Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has played an increasingly important role in virtually all aspects of Afghan society. From 2005 to 2007, opium cultivation nearly doubled, from 104,000 hectares (ha) to 193,000 hectares.1 Production peaked in 2007, resulting in an estimated 8,200 tons of opium, an increase of 34 percent over the previous year.2 There is a symbiotic relationship between the drug trade and the insurgency.

Deteriorating security conditions coupled with the ineffective execution of counter narcotic policies were largely to blame for the opium boom. The Afghan government’s Drug Control Strategy focused on eight main pillars: public information, alternative development, eradication, interdiction/law enforcement, prosecution/criminal justice reform, demand reduction, institution building and international and regional cooperation. Both the U.S. and Afghan government focused the majority of their efforts on the first five of these pillars.3

In July of 2008, the former Department of State counter-narcotics head in Afghanistan, Thomas Schweich, addressed the worsening narcotics situation. According to Schweich, several aspects of the U.S. counter narcotics strategy were undermined by the Karzai regime, including aerial eradication, interdiction/law enforcement and justice reform. Karzai’s opposition to aerial eradication forced the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan to undertake less-effective manual eradication efforts.4 Additionally, interdiction and law enforcement efforts were and continue to be marred by corruption and bribery, from the highest levels of government down to provincial and district officials.5 Finally, justice reform efforts have moved forward slowly and with significant difficulty. While certainly an oversimplification, corruption and insecurity continue to be two central challenges to stemming the opium tide.


Poppy and the Taliban


The history of the Taliban’s relationship with the narcotics trade predates the American-led invasion of 2002. In 1994, the Taliban was created as a force to rid Afghanistan of corruption and violence, in addition to establishing Shari’a law. Backed by Pakistan’s ISI as a means to hedge against India, the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 and several northern cities by the end of 1998, virtually controlling all of Afghanistan by 2001. The security that the Taliban established allowed cross-border trade to flourish, which they taxed. Thus, the opium economy that existed (to a lesser degree than today) was essentially dependent on the Taliban for both protection and trafficking. Profits from the narcotics trade netted the Taliban approximately $30 million per year during this period.6 

In 2000, poppy yields began to shrink, most likely due to poor weather conditions. It is likely the loss in crops presented Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar with a strategic opening to declare his opposition to poppy cultivation, since he was already noticing significantly reduced yields. In July of 2000, Omar passed an edict, declaring that poppy cultivation was against the teachings of Islam, as interpreted through the Koran.7 The timing of the ban was highly suspicious,8 considering the numerous years that Omar’s Taliban permitted and even encouraged poppy growing.

While Mullah Omar’s reasoning remains unknown, experts suggest that the ban could have been used as a bargaining chip for international aid and legitimacy, or stockpiling reduced harvests to drive down supply, thus increasing prices.9 While the Taliban insisted the ban was instituted for purely religious reasons, this explanation fails to account for a proliferation of poppy under the Taliban’s watch in the years leading up to the 2000 ban. Despite the ban, heroin labs still operated and shipments and seizures of heroin exiting Afghanistan actually increased compared to previous years.10

In Afghanistan, perhaps the greatest measure of instability is the presence and quantity of poppy cultivation. It is no coincidence that Helmand and Kandahar, which account for close to 80 percent of the world’s heroin supply, currently experience the highest levels of insurgent related activities. In 2008, the insurgency’s involvement in multiple aspects of the opium trade resulted in a net windfall between $250 and $470 million.11 This massive monetary influx “buys the bomb makers and the bombs, the bullets and the trigger-pullers that are killing our soldiers and marines and airmen, and we have to stop them,” according to NATO’s supreme allied commander General John Craddock.12

The insurgent and criminal elements of the narcotics trade are somewhat distinct groups; however, they often operate in conjunction with one another to serve their respective goals, thus obscuring their possible differences. For the purposes of this discussion the term narco-insurgency will be used to describe the insurgent-criminal-narcotics web, primarily because the explicit distinctions between criminal and insurgent group’s activities are poorly understood.


Stemming the Opium Tide


The proliferation of poppies reached its peak in 2007, when the total export value of opium reached four billion dollars.13 Since then however, both opium cultivation and production have started to recede. In 2008, there was a nineteen percent reduction in opium cultivation and a 6 percent reduction in opium production compared to the UNODC’s estimates for 2007.  Additionally, eighteen of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were declared poppy-free, that is, provinces with less than 100 hectares of land under poppy cultivation. Of all the land under poppy cultivation, 98 percent was confined to seven provinces in the south and west.14 

Recent trends demonstrate a distinct shift in poppy cultivation from the north to the south and southwest. In the north, the devastating drought that has plagued Afghanistan for a number of years finally began to take its toll on poppy cultivation. In addition, good local leadership, particularly that of community leaders, religious scholars, provincial governors and district chiefs combined with higher prices for licit crops and relatively effective pre-planting information campaigns have helped to foster significant change.15 Also, the Afghan government’s Good Performance Initiative (GPI) has played an important role in these reductions. The GPI offers monetary rewards for poppy free provinces as an incentive to encourage additional provinces to become poppy free. 

Poppy cultivation is now exclusively limited to the particularly Pushtun provinces in south and southwest, particularly Farah, Nimroz, Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul. While production in the south and south-west has receded from the record highs of 2007, in many ways, it is because of record highs in 2007. Traffickers and insurgents essentially overproduced from 2005 to 2007. The enormously high yields forced narco-insurgents to hold-back refined opium, storing it to avoid flooding the market. Some suggest it may have been too little, too late as farm gate prices for opium have begun to fall since 2007. While the average USD price in 2007 was 100/kg, it fell to 55/kg in 2008.16 This can be attributed to either an oversupply in previous years or greater integration and organization of local opium markets.

