Dilemmas of Fighting Drugs

In times of hardship and war, cultivating opium became a strategy of survival for farmers in Afghanistan. The fact that they have no sense of wrongdoing makes it difficult to draft policies to stall production. By Conrad Schetter

photo: AP
Poppy field in Afghanistan

​​The opium survey for Afghanistan recently presented by United Nations paints an alarming picture (UNODC, 2004). Last year, it says, the country produced 4,200 metric tons – 87 percent of all opium sold globally.

Particularly disturbing is the fact that poppy farming has increased steadily since the Coalition against Terrorism intervened militarily in autumn 2001.

Owing to the enormous scale of production, the Afghan government and the international community now regard dismantling of the drug economy as a top priority. As experience in Colombia and the Golden Triangle has shown, however, that is a formidable task. An eradication strategy for Afghanistan is more likely to further destabilise the country than to produce fast, sustainable results.

Drugs for export

Virtually all the drugs in the country are exclusively produced for export, although a certain amount of opium is traditionally grown for domestic consumption in a few valleys in eastern Afghanistan. With the outbreak of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979, export-led production acquired a special significance.

The revenues were a valuable source of funding for the Mujaheddin. When the Soviet troops withdrew in 1988 and the country fragmented into innumerable warlord fiefdoms, opium-cultivation increased dramatically. In the 1990s, annual harvests of raw opium averaged 2,000 tons, with the provinces of Hilmand, Nangarhar and Badakshan being the principal growing areas.

Aside from the total loss of central government control, losses of arable land due to war damage and minefields prompted more and more farmers to plant opium poppies. They had to generate enough income to feed their families from smaller patches of land.

Under the Taliban, who controlled 90 percent of the country in the late 1990s, opium production initially increased. In 1999, the record harvest of 4,600 tons was registered. And whereas in the past raw opium had been processed in neighbouring countries (mostly Pakistan), heroin labs were now set up in Afghanistan.

It remains a mystery why the Taliban abruptly changed their stance and banned opium production in 2000. Maybe this move was part of a market strategy meant to reduce supplies and stabilise prices – or maybe it was prompted by religious dogma. Whatever the motive, the Taliban’s religious networks and draconian penalties succeeded in stopping opium cultivation.

The drug economy went into boom again after the overthrow of the Taliban and the establishment of a transitional government that had little control over the country. Within just three years, farmers were growing opium in every province. Despite drug control programmes, the area under cultivation has increased from 74,000 to 131,000 hectares in the past two years.

Opium as the backbone of national economy

Although less than three percent of arable land is used to grow opium poppies, the crop forms the backbone of the national economy. According to UNODC, opium revenues accounted for 38 percent of GDP (including the shadow economy).

For every dollar of development aid, there is two dollars revenue from the drug economy. But changes in supply and demand cause prices to fluctuate. While opium brought farmers around 1.2 billion dollars in 2003, tumbling prices reduced that income to 600 million in 2004.

Producer prices have fallen by nearly two thirds, whereas the profits reaped by dealers in the country – which the UNODC puts at a total of 2.2 billion dollars – have risen by nearly 70 percent. But even after this drop in prices, farmers still earned twelve times more from opium than they would have from cereals.

The drug economy is labour-intensive. According to UN statistics, 2.3 million people in 356,000 families (or around ten percent of the Afghan population) are involved in production activities. Another 15,000 or so people act as dealers, mostly with a limited radius because they have links with only a few farmers.

Although wholesale trade structures have become established in the province of Nangarhar, there are no drug cartels so far. Even most wholesalers’ scope of action ends at the Afghan border. The profits thus benefit a large number of small traffickers.

Farmers have some leeway in the process of price bargaining and opium production, for them, provides opportunities to access informal loans for seed. The main disadvantage is that they grow dependant on dealers, which is hard to reverse.

Militias and warlords also have a stake in the drug trade. Opium farmers pay the warlords a 10 percent levy and dealers pay a kind of road toll for free passage to the villages.

As long ago as spring 2002, the international community declared dismantling the drug economy a key priority. However, the initial impact of relief programmes was to boost opium production. Domestic grain prices plummeted because of wheat imports for needy communities, prompting many farmers to switch to growing opium.

The British-led drug control programme launched in 2002 relied on compensation payments, offering farmers 350 dollars a hectare to destroy their poppy fields. The farmers demanded 3,000 dollars, however, because they had gone into debt in anticipation of high profits. The result was another upturn in opium production.

Many farmers pocketed the compensation but then went on to plant new poppy fields in remote areas – not least for the sake of meeting their commitments to drug traffickers.

