High and low politics in Afghanistan: The terrorism-drugs nexus and what can be done about it

As the world debate drug policy at the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016), opium poppy remains deeply routed in Afghanistan. Narcotics production and counternarcotics policies there are of critical importance not only for drug control in the country and worldwide, but also for the security, reconstruction, and rule-of-law efforts in Afghanistan. Perhaps nowhere in the world has a country and the international community faced such an extensive illicit drug economy as in Afghanistan. Given deteriorating security, economic, and political conditions in Afghanistan, there is no realistic prospect for radically reducing the Afghan opium poppy economy and the Afghanistan’s economy dependence on it for years.

The Drug Trends that Don’t Buckle

In 2007 opium production climbed to a staggering 8,200 metric tons (mt).[1] As a result of the subsequent oversaturation of the illicit opiates market and the intense outbreak of a poppy disease, production subsequently fell to 3,600 mt in 2010 but rose again to 5,800 mt in 2011 and remained with some fluctuations at this level. [2] In 2015, as a combination of market saturation and correction and poppy disease (and far less so as a result of sustainable policies), in 2015 opium production declined to 3,300 mt again.[3] These levels of production are enough to supply most of the world’s opiates market.[4]

The Many Impacts of the Opium Poppy Economy in Afghanistan

For two decades, opium has been Afghanistan’s leading cash-generating economic activity. Valued at the border, profits from opiates represent about 10-15% of GDP.[5] But when one takes into account macroeconomic spillovers, with drugs underpinning much of other legal economic activity, drug easily constitute between a third and a half of the overall economy.[6] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provides a smaller number – namely, that the farmgate value of opium production in Afghanistan represents single-digit percent portion of the GDP, such as, for example, about 4% of the country’s GDP in 2013.[7] But this number is misleading. By focusing on farm-gate value only, this number does not take into account value-added in Afghanistan or economic spillover effects, such as the fact that much of consumption of durable and non-durables as well as construction is underpinned by the opium poppy economy.

For much of the rural population, the opium poppy economy is an essential source of basic livelihoods and human security. When access to the opium poppy economy is cut off, such as through bans on cultivation or eradication, large segments of the rural population face economic emiseration and deprivation even in terms of access to food, medical treatment, and schooling for children.[8]

The significance of the opium poppy production for the Afghan economy and crucially for employment will only grow as Afghanistan has entered serious economic and fiscal crises due to the departure of international military forces, the presence of which structured much of economic activity in Afghanistan over the past decade, and due to political instability and persisting insecurity scaring away investment and generating large capital flight.

The Taliban offers itself as a protector of poppy farmers, drawing great political capital as well as physical resources from opposing eradication and taxing the poppy fields. Measuring the size of illicit economies and any derivative numbers, such as profit levels, is notoriously difficult, but it is estimated that somewhere between 20-40% of the Taliban’s income comes from drugs.[9] But the Taliban is not the only actor profiting in multiple ways from the opium poppy economy. So are various criminal gangs, often connected to the government, the Afghan police and other elements of the Afghan security forces, tribal elites, and many ex-warlords cum government officials at various levels of the Afghan government, including the top one.

In short, the illicit drug economy exacerbates insecurity, strengthens corruption, produces macroeconomic distortions, and contributes to a vast increase in drug use and addiction in Afghanistan But it also provides a vital economic lifeline for many Afghans and enhances their human security. It thus produces political capital for those who sponsor opium poppy cultivation and it is politically explosive for those who sponsor eradication.

Counternarcotics Policies in Afghanistan

Neither opium poppy cultivation nor heroin production is a new, post-2001 phenomenon: each robustly existed during the Taliban era and before. Already during the 1990s, the Taliban sponsored and taxed opium poppy cultivation.[10] Its 2000 ban on cultivation drove production down by some 90% for one year, but was unsustainable…and indeed not sustained.

Other decreases poppy cultivation and opiate production since 2001, like last year’s, have been largely driven by the saturation of the global and local drug markets, by poppy crop disease, or by temporary coercive measures in certain parts of Afghanistan that could nonetheless not be sustained and have mostly already broken down.

