The geopolitics of drug trafficking in Afghanistan


In Afghanistan, opium is not clandestinely traded on some back alley black market. Opium is the market.

Daniel Nguyen
24 November 2012

In 1991, Myanmar was dethroned as the premier source of opium and now Afghanistan holds a near-monopoly as it is responsible for producing over 90% of the world’s opium. Such a drastic increase can be attributed to a favorable socioeconomic and political climate that allowed the illicit trade and production of opium to become an essential part of Afghanistan’s economy.

This did not happen overnight. The anti-government elements in Afghanistan paired with the instability brought on by seemingly endless warfare in the region have allowed drug warlords to operate without contestation. The profits from opium were so undeniable that insurgent groups (including the Taliban) could no longer ignore them, and now it is difficult to distinguish between insurgents and drug traffickers as they are typically one and the same. Corrupt government officials have also tapped into this revenue stream. Even civilian farmers, with no ties to the Taliban or other drug warlords, choose to produce opium over more traditional agriculture as the illicit drug trade is the only viable means of feeding their families.

In Afghanistan, opium is not clandestinely traded on some back alley black market. Opium is the market.

 The Taliban have been funding their military capabilities through access to this thriving opium economy for many years and for the most part they have met with little opposition. To let them continue unhindered is certainly unwise. But finding a clean resolution here, of all places in the world, is difficult.

NATO has promised to address the rampant drug trade, but their efforts have not been very effective thus far. They cannot simply firebomb all the offending opium crops, because that risks collateral damage which may further alienate local farmers, who are already fed up with the international presence in their homeland. This would make Afghans even less interested in helping NATO troops achieve their primary objective of curbing insurgency.

NATO has decided instead to target opium farmers by offering alternate economic incentives including crop substitution, public education programmes, and the creation of new jobs through foreign aid. However, these efforts seem to be in vain as the opium trade is as healthy as ever.

In fact, according to both Iran’s Deputy Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Rayeesi and the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, there has been a 40-fold increase in Afghanistan’s drug production since the US and NATO essentially took over in 2001.

The US is set to withdraw from the Middle East in 2014 and NATO has already reduced its involvement, instead placing that responsibility in the hands of the Afghan government, an entity that has a poor history of controlling the drug trade in its own country. But perhaps reduced international presence may prove to be a benefit rather than a detriment to anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan.

Other reasons Russia, Iran, and recently China (among many other countries), are so up in arms about the Afghan drug problem can be seen in the numbers of the UN’s own drug reports. These countries are some of the largest markets for the opium trade, and as supply rises to meet demand, so too rise fatality rates due to drug abuse. More Russians die from Afghan drugs, per year, than the total number of Russian fatalities during the entire 10-year Soviet-Afghan war; injection of opiates have caused an HIV epidemic in Central Asia; and Iran holds the dubious crown as the world’s most opiate addicted country. If we measure by mortality rates alone, then the Taliban’s involvement in opium production has been a more successful war tactic than any act of terrorism they have committed thus far. And it has certainly been more profitable as well.

Several countries were at one point planning to sue NATO because their intervention “led to a deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan and the rule of law has not been restored.” This political upheaval in an already unstable region created the perfect storm for drug production and insurgency to run wild, but the degree to which NATO is directly responsible is certainly up for debate.


NATO-led programmes appear simply to be displacing opiate production from one zone to another. Farmers have not found other crops profitable enough to provide them with food for their families, so opium production continues. And when the drug trade represents nearly half of Afghanistan’s economy, this is almost understandable.

 This trend will not change anytime soon.

Clearly, abandoning the frail Afghan government to deal with overwhelming narcoterrorism is not ideal. But after a decade of climbing the Sisyphean hill that is Afghanistan, Americans are tired. They want out of Afghanistan more than they are afraid of Taliban drug production. And the Afghan drug problem is not limited only to the Taliban. The entire country is supported by this market. Waging a true war on the opium trade, for this reason alone, would be to wage a war on innocent Afghans. And continued international pressure in the region appears to have reached the point of diminishing returns.

Pouring additional resources into that political quagmire may be wasteful, but it seems foolhardy to just surrender the area to the Taliban, who will simply continue to wage profitable proxy wars via drug addictions overseas.

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