The Afghan Drug War after 2014


Efforts to eradicate poppy fields in Afghanistan have only shifted production elsewhere and made the drug trade, which finances insurgent groups, more profitable. A more holistic approach would focus on demand reduction, treatment, and economic development. (Photo: United Nations Photo / Flickr)

As the United States slowly draws down from Afghanistan, the country’s long-term security will hinge on more than just troop numbers and reconciliation talks. Counternarcotics strategy will also play a significant role.

The narcotics trade has been a financial boon for the insurgency in Afghanistan, a country that is responsible for more than 80 percent of the world’s opium supply. The nexus between drug profits and terrorism funding means that opium trafficking is more than just an Afghan problem — it’s an international security threat.

Since the U.S. invasion, counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan have relied on a robust U.S. military presence, which begs the question: What will the counternarcotics footprint look like in Afghanistan after the 2014 drawdown of U.S. forces?

Current indicators are not encouraging. If we keep on the same drug war path, we’ll never get off it.

Swelling the Balloon

The United States has played a central role in developing and supporting Afghan counternarcotics strategy for well over a decade. Since 2002, the U.S. government has appropriated $7.5 billion for counternarcotics funding in Afghanistan, which accounts for 7 percent of the $102 billion that Washington has appropriated for relief and reconstruction in the country. Despite this enormous investment, Afghan opium poppy cultivation increased by 36 percent from 2012 to 2013 — a record high, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

If costly interdiction and eradication strategies have been unsuccessful even with a strong U.S. military presence, they won’t stand a chance after 2014. Even if the United States can provide the Afghan government with the necessary training and support to pursue these strategies, no amount of funding can create the political will to aggressively confront all aspects of drug production and trafficking.

But the drug warriors are undeterred. At a recent hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, conceded that U.S. counternarcotics programs are “works in progress,” but insisted that continued counternarcotics support is essential to success in Afghanistan. But increases in poppy cultivation and the reported decline in poppy eradication by provincial authorities over the past several years indicate that current supply-side strategies just don’t work.

In a repeat of Plan Colombia, eradication has left rural Afghan farmers without a steady income and more vulnerable to the influence of extremist groups and black market traders. And as long as opium remains valuable, the crops that have been eradicated will always be replaced. Successful poppy eradication in one area simply drives opium production to another area — and drives up the price in the process. This phenomenon is called “the balloon effect,” since squeezing a balloon in one spot simply causes it to expand in another.

Interdiction programs — that is, efforts to seize illegal drugs and prosecute traffickers — may seem like an intuitive approach to combating the drug trade. But these programs have failed as spectacularly as crop eradication.

James Capra, Chief of Operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has attempted to show progress in Afghanistan by pointing to increased narcotics seizure and conviction rates. But in reality these are poor indicators of strategic success. Higher interdiction numbers merely reflect increased production rates, and the drugs seized by interdiction teams are just drops in the bucket compared to what leaves Afghanistan every day undetected.

As the most unskilled and least effective couriers are caught, the most innovative and effective networks raise their prices and carry on. Higher risk premiums mean bigger profits, which are used to buy the loyalty of corrupt law enforcement and government officials who can ensure safe passage for future transports.

A More Holistic Approach

High-ranking drug warriors like Brownfield and Capra are naturally reluctant to admit that their costly interdiction and eradication programs have failed, but continued funding for ineffective policies is never going to yield favorable results. Successful counternarcotics strategies are going to require a radically different approach from the status quo — one that replaces the punitive model of drug prohibition with a model that emphasizes public health and socioeconomic development. Prioritizing alternative development programs and demand reduction strategies would be a great place to start.

A common approach is to incentivize poppy farmers to switch to legal crops. But programs to replace opium poppies with legal alternatives won’t succeed unless the authorities pursue a more holistic approach than they have in the past. Simply giving farmers seeds to plant in lieu of poppies won’t impact poppy cultivation unless other Afghan crops have been marketed as a viable option to importers. Efforts to improve Afghanistan’s agricultural export potential can decrease the necessity for Afghan farmers to cultivate opium poppies. Furthermore, these efforts would strengthen the country’s legitimate economy without propping up the illicit drug trade.

Demand reduction is also vital to a successful counternarcotics strategy. Programs must focus on providing accurate drug education and accessible treatment programs, and treat drug addiction as a matter of public health rather than a crime. For example, countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have “significantly reduced consumption of illicit heroin and even illicit cocaine” with heroin-assisted treatment programs—also known as “free heroin” programs — that help addicts recover with controlled doses of synthetic heroin. Meaningful demand reduction of heroin and other opiates will devalue opium on the black market, making drug trafficking a less viable source of funding for terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan.

