By / January 17, 2014

Afghan opium production reaches record high

Afghan opium production increased by 49% in 2013, reaching a record high. According to the UN Office on Drugs and…

© Venelin Petkov / Fotolia

Afghan opium production increased by 49% in 2013, reaching a record high. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), potential production was even higher, limited only by unfavourable weather conditions, while eradication efforts diminished. The drug trade helps sustain the military conflict and, with presidential elections in 2014 as well as the planned draw-down of foreign troops, it could contribute to an escalation in coming years.

Opium production: background

Afghan opium production reaches record high
© Venelin Petkov / Fotolia

Deeply rooted in Afghanistan’s economy since at least the 1950s, opium production started increasing steadily after the 1979 Soviet invasion. It has contributed to every Afghan conflict since, helping to fund the insurgency which rose to combat ten years of Soviet occupation, the civil war that followed, Taliban rule in the second half of the 1990s, and the post-2001 insurgency.

The Taliban, for its part, has been known to derive revenue from taxes and protection money tied to the opium trade; to make deals with local poppy cultivators and traders to build political alliances; and even to allow local mullahs to collect a ten percent tax on sales. However, it is estimated that government officials, police, and local and regional intermediaries are even bigger beneficiaries of the drugs trade.

Over the years, the Afghan drug trade has come to represent more than 90% of global supply (it is the main heroin supplier to EU markets). The World Bank describes opium as one of the greatest threats to state-building, reconstruction, and development in Afghanistan, while the country has one of the highest levels of addiction in the world.

Eradication: a history of failure

According to the UNODC, 2013 saw a 24% fall in eradication of poppy fields as well as a significant increase in fatalities and injuries related to eradication efforts (143 people killed, up from 102 in 2012). Two northern provinces previously declared opium-free lost that status.

The most noticeable eradication effort in past decades in fact occurred under Taliban rule: hoping to gain international respect, the Taliban government banned opium production in the year prior to the US-led invasion in 2001. The ban caused a slump in production and a 75% fall in global supply. However, the disappearance of a key source of revenue drove poor farmers into debt and led to widespread discontent. Afghans began violating the ban even before the 2001 invasion. After the ousting of the Taliban, poppy cultivation rose again.

Over the next decade, Afghan opium production grew while eradication efforts produced little, or even counter-productive, results. International initiatives included training Afghan units in manual eradication, supporting rural development programmes, including so-called “alternative livelihood” programmes (seeking to provide farmers with alternatives to producing opium), and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) units cracking down on drug-traffickers.

Afghan opium production reaches record high

However, state-led eradication itself became a vehicle for corruption: farmers were forced to pay to avoid their poppy crop being eradicated, police sold confiscated drugs, and government officials protected associates in the opium industry while weeding out their competitors. Eradication often ended up alienating rural populations from both local and national authorities, providing an opening for Taliban mobilisation. Meanwhile, development programmes were sometimes short-lived and concerned more with providing immediate incentives for Afghans not to join the insurgency than with producing long-term sustainable development. Alternative livelihood programmes were criticised for largely failing to address the deeper structural deficiencies of the licit rural economy (such as lack of rural infrastructure, processing facilities, and low profitability of legal crops) which made farmers reliant on poppy cultivation in the first place.

The EU has contributed to state-led counter-narcotics efforts through the Afghan Counter Narcotics Trust Fund, and supports law-enforcement and border-security measures to combat the drug trade. The 2007-13 EU Country Strategy for Afghanistan warned that the state is at risk of being captured by narcotics interests and promised rural development programmes to support alternative livelihoods. On 28 January 2013, the European Commission signed its latest agreement to support Afghan farmers. The European Parliament called for a new Afghanistan strategy in a 2010 resolution, warning that NATO’s Afghan allies “are in fact getting the lion’s share of the profits from the drugs trade”, and encouraging the making available of “other sources of viable revenue” for Afghans.

Reasons for the 2013 spike

According to the UNODC, reasons for the 2013 spike included the relative ease of cultivation and the high price of opium. However, widespread political and economic uncertainty, as well as the prospect of a slump in foreign aid in 2014, also led Afghans to rely increasingly on the illicit economy.

This year will see both the transfer of governmental powers after the April 2014 presidential election (current president Hamid Karzai is required to step down due to term limits) and the gradual withdrawal of foreign combat troops, leaving Afghan forces to take control. Uncertainty about the outcome of the transition process has already led to a slowdown in economic growth.

At the same time, the prospect of a significant decrease in foreign funding has led to a search for new sources of revenue. This is not just true for state-affiliated actors but also for insurgents, whose traditional financial backers in the Persian Gulf seem to be turning their attention to militant groups fighting in countries like Syria and Yemen.

Perspectives: the 2014 transition

In the 2014 election year, eradication might slow even further as the government tries to refrain from alienating the rural population. Furthermore, many presidential candidates have links to power-brokers known to have profited from opium trade in the past. Political alliances are likely to be bought and paid for partly through the drug trade.

Analysts have also warned that the upward trend in opium production could be given an additional boost by troop withdrawals. Opium has been at the centre of the fight for rural control during the gradual transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, and local government-affiliated power brokers may choose to ignore or even encourage production to establish political control in the future.

Some analysts even warn that a regional opium war is possible if Afghans and Pakistanis start fighting for control over the opium trade along the border following the departure of foreign troops.

The drug trade is likely to fuel the conflict for years to come. It is growing in size and influence, and runs the risk of transforming the conflict into an all-out battle between drugs interests.

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