Editor’s Note: In an interview with PBS Frontline, Vanda Felbab-Brown discusses the widespread effects of opium production in Afghanistan and the outcome of efforts to curb it.
PBS FRONTLINE: How did Afghanistan become the supplier of 90 percent of the world’s opium?
VANDA FELBAB-BROWN: In the 1980s several important changes took place in the international market and in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan in the mid-80s, the Soviet Army ended up adopting a “scorched earth” policy [to systematically destroy agricultural resources]. That is because while the Soviets were able to control the cities, they were never able to control the countryside. The insurgency was always [launching] attacks from the rural areas on the cities and generating instability. The Soviets tried military operations in the countryside, which didn’t control the problem, so ultimately, they decided to destroy the agriculture in the countryside with the idea that this would drive the rural population into the cities, which they could control.
The effect was the complete collapse of the agricultural production of Afghanistan: the destruction of orchards, irrigation canals. The only thing the population could grow was opium poppy, which didn’t require [so much] irrigation, fertilizers or transportation, because Pakistani traders would come to the farm and pick up the opium. So this really unleashed the first systematic cultivation of opium poppy at the time.
At the same time, there was a growing demand for opiates in the world. Production from the traditional supplier — the golden triangle of Burma, Laos and Vietnam — was significantly suppressed. None of the agricultural infrastructure was rebuilt in the 1990s, following the Soviet withdrawal and civil war, and this trend continued through the Taliban era.
PBS FRONTLINE: What effects did opium production have in Afghanistan?
FELBAB-BROWN: From the mid-80s through the mid 2000s, opium poppy was the main source of livelihood for the population.
Even today, when you have a growing legal GDP, opium poppy production is still very important. It is still, at minimum, around 20 percent of the GDP, and that might be significantly underestimating the actual value of opium poppy because it also has repercussions in other sectors. … It is one of the big sources of economic activity in Afghanistan, along with foreign aid. If foreign aid diminishes significantly post-2014 [when U.S. troops are set to withdraw], it will be a very important driver of economic activity.
But there are other effects beyond economic effects. One of them is that since the mid-80s, political power is heavily associated with access to both foreign aid and opium poppy. If you want to be a political actor in Afghanistan — whether you call that a warlord, power broker or politician — much … is dependent on being able to distribute some profit to your community. There are two ways to get access to get such access to money: one is to get access to foreign aid; the other is to get profits from opium poppy. So political power, at least until the mid-2000s, and in a more covert way since the mid-2000s, has been very strongly associated with access to the drug trade.