The structural drivers of the Afghan poppy economy, including critically insecurity, political power arrangements, and a lack of ready economic alternatives, remain unchanged and cannot easily be overcome for years to come. The Taliban and related insurgencies remain deeply entrenched and pose a serious threat to the survival of the Afghan government and a potential trigger of an expanded civil war. Although also facing serious constraints on its expansion and sustainment and now also internal fragmentation and the rise of a rival Islamic State in Afghanistan,[11] the Taliban feels the battlefield momentum is on its side. As U.S. and ISAF troops significantly reduced their presence, they handed to the Afghan security forces and people an on-going war that has significantly intensified in 2014.[12]

Unfortunately, many of the counternarcotics policies adopted during most of the 2000s not only failed to reduce the size and scope of the illicit economy in Afghanistan, but also had serious counterproductive effects on the other objectives of peace, state-building, and economic reconstruction. Most counterproductive of all, eradication and bans on opium poppy cultivation, often born by the poorest and most socially marginalized, have generated extensive political capital for the Taliban and undermined counterinsurgency. In a courageous break with a previous counterproductive policy, the Obama administration wisely decided in 2009 to scale back poppy eradication in Afghanistan, but it struggled to implement its new strategy effectively. Although the Obama administration backed away from centrally-led eradication, Afghan governor-led eradication haphazardly goes on but since it is extremely politically explosive and dependent on good security conditions, it is minimal in its intensity.

Blanket interdiction efforts only vertically integrated smuggling networks. Selective interdiction focused on Taliban-linked traffickers, conducted by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) between 2008 and 2014, complicated the Taliban’s logistics, but did not severely weaken the Taliban. Moreover, during the surge in Afghanistan, ISAF-led interdiction became at times so intense that it approximated eradication in its negative effects on farmers’ well-being and their receptivity to Taliban mobilization. But the reduction in ISAF presence means that the scale of interdiction has radically declined, and like the rest of Afghanistan’s policy is subject to political favoritism, patronage, and corruption. Under such circumstances, interdiction efforts can thus reshuffle who controls a local drug market within a district or a province and alter the individual’s (often top politician’s) political power and resource access, but does not produce system-wide effects on drug production and smuggling in Afghanistan.

Often designed ineffectively and implemented poorly, alternative livelihoods efforts rarely have generated sustainable income for poppy-dependent populations, if they have materialized at all.

These outcomes are not surprising, and both Afghanistan and the international community should have expected them. Lessons from anti-poppy policies in Thailand, Burma, and even China as well as against coca in Peru, Bolivia, and Peru clearly indicate that even under the most auspicious circumstances, such as in Thailand in the 1980s, a significant sustained reduction of opium poppy cultivation would require years, even decades, of systematic and well-designed efforts as well as a prior end to military conflict.[13]

If Poppy Disappeared from Afghanistan, What Nightmare Would Follow?

Given high world demand for illicit opiates, suppression of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan would not leave a highly lucrative market unsatiated, but would shift it elsewhere. Unlike coca, for example, opium poppy is a very adaptable plant that can be grown under a variety of climactic conditions. Theoretically, its cultivation could spread to many areas –Central Asia, back to the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, or West Africa.[14]

By far the worst scenario from a global security perspective would be the shift of poppy cultivation to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber-Pakhtunkwa or even Punjab of Pakistan. For over twenty years, Pakistan has been a major heroin refining and smuggling hub in the region. It has an extensive hawala system, including for moving drug profits. Today, these territories also have extensive and well-organized salafi insurgency and terrorist groups that seek to limit the reach of the Pakistani state and topple the Pakistani government. A relocation of extensive poppy cultivation there would be highly detrimental to global security and counterterrorism interests since it would contribute to a critical undermining of the Pakistani state and fuel jihadi insurgencies and terrorism. Such a shift would not only increase profit possibilities for Pakistani belligerents, but also provide them with significant political capital by allowing them to become an important local employer sponsoring a labor-intensive economy in areas with minimal employment opportunities.