Jihad against drugs

The issue of drug control remains high on the international agenda. At the Berlin donor conference last April, President Hamid Karzai called for a jihad against drug cultivation. He has repeatedly stressed since then that the drug economy is the biggest obstacle to Afghanistan’s development.

The US administration, in particular, has recently been pushing for more radical action and has pledged 780 million dollars for drug control in 2005 – 300 million of which for eradication programmes alone. Against Karzai’s explicit wishes, the US government is propagating a large-scale crop-spraying operation to destroy poppy fields with pesticide.

Afghan and European officials, on the other hand, prefer a "carrot and stick" policy: only if compensation, raising of public awareness and alternative planting programmes fail to make farmers reconsider their crop of choice should draconian measures be taken.

It needs to be remembered that Afghans’ experience of opium growing in the past was largely positive. The plant is ideally adapted to the country’s environment; it is rather undemanding, requires little water and grows almost anywhere.

Saffron, rose oil and wild rice – the alternative crops that have been proposed – are much harder to cultivate and nowhere near as profitable. For Badakshan and Uruzgan – two provinces that have always been particularly poor – drug cultivation has brought a modest but visible degree of prosperity.

The evidence is seen in new houses, SUVs and mobile phones. What is more, the gap between rich and poor has not widened particularly as even landless peasants renting fields from landowners profit from the opium economy. The labour-intensive production creates incomes for people with practically no chance of regular employment.

At present, Afghan farmers are not coerced into planting opium poppies by warlords or drug barons. Many, it seems, take the initiative themselves. Moreover, the drug economy is not confined to marginalised or criminalised elements – it pervades the whole of society.

Merchants casually trade in drugs as they do, at the same time, in wheat, car tyres and electrical appliances. For many small farmers, growing opium forms as much a part of their survival strategy as growing wheat and barley.

State actors, too, profit from the drug economy. Off the record, even Afghan ministers are frequently suspected of being involved in the narcotics business. Afghanistan’s government has begun to destroy drg sapplies.

In Afghanistan, the Western view that growing opium is illegal and immoral still seems exotic to many. Most people are perplexed by – or even hostile to – the opium-growing ban announced by the government in January 2002.

They do not consider the government a relevant authority for deciding on what is legal and what is not. To change the understanding of legitimacy, it would take religious leaders or village elders elaborating on Islamic teachings and tribal traditions. However, these very elites have been encouraging opium production after the fall of the Taliban – sometimes even as a form of jihad against the West.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the drug economy has not been a source of real problems in Afghanistan itself. Many local people see it more as a promising sector in a country where economic prospects are otherwise bleak.

Certainly, drug farming does have a negative impact on neighbouring countries, where the numbers of addicts are growing. According to the UNODC, Pakistan has half a million heroin addicts and Iran 3.7 million opiate abusers. However, Afghanistan’s neighbours are still primarily transit countries.

The big money is made in Europe and the United States. This is the demand that serves as the incentive for production. So for sustainable progress to be made in the war against drug production, consumption in the industrialised countries needs to be curbed.

Risky fight against opium producers

Stepping up the fight against opium producers in Afghanistan, however, is fraught with inestimable risks. The fragile peace and tentative steps towards national reconstruction would be jeopardised. Public dissatisfaction could quickly spread and be channelled into hostility towards foreigners – from development workers to ISAF troops.

They all would be perceived as agents of the anti-drug campaign. A "war on drugs" would also encourage organised crime because many small farmers would make a conscious choice to cultivate opium and secure their livelihoods rather than take their chances by obeying the law.

Forceful steps against the trade at present would also prompt the formation of drug cartels, which might then coerce farmers into growing opium. On top of all this, there is also an economic dilemma: if production was successfully cut back, the reduction in supply would push up prices on the black market and make growing opium even more lucrative.

In the case of Afghanistan, the international community, therefore, should consider innovative approaches. Legalising the cultivation of the opium poppy and nationalising distribution would certainly be bold and controversial moves – but they could prevent the impending connection between organised crime and opium cultivation.

If the international community insists on fighting drugs at the source, however, it will definitely have to win over the traditional elites. They alone have the authority to stop opium growing and strip the drug economy of its legitimacy.

In this respect, President Karzai has already made some headway by persuading tribal leaders in Nangarhar to endorse a ban on opium growing. In return, Karzai promised development assistance. However, Afghanistan is a country marked by high regional diversity. What works in one place may well fail in another.

Dr. Conrad Schetter

© Magazine for Development and Cooperation 2/2005

Dr. Conrad Schetter works for the Bonn-based Centre for Development Research (ZEF).

Further Information: UNODC, Afghanistan. Opium Survey, November 2004

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