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Grading the drug war in Afghanistan a decade after: F

It might be unfair to call the US/NATO drug war a ‘failure’ since its purpose was never to address drug problems.

Julien Mercille
15 September 2013

Annual drug production has remained higher than its 2002 level every year since the United States invaded Afghanistan.

Poppy cultivation has been rising for three years in a row, having now reached the high levels of 2008. Production is concentrated in the south and west of the country, particularly in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Farah. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime representative in Afghanistan, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, said that ‘opium cultivation is heading toward record levels’.

Further, a new United Nations report on cannabis cultivation in Afghanistan reveals that production has now reached 1,400 tons in 2012, an increase of 8 per cent compared to 2011. Farmers make about US$ 6,400 per hectare of cultivation by growing cannabis, significantly more than by growing opium, which fetches US$ 4,600 per hectare. Nevertheless, poppy cultivation is by far the most prominent crop and covers a stunning 154,000 throughout the country, compared to 10,000 hectares for cannabis. The UN explains the discrepancy by referring to the more serious agricultural constraints involved in growing cannabis. The two plants have a similar geography, located mostly in the south, where the insurgency is strongest, and their markets seem relatively integrated.

The two charts below demonstrate the complete failure of the ‘war on drugs’ and counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan and globally. When the US attacked Afghanistan, annual opium production was 3,400 tons. Since then, it has never dropped below that level in any given year, and has even reached record harvests of over 7,000 tons in 2007 and nearly 6,000 tons in 2008 and 2011. The situation is the same globally. Total annual opium production has never dropped below what it was in 2002, and reached peak harvests of over 8,000 tons in 2007 and about 7,000 tons in 2008 and 2011. Even if production is reduced in one country, farmers elsewhere will increase production to meet global demand. This phenomenon is known as the ‘balloon effect’, by analogy to a balloon pressed at one end which would automatically increase in size at its other end. In short, it is global demand for drugs that must be reduced in order to address the problem, following the overwhelming consensus among researchers and the scholarly literature on substance abuse.

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But it might be unfair to call the US/NATO drug war a ‘failure’ since its purpose was never to address drug problems, but rather to serve as a propaganda exercise painting a sufficiently black picture of the Taliban enemy to provide a pretext for keeping international troops in the country. Between 2005 and 2009, the US reportedly spent less than $18 million on drug consumption reduction programmes in Afghanistan, an amount less than 1 per cent of the $2 billion spent on crop eradication and interdiction of drug shipments. The problem is that the latter methods are well-known to be ineffective.

Also, as is by now well-documented, Washington attacked Afghanistan in 2001 in collaboration with Northern Alliance warlords and drug lords who were showered with weapons, millions of dollars, and political support. Their empowerment and enrichment enabled them to tax and protect opium traffickers, leading to the quick resumption of narcotics production after the drastic decrease caused by the 2000-2001 Taliban ban.

Impunity and support for drug lords and warlords has been the norm since 2001. NATO’s mission is to support the Afghan government, but at one point seventeen drug traffickers could be counted in the Afghan parliament. Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s brother, assassinated in 2011, had received regular payments from the CIA since 2001, even though his involvement in narcotics was widely suspected. A New York University report documented the use by NATO and US forces of private security companies and militias that are often run by strongmen responsible for human rights abuses or involved in narcotics. For example, the report noted that in Badakhshan Province, General Nazri Mahmad, a warlord who ‘control[s] a significant portion of the province’s lucrative opium industry’, held the contract to provide security for the German Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Meanwhile, negotiations between warring parties are moving slowly, just like the hammering out of a bilateral security agreement between Kabul and Washington including how many American troops will remain in the country. Also, the intensity of the drone war is increasing and Afghanistan has become the epicentre of US drone attacks, which now account for 11.5 per cent of the entire air war, compared to 5 per cent the previous year. It seems that as the humans are preparing to leave, the robots are filling the void.

It remains to be seen how the decrease in international troop numbers in Afghanistan will affect the drug industry. One view is that it may help reduce the size of the problem as drug traffickers won’t get as much support from the west as before. Conversely, if there is a surge in violence, this may leave no other choice to farmers and traffickers but to get involved in drug production, for lack of alternative economic opportunities. One way or another, Afghans will unfortunately be largely left alone to deal with the problem.

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