Nor would Pakistan be a newcomer to the drug trade. During the heyday of illicit poppy cultivation in Pakistan in the 1980s, opium poppy was grown in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the then Northwest Frontier Province (NFWP; now renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkwa), with agencies such as Bannu, Khyber, and Dir being significant loci of cultivation. In many of these areas, opium poppy cultivation involved entire tribes and represented the bulk of the local economy in these highly isolated (geographically, politically, and economically) places.[15] Pakistan was also the locus of heroin production and smuggling, with prominent and official actors, such as Pakistan’s military and intelligence services deeply involved in the heroin trade.

Policy Recommendations

Counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan must be judicious, well sequenced, and well prioritized. Eradication should remain suspended. It should only be undertaken in areas where a legal economy already exists and generates sufficient livelihoods. Interdiction operations should predominantly target the most dangerous actors, such as international terrorist groups, the Taliban and the Islamic State, but also violent disruptive powerbrokers who oppose the Taliban but seek to bring down the Afghan government for their own political power-plays. Alternative livelihoods efforts should be streamlined into overall economic development and human capital development. Focused on secure areas, such efforts must include both rebuilding the rural economy and creating off-farm opportunities. Improving access to treatment for addicts and undertaking smart approaches to prevent opiate abuse should be greatly elevated in policy and funded far more extensively than has the case so far. The latter is probably the most feasible, as well as important, policy tool. But perhaps the most important policy implication is patience and realistic expectation: Aside from some major exogenous shock, such as the outbreak of some poppy disease persisting in the Afghan soil for years to come, opium poppy will flower in Afghanistan for decades.

This article was originally published by Ahora in Spanish.

[1] See United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007: Executive Summary,” August 2007,
[2] UNODC, “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2014,” November 2014, 7.
[3] UNODC, “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2015,” 8
[4] See UNODC, World Drug Report 2011 (New York: United Nations, 2011), 45
[5] William Byrd and David Mansfield, “Afghanistan’s Opium Economy: An Agricultural, Livelihoods, and Governance Perspective,” The World Bank, revised version, June 23, 2014: ii.
[6] See UNODC, “Afghan Opium Survey 2007;” Since 2002, the percentage of drugs to licit GDP has oscillated between 60 and 30 percent, not because the illicit economy has been reduced, but due to the expansion of some sectors of the legal economy, such as telecommunications. See, for example, Christopher Ward and William Byrd, “Afghanistan’s Opium Drug Economy,” World Bank Report No. SASPR-5, December 2004,
[7] UNODC, “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2013,” December 2013, 12.
[8] See, for example, David Mansfield, “From Bad They Made It Worse,” Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), May 2014.
[9] See, for example, Christopher M. Blanchard, “Afghanistan: Narcotics and U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service,” Report No. RL32686, July 2009,; and Letizia Paoli, Victoria A. Greenfield, and Peter Reuter, The World Heroin Market: Can Supply Be Cut? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 41-83 and 111-114.
[10] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2010): Ch. 5.
[11] Borhan Osman, “Toward Fragmentation?  Mapping the Post-Omar Taliban,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 24, 2015.
[12] Erin Cunningham, “Taliban Fighters Seize Afghan Territories as NATO Chief Visits in Kabul,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2016.
[13] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Improving Supply Side Policies: Smarter Eradication, Interdiction, and Alternative Livelihoods and the Possibility of Licensing,” LSE Drug Reform Series, May 2014,
[14] For a discussion of these drug markets and their history of drug production and trade, see, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Drug-Conflict Nexus in South Asia: Beyond Taliban Profits and Afghanistan,” in Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Clifford May, eds., The Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater: Militant Islam, Security, and Stability (Washington, DC: Foundation for Defense of Democracies, May 2010): 90-112, and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “West African Drug Trade in the Context of Illicit Economies and Poor Governance,” Brookings Institution, October 14, 2010,
[15] Amir Zada Asad and Robert Harris, The Politics and Economics of Drug Production on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003) and Nigel J. R. Allan, “Opium Production in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” in Dangerous Harvest: Drug Plants and the Transformation of Indigenous Landscapes, Michael K. Steinberg, Joseph J. Hobbs, and Kent Mathewson, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 133-152.