There is no silver-bullet solution to the narcotics production problem in Afghanistan. Successful counternarcotics operations will rely on comprehensive and sustainable strategies that address the issue from all sides. However, any strategy that does not align with Afghan interests and priorities will fail. As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, the onus will be on President Ahmed Karzai, his successor, and the Afghan government to break the narco-terrorism nexus.

Alex Pollard-Lipkis is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Inge Fryklund

    There is an “Afghan drug problem” only because we have chosen to define poppy (and marijuana) production and use as a crime. Let’s take a page from the U.S. experience with Prohibition of Alcohol (1920-1933). Illegality creates tremendous problems–crime, violence, corruption–that are in addition to any negative effects of the substances themselves. As with alcohol, legalize and regulate. Afghan poppy is grown only to meet worldwide demand (mostly in Western Europe and Russia). UNODC estimates that the ultimate street value of what comes out of Afghanistan is $68 billion. Yes, billion. (Only a few hundred million $$ stays in Afghanistan.) With incentives this strong, poppy will be grow to meet demand, if not in Afghanistan, then elsewhere. If Afghanistan could export a legal product, they could finance their own development and Army.
    Please see my FPIF piece from two years ago:

    • Michael_Greenwald

      I assume you have never tried heroin. If you had you would understand how delightful and compelling it is. To compare it to alcohol or tobacco or (yawn) pot is an indication you have not tried H. I had the Big M a few times in the army for wounds and I can tell you without reservation that I have thought about that dreamy, warm, fuzzy feeling the rest of my life. I have no objection to legalizing pot but I think you have no idea of the immensity of the problem you would create by making H legal.

      • Inge Fryklund

        Legalization does not mean approval or recommendation for use. It means not using the criminal justice system in a futile attempt to control drugs. The drugs–heroin, cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana–are with us whether we like it or not, legal or illegal. Your experience apparently occurred while heroin was illegal–which did not prevent your use. Illegality causes violence and corruption, and absence of quality and potency control on top of the negative effects of the substances themselves. Remember the U.S. experience with Prohibition of Alcohol (1920-1933)? Corruption and organized crime exploded and hundreds of people died from adulterated alcohol; there was no change in alcohol consumption–the supposed point of the entire exercise. Legalization makes regulation possible. Legalization also allows honest public education about risks (in contrast to “Reefer Madness”); education has been very effective in cutting cigarette use since the Surgeon General’s Report 50 years ago. Public resources now wasted on enforcement, prisons, over-incarceration and the militarization of police forces could be devoted to treatment for those who need and want it.

        Please see LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) is an organization of 100,000 current and former police, prosecutors, sheriffs and judges and supporters in 120 countries that has concluded that the war on drugs is a threat to public safety. Legalize and regulate.

        • Michael_Greenwald

          Methadone was an experiment to try and create the legal, regulated situation you suggest. it failed. First, it became a black market drug, just like H. It was really legal heroin. My friend died from it. Drank methadone cough syrup, fell asleep, vomited and inhaled it.

          I am all for legalizing most recreational drugs, esp. pot. We used to say the most serious health problem of using pot was arrest. People used to say, “If you legalize pot more people will start using it.” And I always said, “so what?” But not H. Also, no matter what we think there are enough people adamantly against it to stop it being legal–and what politician would dare suggest that?

          • Haether

            First of all, by far the majority of people who use heroin do not get addicted to it – they are the invisible users that we don’t hear about. Secondly, there is no evidence in Europe that the legal status of the drug (legal or illegal) affects the rate of consumption. Thirdly, there’s evidence from heroin trials that addicts who are prescribed heroin can live normal, productive lives, if their addiction is managed. We have turned drugs into a ‘fetish’ not realising that there are far complex psycho-social factors at work. Try reading some anthropological work on drugs. Fourthly: it’s patently obvious that the current system isn’t working, it’s not working for the percentage of people who do become addicted. Nobody is suggesting that we should criminalise alcohol because some people get addicted to it and it destroys their lives. That doesn’t stop governments from running successful campaigns to decrease alcohol use (as in Australia). We have this weird idea that if something is a bad idea – like drugs – then if we legalise it that means it’s ok. It doesn’t! It just means that we think there are more effective ways of dealing with drug use and addiction if we don’t criminalise the industry.

