not only about money—it is about instilling authority and providing governance. Hence, the Taliban even asks for sheep horn in poor areas as a form of tribute. Though the horns have no monetary value, the act of paying taxes is a submission to authority.

The diversity of the Taliban’s income portfolio is has important implications for counternarcotics and counterinsurgency strategies, especially since eliminating the Taliban’s financial base through counternarcotics efforts is often seen as a key element of the counterinsurgency strategy. There is simply no easy way to bankrupt the Taliban by wiping out the opium poppy economy. And as discussed below, any such move would be disastrous for the counterinsurgency efforts.

There is simply no easy way to bankrupt the Taliban by wiping out the opium poppy economy.

The Taliban is not the only group profiting from the opiate business in Afghanistan. So are various criminal gangs, which often are connected to the government, the Afghan police, tribal elites, and many ex-warlords-cum-government-officials. Many of these powerbrokers are also key anti-Taliban counterinsurgency actors, including in the north of the country where opium too has expanded.

No Magic Bullet

Most counternarcotics measures adopted since 2001 have been ineffective or counterproductive economically, politically, and with respect to counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts.

Eradication and bans on opium poppy cultivation, often borne by the poorest and most socially marginalized, have generated extensive political capital for the Taliban and undermined counterinsurgency. They sparked provincial revolts, alienated the rural population from the Afghan government, and drove the rural population into Taliban hands. The Taliban presented itself as a protector of the people’s poppies and cast the Afghan government and its international sponsors as apostates and infidels trying to kill the Afghan people with hunger.

The Obama administration’s decision to defund centrally-led eradication was a courageous break with U.S. counternarcotics dogma, and such a policy is still correct today. Aerial spraying would be the only way to do any large-scale eradication since manual eradication teams have been attacked. That would be disastrous from the counterinsurgency perspective, since it would cement the Taliban’s political capital rather than bankrupting it. Eradication never bankrupted insurgents anywhere, not even in Colombia. Nor is it sustainable without an end to conflict.

Selective interdiction focused on Taliban-linked traffickers—or the most dangerous and destabilizing powerbrokers not linked to the Taliban—is a more promising policy. That won’t bankrupt the Taliban or shrink opium poppy production, but it can enhance stability to some extent. Interdiction, however, requires intensive intelligence and manpower assets, and the remaining international forces are sparse.

The focus on Taliban-linked traffickers is an area of possible cooperation with Russia. Moscow has long complained that the United States is not concerned with the flood of heroin destroying Russian addicts, sometimes accusing the United States of deliberately allowing the heroin trade to poison the Russian nation. However, interdiction cooperation with Russia is tricky, as many key Afghan drug traffickers in the north are also Russia’s favorite proxies vis-à-vis the Afghanistan war and the Islamic State in Khorasan (which Russia fears far more than the Taliban), and more broadly against the expansion of jihadism into Central Asia. Conversely, many key powerbrokers in Afghanistan’s south and east whom the United States has embraced, including provincial and police district chiefs, have been implicated in the Afghan drug trade.

Sustained security is required for alternative livelihoods to work. That remains elusive. Moreover, many alternative livelihood programs have been poorly designed and ineffective, rarely generating sustainable incomes for poppy-production-dependent populations. In many areas, insecurity has wiped out any meager progress. Alternative livelihoods efforts should be streamlined into overall economic development and human capital development. Focusing on secure areas, such efforts must include both rebuilding the rural economy and creating off-farm opportunities.

Finally, improving access to treatment for Afghan addicts and undertaking smart approaches to prevent opiate abuse should be a key policy focus. Treatment, prevention, and harm-reduction approaches should also be the focus in Russia, Central Asia, Pakistan, and Iran, just as in the United States. They won’t magically end global consumption or Afghan production. But they save lives and avoid the counterproductive counterinsurgency results of eradication.