Despite billions spent in eradication efforts, Afghanistan’s opium harvest is set to break all records this year, as one of the country’s primary agricultural activities and most profitable export trades blooms in the midst of an uncertain political and military transition.
Afghanistan produced tons of opium in 2013 — an estimated 6,062 tons in fact, — growing its output for the third consecutive year, and up 36 percent from the year before.
The hike followed a short-lived drop in production as international and Afghan officials attempted to eradicate cultivation of the delicate plant, which produces the main ingredient used in heroin.
As most foreign troops prepare to leave by year’s end, likely followed out the door by billions in development aid, Afghanistan’s blossoming illicit trade is a reflection of many of the uncertainties ahead — as the country deals with massive unemployment, a fragile security, and the fear of losing ground on progress made in the last few years.
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Afghanistan’s opium economy is bad news to the country’s growing population of drug addicts — up to 1.5 million, according to the UN, — and as all illicit trades, it is vulnerable to violence and abuse.
But it may not be such bad news for the country's economy and political stability, as things in Afghanistan might actually be worse without it.
For one, opium employs a lot of people. And at least until the end of harvesting season, it keeps them too busy to join the insurgency.
'The alternative right now would be huge political instability and it would also be huge unemployment.'
“There’s no legal economy in Afghanistan that can match the profits and the amount of people opium can employ,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and expert on counter-narcotic efforts in Afghanistan, told VICE News.
Opium is both profitable and labor-intensive, an important combination in a country with some 400,000 people entering the workforce every year. To put things in perspective, if the 806 square miles Afghans cultivated with opium last year were to grow wheat instead, they would employ about 20 percent of the people currently working on opium fields, Felbab-Brown said.
“What we really need to ask ourselves is, is it bad to have this illicit economy? It probably is bad, but is it much worse than the alternative? The alternative right now would be huge political instability and it would also be huge unemployment,” she said. “So yes, it’s undesirable that there is a major illicit economy that constitutes so much of the country’s GDP, but there’s just no way to walk away from that.”
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But if the opium economy is illicit and fraught with potential for violence and devastating public health implications, it is an economy nonetheless, and a thriving one at that.
Afghanistan produced 75 percent of the world’s heroin supply in 2013, and it’s on its way to produce as much as 90 percent this year. The country is also one of the world's top exporters of cannabis — mostly hashish.
“You have a sector, the poppy cultivation, which provides employment for more than 200,000 families in Afghanistan and accounts for 73 million hours of labor annually," Ashita Mittal, acting country director for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul told VICE News. "Those are huge numbers we are talking about.”
'Right now, growing opium makes more money than anything else for Afghan farmers so it’s going to be very hard to stomp out.'
In the early 2000s, the $18 billion-worth trade accounted for as much as 50 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, she noted, and was down to about 15 percent of it last year. But Afghanistan — which doomsayers have dubbed a "narcostate" years ago — lacks the determination to do away from such profits, despite massive financial incentives to do so, including some $7.5 billion from the US alone.
"The US has put three times more money on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan than it did in Colombia, but what distinguishes Colombia from Afghanistan is the political will that was demonstrated by the ruling parties there," Mittal said. "Unless there's a firm commitment from the top, it's not going to change. Perhaps the new government will be an opportunity to place this on the agenda."
The profits of the opium trade, she added, are not exactly enriching the country's most destitute. While the economic impact trickles down somewhat, the largely poor farmers harvesting the white and pink poppy blooms are not the ones reaping the profits.
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Local warlords and the Taliban often have their hands in the trade, but it is wealthy elites with deep ties to the country’s government that have no interest in seeing the opium cultivation stop.
“Afghanistan is a very corrupt country, we all know that. It’s an opportunity, when there is weak governance, when there is insecurity, and where there is a culture of impunity,” Mittal said. “These levels of cultivation cannot take place without the cognizance of several actors, from top to bottom. After all, it’s not an invisible crop, you can actually see where it’s growing and that just goes to show that it’s under the patronage of someone.”
At the end of the day, there’s too much money to be made in opium for eradication to really work — at least until better economic opportunities become available, which could take decades.