While poppy cultivation is concentrated in the five aforementioned provinces, drug processing and trafficking, the more lucrative facets of the narcotics trade, have a broader footprint.  The principal trafficking routes from Afghanistan run through Pakistan and Iran, with secondary routes through neighboring Central Asian countries. The flow of narcotic smuggling is not restricted to poppy-cultivating provinces. While provinces designated as “poppy-free” may exhibit little to no cultivation, they may be havens for drug traders, illicit trafficking resources, and heroin processing laboratories. In the past two years, the latter of these elements is becoming an increasingly prevalent in Afghanistan.  While Afghan poppies have generally been smuggled to neighboring countries for processing into heroin, counter-narcotic officials noted that since 2007 the majority of opium is now converted into heroin in Afghanistan before being exported. The increased export value represented by this shift offers a funding boost for the Taliban and broader insurgency movement.

The UNODC predicts that reductions in both hectares and tonnages will continue in 2009. This can largely be attributed to high wheat prices, low opium prices and a lack of available water due to the persistent drought. While any reduction in opium is a good thing, it should be noted that much of the recent opium progress is largely due to non-counter narcotic policy factors. If the troubling security situation in the south persists, coupled with decreasing licit crop prices and/or a cessation of the drought, opium production could swell once again.


A New Counter-Narcotics Campaign


As part of the new strategy for Afghanistan, ISAF and U.S. forces will seek to “engage against narcotics facilities and facilitators where they provide material support to the insurgency.”17  This new NATO mandate will allow ISAF forces to target opium and precursor chemical storage facilities,18 mobile and stationary refineries, and traffickers if they are determined to be connected to the insurgency.19 The justification for this caveat stems from legal concerns that, despite the October 2008 Budapest Agreement in which NATO committed to targeting the opium trade directly,20 it is inappropriate for the military to be used in a counter narcotics role –primarily because military leaders view it as a criminal activity.

One particular operation highlights the importance of these targeted missions. Operation Diesel involved 700 British and Afghan Troops conducting operations in Helmand’s Upper Sangin Valley. In addition to the massive opium, heroin and precursor chemical seizure, “Kalashnikov assault rifles, PKM heavy-caliber machine guns, rocket- propelled grenade launchers, thousands of rounds of ammunition and motorbikes modified for carrying out suicide attacks” were found, demonstrating the explicit link between the narcotics trade and insurgents.21

The Afghan National Police (ANP), particularly the Counter-Narcotics Police, are working to enhance their ability to operate in the southern provinces as coalition forces build on their 22,000-strong force already under Regional Command South in Kandahar.22 The ANP will therefore be responsible for targeting facilities and facilitators not directly providing material support to the insurgency. In addition to facilities and facilitators, cracking down on freely operating smuggling routes may also strike serious blows to the narco-insurgency.23

  1 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, p. 44.
  2 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, p. 5.
  3 Thomas Schweich,  "U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan," United States Department of State, August 2007.
  4 Thomas Schweich, “Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?,” New York Times, July 27, 2008.
  5 Thomas Schweich, “Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?,” New York Times, July 27, 2008.
  6 Goodhand, Jonathan, “Frontiers and Wars: the Opium Economy in Afghanistan,” Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 5 No. 2, April 2005, pp. 191-216.
  7 Actually, taxing the poppy harvest (zakat, usher) is permissible under Islam as long as it is for the benefit of the poor, which it was not, see: James Emery, “The Taliban Opium Connection,” Middle East Times, April 1, 2008.
  8 Mullah Omar’s ban took effect after than year’s crop was safely harvested, James Emery, “The Taliban Opium Connection,” Middle East Times, April 1, 2008.
  9 Barry Bearak, “At Heroin's Source, Taliban Do What 'Just Say No' Could Not,” The New York Times, May 24, 2001.

  10 James Emery, “The Taliban Opium Connection,” Middle East Times, April 1, 2008.
  11 Remarks by Antonio Maria Costa, “Drugs Finance Taliban War Machine, Says UN Drug Tsar,” November 27, 2008.
  12 Tom Shanker, “Obstacle in Bid to Curb Afghan Trade in Narcotics,” The New York Times, December 23, 2008.
  13 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, p. 5.
  14 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Winter Assessment 2009, Kabul.
  15 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Winter Assessment 2009, Kabul, Executive Summary.
  16 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Winter Assessment 2009, Kabul, p. 19.
  17 Xuequanm Mu, “NATO top commander redesigns counter-narcotics order after leak of original intention,” Xinhua, February 5, 2009.
  18 James Emery, “Converting Afghan Opium into Heroin,” Middle East Times, April 30, 2008.
  19 UPI, “Taliban Pushed Out, Checkpoint Established,” Middle East Times, February 11, 2009.
  20 “NATO joins war on Afghan opium trade,” Agence France Presse, October 10, 2008.
  21 Kim Sengupta, “Troops Seize ₤50M of Afghan Opium,” The Independent, February 18, 2009.
  22 Troop numbers according to “International Security Assistance Force and National Army strength and laydown,” February 13, 2009.
  23 UPI, “Taliban Drug Factories Raided by British,” Middle East Times, February 18, 2009.