Weaning Afghanistan off drugs

The Afghan opium economy continues to grow. To have any chance of success, international efforts need to focus on security and bringing criminal kingpins to justice through a specialised UN court.

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

The Afghan opium economy
continues to grow and the trajectory is unlikely to change. The United
Nations reported that opium production increased 17% in 2007 and that the 2008
harvest will be “staggeringly high”. But international efforts will
be stymied until counter-narcotics efforts become more comprehensive, and a
UN-backed court is set-up to try drug offenders.

The amount of Afghan land used for opium is now larger than
the corresponding total for cocoa cultivation in Latin America, although it
still occupies only 4% of Afghanistan’s
arable land. In the supposedly poppy-free provinces in the north, traders have
moved up the value chain – from cultivation to processing – or into cannabis
and hashish. With narcotics threatening to negate all of Afghanistan’s post-2001
achievements, the Afghan government and its international helpmates seem at a
loss of what to do.

Opium has been grown in Afghanistan
for centuries. But it has only been since the late 1980s – in conditions of
increasing poverty, insurgency, poor governance, and the disappearance of
cultivation in neighboring countries – that “narcotics entrepreneurs”
have pushed opium cultivation from a subsistence strategy by poor farmers to a
top-down, criminally-intended, billion-dollar enterprise.

The link between opium and insurgency is not as direct as
sometimes imagined. True, opium cultivation and insurgent violence are
correlated geographically, and opium now provides the insurgents with a portion
of their revenues. True, this portion may have increased as NATO pursues a
decapitation strategy, trying to kill high-level insurgents. But the Taliban,
al-Qaida and the more than 14 other insurgent groups have many sources of
revenue; and while an indisputable correlation exists between instability and
opium cultivation, the causality derives from insecurity, not the other way

What is certain, however, is that counter-narcotics efforts
have undermined counter-insurgency by undermining support for the Afghan
government. To date, international strategies have lacked an in-depth
understanding of the opium trade and inadequate incentives for those
involved. Five other problems have beleaguered the counter-narcotics effort: a
deteriorating security situation, a limited Afghan desire to tackle the
problem; an over-emphasis on building Potemkin institutions; an over-reliance
on crop eradication; and an inability to deliver the alternative livelihoods
expected by ordinary Afghans.

If a counter-narcotics effort is to be successful, a
game-changing approach is needed. First, the international community must
forego the idea that it can sequence coercive and development activities; it is simply not possible
given the conditions now or in the foreseeable future. Better therefore not to
promise development in exchange for poppy eradication or think conditionality
can work.

Second, the international community needs to take aerial
eradication off the table and make clear that traffickers, not farmers, are the
problem. Because Afghan farmers do not use chemicals, aerial eradication will
likely be blamed as the cause of disease, premature deaths or crop destruction,
which is a regular but unrelated occurrence in Afghanistan, as in any developing
country. The Afghan government, already mistrusted, would suffer from any
backlash, thus turning an insurgency into an insurrection.

Instead, the government should focus on rolling out the
Afghan state, prioritizing the provision of security to local farmers. The
international community, in turn, should focus on building local capacity to
maintain security and deliver basic services.

This will not be easy. Often the insecurity comes from the
corrupt Afghan police, the reform of which is a sine qua non of an improved
counter-narcotics policy. Reforms have, until now, seen little change and
drastic solutions should be on the table, including dismantling the Ministry of
Interior entirely, placing the police force under the Afghan National Army, or
setting up a new gendarmerie-style police initially under the army.

A “stability-first” policy will allow the gradual
introduction of basic services and access to licit sources of income. A premium
should be on improving access by farmers, especially poor and landless ones, to
markets, land, water, credit, food security and employment. True, rich and
land-owning farmers will not change their behavior. But the alternative is
likely to pauperize farmers and remove the consent the Afghan government now

Crucially, this should be coupled with arrests and the
prosecution of drug lords and their backers in government. Unless these
“narcotics entrepreneurs” are targeted, arrested and prosecuted,
little will change. Though, this should be done under the nomenclature of
anti-corruption – which Afghans care about – and not of counter-narcotics,
which most Afghans think is a Western focus.

Here the Afghan government must be forced into action. If
President Hamid Karzai refuses, a special UN-backed narcotics court should be
set up to help him. In fragile democracies, some crimes are too hard to handle.
This realization led to the creation of specialized war crimes UN courts for Bosnia, Cambodia
and Sierra Leone.
In Afghanistan,
the drugs trade is such an issue. Trying Afghans in US courts will not have the
same effect.

There are no silver bullets to this multi-dimensional
challenge. The most effective counter-narcotics outcome will require a
targeted, realistic, well-resourced strategy grounded in an acceptance that a
long-term reduction in the production of Afghan opiates will only be achieved
by delivering local security, stronger Afghan institutions, rural development and
by bringing key drug barons and their governmental backers to justice.


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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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