“It’s economics: growing poppy is the most profitable agricultural activity in a country where the industry is overwhelmingly agricultural,” Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Kabul, told VICE News. “Right now, growing opium makes more money than anything else for Afghan farmers so it’s going to be very hard to stomp out. The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan will continue to be the world’s leading opium producer probably for many years to come and the international community will need to help Afghanistan get off the sauce when it comes to finding another way to bring in hard currency.”
But while it may keep people employed, Afghanistan’s thriving opium economy is also a testimony to one of the failures of US-led reconstruction efforts in the country.
The drug trade was never enough of a priority, critics said, and efforts to eradicate opium were not integrated within counterinsurgency strategies, despite the trade’s deep ties to the country’s politics.
And fighting the drug war, in many cases, promoted violence.
"Some of the counter-narcotics campaigns over the years have not just been useless, but actually dangerous," Smith said.
In a survey of Taliban fighters he carried out, he found that "a huge number of them had personal experience with poppy eradication. Someone they knew or someone in their family had their opium fields visited by eradicators who slashed and burned the fields. There's a strong correlation between people who have their fields eradicated and people who decide to take up arms and fight the government."
“We have never been able to integrate narcotics in a serious manner within the top priorities for Afghanistan,” Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC’s director of policy analysis, told VICE News. “The underlying factor is the governance, the clientelism, the corruption, the fact that we have been pushing tons of money into the country over the last decade.”
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“We need to understand that development takes 10, 15, 20 years, and that will be no less for the narcotics agenda; we need a long term strategy,” he added.
Some of the strategies deployed so far — including a massive campaign of eradication — failed to do that, and in fact did more damage than good. Eradication alone, Lemahieu charged, won’t cut it.
“It may look great on your opium map the year after, but it may have no sustainability and you may have increased the poverty and human rights abuses by threefold, fivefold,” he said.
'The best way to be a drug dealer in Afghanistan is to be part of the Afghan government or closely associated with it.'
About 70 percent of the country’s opium is produced in three of the provinces targeted by the US military surge of 2009. But as soon as foreign troops started leaving those areas — including Helmand and Kandahar — production spiked back up.
Eradication — destroying crops, naively hoping they won’t grow back — was a “stupid policy,” Felbab-Brown agreed.
“There were very simplistic notions that it could be somehow resolved quickly. But without being able to be specific, what would inevitably happen is that eradication would target the poorest sectors of society, and they would then become dependent on the support of the Taliban for basic survival, and consequently they would dislike the state and dislike the counterinsurgency, and strengthen their bond to militants like the Taliban,” she said. "Eradication strengthens the militants. Fighting intensifies because people are out of work."
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Where they were implemented, eradication policies were both uneven and subject to the whims of corrupt local elites. “Most of the times they simply eradicated the plots of their political rivals or of poor farmers who don’t have enough money to bribe the eradication team,” Felbab-Brown added.
'There are enough reasons, all bad ones, for Afghanistan to be very vulnerable to addiction, and with that enormous supply that's exactly what's happening.'
Similarly, an effort to go after opium cultivations tied to the Taliban served the interests of drug growers on the authorities’ good books, contributing to the development of a much more powerful and integrated criminal industry, and “sending the message that the best way to be a drug dealer in Afghanistan is to be part of the Afghan government or closely associated with it. This drives to all sorts of nasty characters with lots of political and economic power," according to Felbab-Brown.
Eventually, economists say, Afghanistan’s opium output will level back down, because of a saturated market and dropping prices.
Raw opium prices have fluctuated with the country’s politics — from $80 a kilogram at the beginning of the surge, to $300 one year later.
But until then, the public health costs (about $300 million a year) associated to being the world’s leading opium producer will continue to be huge, because if Afghanistan exports tons of opium, it is also increasingly consuming a lot.
Opium addiction has been on the rise across all classes in Afghanistan — a sad "social equalizer," Mittal said — and it has particularly impacted the country's large population of returning refugees, coming home to a country devastated by decades of war and with few opportunities.
“Demand creates supply but supply creates demand too,” Lemahieu said. "There are enough reasons, all bad ones, for Afghanistan to be very vulnerable to addiction, and with that enormous supply that's exactly what's happening. The addiction rates are going up and the government does not have the resources to deal with it. It's very tragic."
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