  • maxwood

    In this entire article no mention of possibly SUBSTITUTING cannabis for opium crops. It was years-long suppression of the cannabis crop (good 1970’s hashish) that led to this opium boom in the first place!
    Conflict of Interest: an affordable supply of trustworthy cannabis could help PREVENT opiate addiction worldwide, but because it could ALSO PREVENT nicotine $igarette addiction, governments wedded to the tobacco tax revenue were willing to suppress it, making cannabis generally at least 10 times as expensive as $igarette tobacco so children are diverted to the cheaper but addictive (zap, hooked for life!) alternative.
    THINK, what if US and UN moves toward cannabis liberation defused the tragedies and resentments that fuel terrorism worldwide and eliminate the anxiety and depression that fuels opiate addiction.

    • certop

      i support legalizing the production of cannabis for a number of reasons, but i’m not sure why people making billions off heroin in afghanistan would get out of the business just so they could grow pot. they could already plant tomatoes, wheat, soybeans, or any number of other legal crops that are consumed all over the world, but they choose to grow opium poppies prohibition makes it lucrative–in other words, precisely because the product *isn’t* legal. it’s an interesting suggestion (and worth experimenting with on its own merits), but i’m skeptical that it’s the answer to this particular problem.

  • noman

    max wood. Simple economics with weed. If it becomes legal everyone is going to grow it. Wholesale prices drop drastically. Did you pay attention in economics 101?. Wait- maybe you work for the natural gas industry and want to sell them Monsanto pot seeds and gas fertilizer. Dumbass.

    To alex dipshit-lipdick- poppy production was at an all time low when the Taliban were in power. Largest poppy production in the history of Afghanistan after US invasion. Heroin addiction all time high in Western states since invasion. Where did you get your info- Fox News or the NYT’s?

    • Jefferson

      Noman, I like your gusto. It takes a lot of whit to come up with such a clever spin on the author’s name. You make some great points, but unfortunately your comment about poppy production is not true. You may want to check your facts…

      In beginning of 2001poppy production was at an all time high – you should probably check out the Afghanistan’s monthly reports on opium production that have been published every month for the past 20 years (here’s one of them: 2001 was during Taliban rule. Later in the same year, the Taliban announced that opium poppy cultivation was no longer in accordance with Islamic law and introduced a poppy ban. The Taliban poppy ban was incredibly effective because the Taliban simply executed farmers who didn’t comply. Authoritarian regimes are often far more efficient than democracies in that way, because they don’t care if they have to violate people’s basic human rights in order to achieve results. Within 3 months, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan dropped by 78%. So yes, the Taliban did a great job! But even this reduced rate remained almost 900% higher than 1990 production levels, before the Taliban controlled the country. Reports from the Afghan government, UN, and UNODC will confirm these statistics if you bother to check.

      Fortunately we don’t live under Taliban rule, because if we did, they would probably cut off your thumbs for expressing your opinion on the internet… troll.

  • Michael_Greenwald

    Opium has been a traditional product of Afghanistan for hundreds of years, the production ballooned tremendously after the Taliban lost control, production represents about 98% of world production and if the US spent $7.5 billion fighting it that is another $7.5 billion of the hundreds of billions wasted, insufficiently supervised and ineffectively used–if results count.

    Having spent most of my life providing health care to the undeveloped world I know a few inflexible rules about narcotics production: in most cases drugs are produced because transportation of commercial foodstuff is impossible or difficult or there is a limited market or prices of foodstuff is too low, while narcotics are compact, valuable, can be transported by horse or mule and do not go bad. Another rule is: narcotics flourish when enforcement is in on the take.

    We already spent billions on road construction in Afghanistan only to see the roads crumble away from lack of maintenance. We can certainly expect that deterioration to accelerate as wester presence wanes. To think that the incentives suggested by the author will have any impact is to not understand the nature of the problem.

    Furthermore, there seem to be few or none in that nation that have the least moral imperative to fight selling poison to the infidel. It is just a coincidence that the war made stealing aid money easier. Now that it is drying up we may expect to see the impossible, a surge in production and in effect a fight to grab the last 2% of the world production, greatly exacerbated by the corrupt kleptocrats, many of whom are high-ranking bureaucrats who are in it up to their noses. For Brownfield to say counter-narcotics programs are “works in progress” is presumably a desperate ploy to retain his job. To say, “There is no silver-bullet solution to the narcotics production problem in Afghanistan” is at best an understatement.