The War of the Poppies

By Jed Bickman 10/23/12

As the US prepares to leave Afghanistan in 2014, we can claim some victories in the war on terror. But in the war on drugs there, we raised the white flag of surrender years ago.

Afghan poppy farmer photo via

Beneath the long war in Afghanistan there is another, darker war: a narco-war against the world’s most productive opium business. Neither war is going well for the United States: in advance of the announced 2014 drawdown of our troops, the only partly governed land seems to be heading inexorably toward civil war, even as the Afghan military turns against NATO troops and as the US all but abandons hope of a peace deal with Taliban insurgents.

One reason that the Taliban has proved so resilient is a steady stream of funding from opium and processed heroin. Despite NATO efforts to subsidize other crops, opium remains, as ever, the most profitable crop for Afghan farmers, and the nation continues to produce over 90% of global product. A portion of the profits from the drug economy are passed to the Taliban, which in turn protects the opium farmers and shields drug traffickers. The profits also foster a vast network of unofficial, local power structures that make it more difficult for the Karzai government's central authority to exert control over the countryside while fueling corruption among government officials—everyone from police chiefs to governors demands a cut.

Poppy eradication became a “scam,” in the words of Justin Mankin, a former intelligence officer posted to Afghanistan and an anti-corruption advisor to NATO’s International Security Force. “Thousands of similar scams spread through Afghan officialdom. Political expediency, state weakness, opportunity, and an environment of uncertainty have promoted a race to the bottom in Afghan accountability,” he wrote in a 2010 Foreign Policy piece.

Mangin argues that without an effective anti-corruption strategy, all counter-narcotics efforts are doomed to fail. In 2009, the international coalition initiated measures to stem corruption, but too little, too late, according to Mangin. This is why the late Richard Holbrooke, the former US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, called US counter-narcotics efforts “the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years in and out of government."

There are other Catch-22s in battling illicit drug production and trafficking. In a 2010 report from the New York University Center on International Cooperation, co-author Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, argued that increased counter-narcotics efforts, even if “successful,” would only drive up opium prices, which would in turn empower the nation's drug-trade profiteers: the Taliban, the warlords and government officials.

Indeed, the opium business is likely to continue to flourish regardless of the political circumstances in the country. As it has been largely untouched by the NATO war effort, it will almost certainly keep thriving after the US troop departure in 2014. The only constraints on the industry are global demand and climate variations, and the likelihood of an improvement in these factors is miniscule. (The heroin is exported to markets in Europe and Asia; almost none makes it to the US, according to Caulkins.) In fact, short of an equally improbable transformation of Afghanistan into a secure, unified, middle-class society—or the emergence of a lower-cost poppy-producing nation—many experts agree with Caulkins that a counter-narcotics strategy is a no-win.

A common criticism of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was that it disrupted the ban on opium production that the Taliban had enforced, allowing the opium economy to thrive. When NATO invaded, the ban had been in effect for less than a year; prior to that, opium had thrived under the Taliban for over a decade. So why did they enforce a ban in 2001?

Without an anti-corruption strategy, all counter-narcotics efforts are doomed—and recent global coalition measures were too little, too late.

Experts like Caulkins trace the one-year ban not to any political causes but to the particular economics of Afghani society. Caulkins told The Fix, “Many people who live in Afghanistan to this day maintain their savings in the form of opium.” In the absence of a stable banking system, economic security comes in the form of opium—not only for farmers with their individual stashes, but with the larger quantities in the possession of more powerful local actors, such as tribal elders known as Khans. “Because in the late ‘90s production seems to have been exceeding global demand, somebody accumulated bigger inventories, causing the price to drop," Caulkins said. “The hypothesis is that the people who had those inventories of opium that were losing value said, ‘You know what? Let’s knock out production for a year and stop the price decline.’” If true, this scenario suggests that while they were in power, the Taliban was associated with opium growers.

The two US administrations that have presided over the war in Afghanistan have been all too aware that reducing, if not eliminating, the drug trade is critical to the success of the entire trillion-dollar military enterprise. “Drugs are not the only priority issue for Afghanistan,” William Brownfield, the State Department’s assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement, told The New York Times in May. “But by the same token, if you do not address the drug issue you will not succeed in the other security, democracy, and prosperity objectives you are aiming for.”

Various counter-narcotics strategies have been attempted. The Bush administration halfheartedly pursued opium crop eradication in the manner employed in Columbia against coca plants; local administrations in northern and eastern Afghanistan, which were more accessible to the nation’s centralized authority in Kabul, were ostensibly encouraged to help their farmers transition to other cash crops to replace poppies. However, given that these crops were nowhere near as lucrative, there were widespread reports that the eradication efforts enraged farmers. Rather than resulting in any notable decrease, production slowly rose, as usual, to meet global demand. Yet the crop-swap strategy did have an unintended negative consequence: production shifted to southern and southwestern Afghanistan, where most of the fighting goes on. The major opium fields remain there today, with the result that opium profits are closer to Taliban centers of power—and more accessible to their extortion or fundraising efforts.

In response, the Obama administration has shifted focus away from crop eradication to the high-level drug enforcement that has been its hallmark in other regions of the world like Latin America. Squads of DEA agents, called FAST teams, were dispatched to train the Afghan military in counter-narcotics tactics. Initially, these agents were responsible for some high-profile seizures of large quantities of heroin.

This was likely because the big players had been operating without fear of prosecution, their power and capital having made them politically untouchable. “It’s a little like showing up in the woods with a lot of animals who have never seen a human before, and you have a good rifle, you have really good hunting initially,” Caulkins said. “But whether or not that even temporarily caused a hiccup in exports is less clear.”

Yet at the same time, the US has continued to finance the Afghan government’s own crop-eradication efforts, which tend to target specific officials’ personal, tribal, ethnic or regional enemies rather than follow a more rational and equitable strategy. These measures only further alienate farmers, often driving them into the arms of the Taliban.

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.