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Opium Poppy

The Golden Crescent is the large swathe of land that traces the contours of Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and Pakistan. The “golden” tint of the Crescent does not refer to the natural wealth of the lands or the rich cultures that inhabit them. The only gold in the region is the fortune acquired from the cultivation of opium and the exportation of its deadly derivative, heroin.

Moderate opium consumption has been an Afghan tradition for several millennia. Exportation of heroin, however, is an entirely modern development, springing from the political turmoil of the Cold War era. The 1973 coup that deposed Afghanistan’s monarch also plunged the country into chaos for the next three decades. Civil war erupted in 1978, triggering the punishing Soviet intervention of 1979-89. In the midst of the wars ravaging Afghanistan, the heroin trade flourished. The Soviet practice of mining irrigation ditches and fruit groves forced Afghan farmers to rely on crops requiring less water and yielding a quick return.

At the time of the Soviet withdrawal, annual opium production stood at 1,200 metric tons. When the Taliban seized power in 1996, opium production had reached 2,200 metric tons. The soaring amounts of heroin brought increased international pressure on Afghanistan, leading the Taliban to ban opium cultivation in 2000. By destroying opium fields and intimidating farmers, the Taliban reduced the 2001 harvest to only 200 metric tons, a 17-year low.

Two factors led to the resurgence of opium production in recent years. First, the steep reduction in opium supply sent prices soaring, increasing the plant’s allure to poor farmers. Second, in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks and an impending American invasion, Afghan farmers recognized that the Taliban would soon lose their ability to enforce the opium ban. Farmers turned to opium in unprecedented numbers.1

Coming to power on the heels of the Taliban, Hamid Karzai outlawed the production and trafficking of opium. Though Karzai’s government has made elimination of the drug economy a top priority, Afghanistan currently bears the unenviable title of the world’s largest exporter of heroin.

In November 2004, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published an exhaustive survey documenting the daunting scope of the Afghan drug trade.2 While opium cultivation exists in all 34 provinces, it is concentrated in the country’s periphery: Badakhshan province in the north, Nangarhar in the east, and Helmand and Kandahar in the south. Production is also on the rise. An estimated 356,000 families are involved in opium farming, a 35% increase above the 2003 level. Total land area under cultivation rose sharply from 80,000 hectares in 2003 to 131,000 hectares in 2004, a 64% increase. While actual opium production increased by only 17%, the disproportionate increase resulted from crop disease and drought rather than counter narcotics operations. The 4,600 metric tons of opium produced by Afghanistan in 2004 equaled the entire world supply of opium in 2003. This should come as no surprise, as Afghanistan currently produces 87% of the world’s opium, 10% of the United States’ heroin, and 95% of Europe’s heroin.

The path by which Afghan heroin travels to Western Europe is long and treacherous, promising both great perils and great rewards for those who embark on it. Rural Afghan farmers collect the resin secreted by the opium poppy at the end of its three-month life cycle. This resin is sold to refineries in Afghanistan and Pakistan where it is processed into heroin. Traffickers carry the heroin through neighboring Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan. Organized crime syndicates in Central Asia and Russia transport the heroin to Eastern European states such as Poland, and local dealers transfer the drug to buyers in affluent Western European states such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. With a single gram fetching a price of $150 on the streets of London, heroin makes for an expensive pastime. The true costs of the international heroin trade, however, far exceed the dent made in addicts’ pocketbooks.3

While few Afghans actually use heroin, the allocation of a large portion of the country’s resources to the illicit drug trade has shackled Afghanistan’s economy and political culture to the will of parties, with a vested interest in a destabilized state. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime places the value of the 2004 opium export crop at $2.8 billion, equivalent to 60% of Afghanistan’s 2003 gross domestic product. These revenues fuel the war machines of local strongmen. As these warlords gain power, networks of arms dealers and corrupt government officials arise in a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the chaos perpetuated by the other. The inevitable result is a self-sustaining cycle of instability and violence, all financed by euros, pounds, and dollars.

