Why Eradication Won’t Solve Afghanistan’s Poppy Problem

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Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium, bringing billions of dollars a year into the country’s economy, fueling the global heroin trade, funding both the Taliban and government-linked warlords, and exacerbating government corruption. But international attempts to suppress opium production have often been ineffective and even counterproductive to “other objectives of peace, state-building and economic reconstruction.”

FRONTLINE talked to Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on drug interdiction efforts and counterinsurgency, to learn more about the widespread effects of opium production in Afghanistan and the outcome of efforts to curb it.

How did Afghanistan become the supplier of 90 percent of the world’s opium?

“If you want to be a political actor in Afghanistan, much … is dependent on being able to distribute some profit to your community. There are two ways to get access to get such access to money: one is to get access to foreign aid; the other is to get profits from opium poppy.”

In the 1980s several important changes took place in the international market and in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan in the mid-80s, the Soviet Army ended up adopting a “scorched earth” policy [to systematically destroy agricultural resources]. That is because while the Soviets were able to control the cities, they were never able to control the countryside. The insurgency was always [launching] attacks from the rural areas on the cities and generating instability. The Soviets tried military operations in the countryside, which didn’t control the problem, so ultimately, they decided to destroy the agriculture in the countryside with the idea that this would drive the rural population into the cities, which they could control.

The effect was the complete collapse of the agricultural production of Afghanistan: the destruction of orchards, irrigation canals. The only thing the population could grow was opium poppy, which didn’t require [so much] irrigation, fertilizers or transportation, because Pakistani traders would come to the farm and pick up the opium. So this really unleashed the first systematic cultivation of opium poppy at the time.

At the same time, there was a growing demand for opiates in the world. Production from the traditional supplier — the golden triangle of Burma, Laos and Vietnam — was significantly suppressed. None of the agricultural infrastructure was rebuilt in the 1990s, following the Soviet withdrawal and civil war, and this trend continued through the Taliban era.

What effects did opium production have in Afghanistan?

From the mid-80s through the mid 2000s, opium poppy was the main source of livelihood for the population.

Even today, when you have a growing legal GDP, opium poppy production is still very important. It is still, at minimum, around 20 percent of the GDP, and that might be significantly underestimating the actual value of opium poppy because it also has repercussions in other sectors. … It is one of the big sources of economic activity in Afghanistan, along with foreign aid. If foreign aid diminishes significantly post-2014 [when U.S. troops are set to withdraw], it will be a very important driver of economic activity.

But there are other effects beyond economic effects. One of them is that since the mid-80s, political power is heavily associated with access to both foreign aid and opium poppy. If you want to be a political actor in Afghanistan — whether you call that a warlord, power broker or politician — much … is dependent on being able to distribute some profit to your community. There are two ways to get access to get such access to money: one is to get access to foreign aid; the other is to get profits from opium poppy. So political power, at least until the mid-2000s, and in a more covert way since the mid-2000s, has been very strongly associated with access to the drug trade. …

The Taliban appeared in 1994 and, at first, prohibited poppy cultivation on religious grounds. But by 1996, they changed course. Why? How has opium production helped them?

At the time, even more than today, the two ways to make money was to smuggle across the border, or trade in poppy. When the Taliban outlawed poppy [in early 1995] and told the people they could not cultivate it, they very quickly realized that in the key provinces where they needed support, Kandahar, and especially Helmand — all of a sudden they had lots of rebellions on their hands. The population was not willing to put up with it. Warlords were mobilizing against them on the anti-eradication agenda.

[But by 1996,] the Taliban [decided] they did not have enough coercive power to alienate the population to this extent. So they said that while the use of hashish or opium was still prohibited, we understand that we cannot starve you. They said the Quran says you are not supposed eat pork, but if you are to die of hunger, you can eat pork. They used the same logic to say that we understand that you would be starving without opium poppy, so you can cultivate opium. …

Soon the Taliban began taxing opium poppy. It was one of their big sources of income because there was no other economic activity, and they taxed cultivation between 10 and 20 percent, taxed traders and farmers.

Then in late 1999/2000, they changed their mind and brought in a new ban, a very comprehensive ban and cultivation crashed by 90 percent. This was arguably the largest policy-driven reduction of any cultivation anywhere in the world, [but also severely depressed economic prospects in the country].

Why did the Taliban decide to ban poppy again in 1999/2000?

While they controlled much of Afghanistan at the time, no international governments except Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan recognized them. But they really wanted international recognition.

Throughout the 1990s, the U.N. had told them to eradicate opium, so they essentially banked on the idea that if they suppressed cultivation, they would then get international recognition as the official government in Afghanistan and a seat at the U.N.

The ban worked because the population at this point was totally intimidated by them, and the government had promised they would reap economic goodies from the international community to offset the losses. But these goodies never materialized, and a few months down the road, you had massive economic catastrophe happening in Afghanistan — drops of income by 95 percent, starvation conditions, huge debt for many people, and in some instances, even “opium brides,” young girls given to money lenders when their families could not replay loans.

