Afghanistan is infamous for its unending chaos and unchecked poppy production. As international forces gear up to leave, concerns are mounting about escalating ethnic tensions and an ever-expanding drug market in the aftermath.
The projection of the 2013 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is that Afghanistan’s contribution to the world drug market will be about 92% of the total opium production by 2014. This report, Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment 2013, rightly refers to the trend as a “worrying situation.”
Historically speaking, the earliest account of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was seen around 300 years ago. Over the years, fluctuations of stability in Afghanistan have generally shown corresponding increase and decrease of poppy cultivation trends. After joining the UN in 1946, Afghan King Zahir Shah placed a ban on poppy production temporarily and Afghanistan moved steadily towards prosperity and modernization with extensive economic and technical support from the U.S. in the 1950s. This lasted till 1979 when the Soviet invasion halted the process. A decade of war claimed heavy loss to life and infrastructure – destroying roads, irrigation canals, food processing factories, cotton gins and fruit markets – and the ensuing chaos ruined major economic activity creating an environment of desperation and crime, ideal for growth and use of opium. As the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, warring tribal factions fought for control and by 1994 the Taliban had emerged as the dominant force controlling almost 80% of the land. Not much economic or social progress happened during Taliban rule and by 2000, Afghanistan’s opium production reached 75% of the world’s total. Helmand province in the South took the lead with almost 52% and Nangarhar province with 24% of total opium production in the country.
In July 2000, Mullah Omar, Afghanistan’s de facto head of state, surprisingly placed a ban on opium production. Enforced with strict measures, even threats to life and property, this resulted in unprecedented reduction in poppy cultivation. The UNDCP Donor Mission recorded complete success of the ban and confirmed the result in the Annual Opium Poppy Survey. At the October 2001 session of the UN General Assembly, it was acknowledged that, “…This year’s production  is around 185 tons. This is down from the 3300 tons last year , a decrease of over 94 per cent. Compared to the record harvest of 4700 tons two years ago, the decrease is well over 97 per cent.” Later, however, the agencies observed that the ban’s real objective was to create an artificial shortage to hike prices of heroin, not eradication. The UNDOC report cautioned, “If Taliban officials were sincere in stopping the production of opium and heroin, then one would expect them to order the destruction of all stocks existing in areas under their control.” Although, no hard evidence was found of stockpiling on a large scale, the fears expressed by UNODC were widely shared in the international community. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the fall of the Taliban, the warlords and drug dealers once again exploited the chaos and soon enough the opium production rose up to 85%, and has only increased since.
Some reasons for this persistence include the farmers’ reliance on what they consider dependable income necessary for survival. The poppy crop pays for all the food their families need, the stalks serve as firewood, its ash is used to make soap and the seeds are utilized for cooking oil. The farmers also lack trust in their government’s credibility and ability to build roads, bridges, and canals, and alternate livelihoods. Officials are accused of letting foreign aid for agricultural projects disappear into corrupt government coffers, and letting the people starve while buying fancy property in Dubai and the U.S. for themselves.
This corruption allegedly reaches the top levels of government, including the President, Hamid Karzai himself. His late half-brother, Wali Ahmed Karzai, was ironically also on CIA payroll (New York Times, July 2009). The report also alleged that President Karzai is reluctant to check drug lords in his political power base in Southern Afghanistan where most of the opium production takes place and Wali Karzai, who was killed in 2011 by a trusted commander presumably over a drug related dispute, was openly accused of eagerly filling in the vacuum created by removal of other drug lords by the U.S. military and the Karzai government.
Finding an effective solution to issues like opium production in Afghanistan is a complicated task. As a nation, Afghanistan constitutes a mix of several ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups fighting for control over territory and resources. The current Afghan government’s jurisdiction is largely ineffective outside Kabul. Deep ethnic divisions tear apart the societal fabric, millions are displaced, disabled and struggling to survive, lawlessness is a way of life, no worthwhile educational or healthcare system stands, and there is a huge dearth of professional, skilled personnel. Hence, there are no short cuts or quick-fix solutions possible in the current scenario. The opium problem cannot be seen as an isolated issue, but rather a part of the larger broken system.
For any program to be successful, it would have to be community based and not seen as being imposed from outside. The government needs to work sincerely and deliver on its promises to build its credibility and help the Afghan people move forward. The Afghan government will also need all the help it can get from the international community. The world community needs to acknowledge that besides the poverty and corruption factor, it is the demand in the First World that encourages the heroine business; a simple question of supply and demand. The opium benefits the international drug markets more than the producing countries, as acknowledged by U.S. State Department, and quoted by the Voice of America in a 27 February 2004 broadcast, “Afghan heroin sells on the international narcotics market for 100 times the price farmers get for their opium right out of the field.” Clearly, eradicating opium production is a collective responsibility.
SouthAsia Magazine , June 2013.