Afghanistan and Opium: A Debilitating Marriage

Photo  by ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office CC BY 3.0 US 

Photo by ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office CC BY 3.0 US 

The Middle East is no stranger to the “joy plant” that has fueled wars and currently has 13.5 million people addicted. Opium cultivation originated in lower Mesopotamia in 3,400 BC and has since spread across the world, numbing and entrancing millions of people. While opium has remained a part of history for quite some time, cultivation today is at a historical high point. Only one country can take responsibility for the recent exponential spike in opium production: Afghanistan.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a report earlier this month outlining the state of opium cultivation in Afghanistan in 2013.  According to the report, opium cultivation increased by 36% between 2012 and 2013, from 154,000 hectares to 209,000 hectares. Potential opium production in 2012 was 3,700 tons and in 2013 it totaled 5,500 tons, a 49% increase. The number of provinces influenced by poppy cultivation increased twofold in 2013, now totals 19 provinces.

The blame for the terrifying soar in Afghan poppy cultivation, where 93% of the world’s opium originates, cannot be placed on one particular institution. Experts argue that U.S. attempts to quell cultivation have backfired, causing more harm than good. While this is true, a confluence of events dating back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 70’s and a neighbor with an addicted population all contribute to the unprecedented rise in cultivation.

To understand how the opium industry has latched onto Afghanistan, we must analyze its recent history in the war torn nation. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, the Afghan government lost control of power, thus opening the floodgates for the rule of Afghan warlords. In the wake of this destabilization, opium production increased drastically in Afghanistan. After the Soviet’s withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, an even more drastic power vacuum emerged and various Mujahideen factions (Islamic guerilla groups) eagerly filled the void. In order to bankroll their efforts, the factions started cultivating opium. One faction in particular was able to come out on top: the Taliban.

The Taliban manipulated and infiltrated the Afghan opium cultivation process in a way no group could previously accomplish. The United States Institute for Peace published a comprehensive analysis in 2009 about the Taliban’s involvement in the opium trade, and the results are astonishing. The document goes so far as to state, “the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan had little to do with the grace of Allah as they claimed. From its inception, the movement appeared to rely on the financial backing of an unholy alliance of drug smugglers, traders, and trucking groups.”

However, as the Taliban matured and began to search for political recognition and aid from foreign nations, it came under pressure to crack down on cultivation. In 2000, the Taliban announced a ban on cultivation, denouncing the industry as un-Islamic. This announcement resulted in the single most effective cutback in illicit drug production in the world, and poppy cultivation was cut by 99% in Taliban controlled regions. However, the sudden ban left many farmers in complete financial distress and drastically increased the price of opium nearly overnight. In what the report deemed an “ultimate insider-trading act”, it is believed that the Taliban bought massive amounts of opium before the ban was instituted. The Taliban held onto these stockpiles of opium and reaped a huge profit once prices skyrocketed after the ban.

When the U.S. deposed the Taliban leadership in the early 2000s, the strict ban on opium cultivation was also dismantled. The lack of central authority once again threw Afghanistan into a frenzy of cultivation. The U.S. response to the soaring cultivation rates has not been effective and in fact has made the issue worse.

Until 2009, the U.S. approach was for total eradication of poppy cultivation. However, Afghanistan’s central government has limited authority in rural regions where the majority of the poppy is cultivated, so U.S. programs were enforced by Afghan warlords who used the efforts to advance their own agenda by targeting enemy farms. Once the US acknowledged this approach as ineffective, it shifted its policy away from eradication toward middle ground tactics. New tactics included funding agricultural development by providing farmers with crop substitution programs and the tools necessary to expand arable land. However, these policies have also failed, since the Afghan government does not have the strength or the political capacity to target established drug lords, and farmers do not have enough incentive to stop cultivating poppy.

Another contributing factor to the spike in Afghan opium cultivation is the heroin habit of the youngest generation of Iranians. 20% of the Iranian population is somehow involved in drug abuse, which has been attributed to the soaring unemployment rates, prohibition and a government that censors its citizens. With nothing to do on an average Friday night, Iranian youth are turning to opium, which can be bought for incredibly cheaply. Iran’s status as the country with the highest percentage of opium addicts in the world does nothing but add fuel to the Afghan opium fire.

No single institution can be blamed for what has become an uncontrollable poppy cultivation issue in Afghanistan. However, there is a pattern to when opium cultivation has soared: at periods lacking centralized leadership. Whenever a power vacuum in Afghani politics emerges, the production of opium spikes. Therefore, the first step in fixing the cultivation problem should be developing a strong central government that has the political power and the relevancy to enforce a ban on opium cultivation. Many citizens hope that Afghanistan’s new president could provide this political stability. The second step should involve collaboration among various organizations to devise a plan that will ease farmers’ transition from cultivating opium to other crops that yield equal value. The third step should involve developing sustainable programs and initiatives to ensure that the first two steps are long lasting and will not dissolve, just to throw Afghanistan into another bout of intense cultivation.

Throughout history, opium has remained a seductive drug powerful enough to spark wars. The drug has a firm grasp on Afghanistan and is proving unwilling to let go. However, with a revised approach, a new government and a willing population, it can be defeated.