Getting Afghanistan Off Drugs

Destroying the poppy fields hasn’t worked. The US should focus on long-term development to solve Afghanistan’s drug problem


Here’s a little-known fact that says a lot about the problems facing Afghanistan. If Helmand province were a separate country, it would be the world’s leading drug producer. Indeed, eight years after the fall of the Taliban, poppy cultivation remains sky-high.

Part of the problem is that since 2001 the US has pursued a flawed anti-drug policy, focused on eradicating the planted crop. At a cost of $17,000 per hectare, it destroyed fewer than 6,000 hectares of the 157,000 hectares grown last year. Worse still, from a ringside seat in the ministry of counter-narcotics, I have seen power-brokers – some in the Afghan government – using Nato’s might to eliminate their competitors while protecting their own land.
Meanwhile, links between insurgents and drug traffickers have grown. Although insurgents now have many ways of accruing money and support, collaboration with drug barons has been mutually beneficial.

Policy failure on this scale is rare. It is also dangerous, because it encourages radical, often evidence-free, thinking. Two examples of this are aerial spraying and schemes for buying up opium crops. Neither presents a real solution to Afghanistan’s drug problem.

The first proposal would likely create a substantial backlash against both the Afghan government and Nato in the targeted areas. With polls showing its popularity plummeting, this is the last thing Nato needs. And although targeted eradication can reduce the finances of illegal armed groups, as appears to have happened to Farc in Colombia, there has been no such success in Afghanistan.

As for the second proposal, the Afghan state simply doesn’t have the administrative infrastructure to run the massive regulation scheme (monitoring farmers, handing out licenses and controlling sales) that legalisation would require. Buying the entire poppy crop would create incentives for farmers to grow more without any risks involved, and require traffickers to pay only slightly above the licensed price – all at a rising cost for western taxpayers.

Hard as it is to admit, there may be no real solution to the drug problem besides long-term development. Thailand took 15 years and an economic miracle to tackle its drug problem. Colombia’s counter-narcotics policy has throttled coca production, but cultivation has simply moved elsewhere, to places such as Mexico, and it has changed the political climate in Peru.

The best the Obama administration can do initially is to improve security for local farmers, especially on the main roads to markets and between villages. If farmers cannot get their goods to market, there is no chance they will switch to alternative crops.

Development policy should, in turn, improve access for poor and landless farmers to markets, land, water, credit and employment. Rich, land-owning farmers may not change their behaviour. But, with improved transit security and the kind of services that traffickers provide opium farmers – credit, transport, seed delivery and crop purchase at the farm-gate – there’s a chance.

Finally, the US should tackle the well-connected drug lords – something the Afghan government will never do. In fragile democracies, some crimes are too hard to handle. This conclusion led to the specialised UN war-crimes tribunals in Bosnia, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. Unless a similar body is established in Afghanistan, there is little hope of putting the drug lords out of business and on trial.

President Obama’s initial comments on US counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan intimated that he favoured a military solution. Given the experience of the past eight years, though, eliminating over half the country’s GDP will require a more nuanced approach.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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