State failure looms ominously as a possible outcome of Afghanistan’s thriving drug economy. A state is said to have failed when its government loses the capacity to provide its citizens with the most basic services, namely security. Instructive examples of failed states within the past decade include Rwanda, the Congo, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan itself. In each of these cases, internal conflict brought effective state control to crash down and mired the populations in a morass of civil war, organized killing, famine, and massive refugee dislocation. The resulting anarchy presented an attractive environment for the Al-Qaida terrorist network, which sought refuge in the latter three countries. In 2001, the United States felt firsthand the consequences of Al-Qaida’s successful settlement in Afghanistan.

Despite the clear necessity of eradicating Afghanistan’s opium production capacity, there are several obstacles to a simple solution. First, the various warlords, arms dealers, and government officials whose livelihoods are couched in the heroin trade will offer stiff resistance if pressured to abandon such lucrative occupations. Similarly, weaning rural Afghan opium cultivators from their crop is not a task that will be accomplished by persuasion. Opium production thrives in Afghanistan for the simple reason that it is the most profitable option available to Afghan farmers. A single hectare of opium provides an annual income of $4,600. By comparison, an equivalent area of land dedicated to wheat earns only $390 each year. In addition, opium needs less water than wheat and can be stored for several years without a significant decline in value. The options faced by many impoverished Afghan farmers is thus reduced to a choice between subsistence farming, and an income that provides security and moderate comfort. As long as they have a choice, many Afghan farmers will produce opium.

Afghan President Karzai has advocated the production of fruit and fine rugs as legal alternatives to opium cultivation. Afghan rugs, however, are increasingly manufactured by workers with mechanized looms in Pakistan. Meanwhile, inadequate irrigation and transportation infrastructure prohibits the cultivation of fruit and nut trees.

With options for alternative industries limited, a seemingly obvious method for stemming the heroin outflow is to disrupt production and trafficking by force. Pakistan’s recent campaign to eradicate its own drug trade included the mobilization of soldiers and crop dusters to destroy opium fields. Needless to say, these measures harmed the land, the people, and the general citizenry’s faith in the government. Additionally, limited opium destruction temporarily inflates prices, which further increases the attractiveness of opium cultivation to impoverished farmers. Targeting Afghan opium growers for punishment threatens similar consequences.

Any strategy to limit Afghanistan’s opium production must address the structural problems that allow the drug economy to thrive. The institutionalization of good governance and the rule of law throughout Central Asia would make strides towards curtailing the corruption that presently allows drug traffickers to funnel heroin through the region unimpeded. A crackdown on corruption in these states should target the ranking civil and military officials who solicit vast sums of bribe money and perpetuate the drug trade.

A solution to Afghanistan’s drug trade must also involve a campaign to wipe out the demand that supports the heroin industry. After all, despite Western notions of Afghanistan’s “backwardness,” it is Western Europe’s heroin addicts who keep Afghanistan’s warlords in business and Hamid Karzai confined to Kabul. Western European states would do well to fund domestic education initiatives and treatment centers to prevent drug use and rehabilitate current users. Curtailing demand would slash drug profits, thus crippling Afghan warlords and forcing Afghan farmers to turn to other sources of income, all without the risk of losing guns and planes or hearts and minds.

Ultimately, the largest single impediment to political stability and economic development in Afghanistan is endemic poverty. The success of any attempt to establish a functioning state rests entirely on two of Afghanistan’s scarcest resources, money and security. With weak political institutions and no advanced industry, Afghanistan relies heavily on the munificence of international donors. Foremost among Afghanistan’s patrons is the United States, which has pledged $4 billion to fund security, reconstruction, and development projects since 2001. This pledge should be met to its full extent. The attacks of 2001 demonstrated that U.S. interests in Afghanistan exceed humanitarian concerns. Should the pressing problems of Afghanistan go unnoticed, it will be the United States and world community that pays the price of Afghanistan’s drug trade.

Baya Harrison (2006) is a third year student at Brandeis University majoring in Politics and Economics.

1 Christopher Blanchard, “Afghanistan: Narcotics and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, RL32686, December 7, 2004.

2 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Afghanistan: Opium Survey 2004,” November, 2004.

3 Nancy Lubin, Alex Klaits, and Igor Barsegian, “Narcotics Interdiction in Afghanistan and Central Asia: Challenges for International Assistance,” Report to the Open Society Institute, 2002.