In 2001, the second year of the ban, many farmers violated the ban and went back to the cultivation of poppy, despite the risks that the Taliban would punish them very severely. And when the Taliban were deposed in 2001, interestingly, there was no support for the Taliban, in part, because people were so alienated by the economic misery they were going through for the past year and half.

[Editor's Note: In September 2001, the Taliban took back their ban on cultivation. Though some analysts have suggested their reversal was an attempt to generate additional financing to fight U.S. forces after 9/11, Felbab-Brown says the fact that the ban had raised the price of heroin makes it more likely that the reversal was "driven by the political costs of the anti-drug policy."]

Today the Taliban makes money from taxing the drug trade, as well as taxing a lot of other activities or production in any areas where they have strong influence, be it foreign aid or opium poppy. But they also get important political capital — or used to in the 2000s anyway — by offering themselves as protectors of the poppy farmers against the evil government, as they would portray it, that was trying to eradicate opium poppy.

So besides the Taliban, who are the drug traffickers?

… Ahmed Wali Karzai, [President Karzai's half-brother who was killed in July,] was widely accused of being a major drug trafficker in southern Afghanistan. Other prominent actors include General Abdul Raziq, Kandahar’s police chief, who has long been alleged to be a very important drug trafficker, as well as Matiullah Khan, [the powerful head of a private army in Uruzgan province]. So they include those who [are] both on the pro-government side, as well as those on the anti-government side, like the Taliban.

Tell us about U.S. policy on opium production since the war began in late 2001.

Between 2001 and 2004, the U.S. very much had a hands-off policy towards the opium poppy, partially because Northern Alliance warlords, [whom the U.S. was] using for intelligence and for direct military operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, were knee-high in opium poppy. … So the U.S. said the priorities are to defeat the Taliban, not their human rights problems or that they are peddling in the drug trade.

That changed in 2004, when the United States, thinking that the Taliban had been defeated, [decided] now we can expand the menu of our objectives; now we want to suppress the drug trade. … So from about 2004 to 2008, the U.S. government had been pushing towards greater and greater eradication. … The Afghan government wasn’t necessarily keen [to do it].

The promise was that [poppy eradication efforts] would end corruption and bankrupt the Taliban.  Neither happened. Corruption kept increasing and increasing, and the Taliban became stronger and stronger, for a variety of reasons, [including] that the Taliban drew a lot of support from the poppy farmers who were outraged by the poppy eradication policy.

But the U.S. government was not uniform; there was opposition from ISAF and the U.S. military, saying this is really bad. This is increasing support for the Taliban. This is driving the poppy farmers into the hands of the Taliban. This is very bad [for] the counterinsurgency campaign.

So what happened in 2009?

The big change comes in 2009, when the Obama administration says, eradication is not doing what it promised. There is no decrease in corruption; in fact, there is a huge amount of corruption associated with eradication. It’s not bankrupting the Taliban; there is more poppy than there was a few years back, and it’s losing the hearts and minds of the population, and making counterinsurgency really difficult. So we are going to change policy.

The U.S. government decided to defund the centrally led eradication force, which was the main unit that was eradicating. But the Obama administration wanted to compromise somewhat, and they said if the Afghan government, local governors, wants to do some eradication, that’s their choice. If the local provincial governors decide the want to eradicate, we will provide them assistance, both equipment and technical assistance. …

What often happens is that when the governors push ahead with eradication, they lose the support of the population; they do it at gunpoint, essentially.

There are different types of poppy farmers in Afghanistan. Some who are close to the Afghan market — like 20 kilometers or less from the capital — have the capacity to cultivate other things than poppy. So if these governors go after these poppy farmers with threat and coercion, they can get them to switch to other crops. Many of these farmers found that they actually make more money cultivating things like okra and vegetables other than opium poppy.

Now you have other farmers who are further away from provincial capitals, in areas of insecurity and poor infrastructure, who are fundamentally dependent on opium poppy. So if the government coerces them — through physical destruction of the crops, or real intimidation, like threatening to send NATO or to imprison them — then they may abstain from cultivating, but then the face huge economic deprivation as a result. What that also means is that the governor and the provincial government loses legitimacy.

So then why would the Afghan government, these provincial governors, want to eradicate poppy if doing so reduces their legitimacy with the Afghan people?

Often a governor would do this in order to court the favor of the international community.

So people like Gul Agha Shirzai, who comes from Kandahar and used to be a big drug lord there, has now for a number of years been the provincial governor in Nangarhar Province. He has been very keen to suppress opium cultivation there and has done so through threats and promises about “alternative livelihood” programs for farmers who don’t cultivate opium poppy. He has not been effectively able to deliver on the promise of alternative livelihood to most of the farmers.

But he has been doing two things: He has been transforming himself from a reviled warlord whom the international community used to strongly dislike to someone who in the eyes of the full international community is defined now as a good governor for keeping poppy cultivation down, and a man who has big presidential ambitions in Afghanistan.

At the same time, his network’s drug assets are all in Kandahar. So if you suppress cultivation in Nangarhar Province, you are appearing virtuous to the internationals, and at the same time you are eliminating your drug competition from a different ethnic group.

Are there other Afghan governors who pursue poppy eradication like him?

There are not many.

To some extent, many governors engage in eradication, but it’s often extremely limited — maybe a few hundred to a thousand hectares eradicated, on the scale of having 15,000 to 60,000 hectares cultivated. But they feel they need to throw some bone to the internationals who are demanding eradication, so they take either actors who are very weak — the poorest farmers who have no capacity to intimidate the government or to corrupt the eradication teams — or they take opposition — rival politicians and their networks and their power base — and eradicate some elements of their poppy.

There are two people who have engaged in very robust eradication — Gul Agha Shirzai in Nangarhar and Muhammad Atta Noor, the provincial governor [of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif and the surrounding Balkh Province].

Atta — another very problematic warlord with lots of blood on his hands — has decided that he too will redeem himself with the internationals by being tough on drugs, eradicating opium poppy.

[Eradication] has been far less politically costly for Atta than it has been for Shirzai, because while Balkh, in the north, had cultivation, it was always only when the south or east were knocked out, so when the south and east were producing enough, Balkh’s cultivation would go down. …

But Atta, too, has been unable to deliver robust alternative livelihoods for the poppy farmers who were displaced.

Which countries and international organizations still support poppy eradication policies today?

The U.N. wobbles on the issue. During the height of U.S. eradication — when Antonio Maria Costa was in charge of U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) — [the U.N. was more vocal] … Today, we haven’t seen the U.N. as vocal on the issue as it was during the Costa years.

Certainly Russia [where about 20 percent of all of the heroin trafficked from Afghanistan each year winds up, according to the UNODC] is the only big vocal actor demanding the resurrection of very strong eradication today because Russia believes that drug use and abuse is a function of supply; that you can eradicate your way out of supply-side problems. …

Russia has been a very angry actor. Their main confrontation has not been with the Europeans, but with the U.S.

The Obama administration has really tried to engage the Russians on the issue, trying to explain to the Russians why eradication will be ineffective and counterproductive, trying to explain that if their main concerns are use and disease, they need to focus on treatment and prevention, rather than believe that eradication in Afghanistan will solve their problems.

The Russians have not been taking well to the U.S. narrative and have not been persuaded.

The more extreme Russian narrative is that the U.S. does not engage in eradication on purpose to poison the Russian nation.  The official Russian position is that the U.S. is failing on its major position to eradicate opium poppy and that someone needs to be eradicating opium poppy in Afghanistan.

But the Russians have conflicting objectives: They would like to see opium eradicated, but they also do not want Afghanistan to fall to the hands of the Taliban. So even if they have been getting more confrontational [with the U.S.] over poppy, they have permitted the use of Russian space for the transportation of supplies to Afghanistan. …

If eradication policies are not working, what are the sorts of counternarcotics policies the U.S. and Afghanistan should be pursuing? How long could it take for them to be effective?

Rather than pushing premature eradication, counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan should focus on selective interdiction and the build up of a legal economy.

Both are essentially the current policies, but their execution has been problematic.

Interdiction has focused dominantly on Taliban-linked traffickers. That helps weaken the Taliban’s logistical networks. But the weak interdiction focus on traffickers linked with the Afghan government — as understandable as that is given the political entanglements between Afghanistan’s political and criminal networks — also sends the message that government-linked traffickers have little to fear. Such a policy is seen by many Afghans as yet another manifestation of Kabul’s mafia rule.

Moreover, interdiction as conducted by ISAF in pursuit of Taliban-linked traffickers has become too broad. Often, opium is seized during any house search, even if the house owners are not in fact valuable Taliban. Since most households hold their financial savings in the form of opium … a blanket interdiction can completely wipe out the household savings and be in practice indistinguishable from eradication. …

Rural development efforts also need to be significantly improved. Although Kandahar and Helmand [provinces] have been flooded by money meant for rural development since 2009, [districts], such as Marja and Nad-Ali, have been showered by money way beyond their absorptive capacity. Most of the money was spent on unsustainable, short-term, cash-for-work programs that amount more to political handouts and buying love. Thus, two years later, they have little to show for themselves. Such a handout approach has not only failed to address the structural drivers of the poppy economy, but also paradoxically perpetuated crime and war dynamics in the targeted areas, with little oversight as to how the money was spent and who managed to siphon it off. Rural development projects should instead focus on sustainable programs, capacity building, and focus at least as much on secure areas as on the insecure ones. Critically, money should not be spent on programs that cannot be carefully monitored.

But any progress in counternarcotics in Afghanistan will take a lot of time — many, many years. Rural development programs in much less destroyed areas often take several decades. And any counternarcotics policy — whether [overbearing] eradication regardless of the political fallout or rural development efforts — ultimately require[s] good and sustained security.

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