Paul Pillar

Drugs, Blights, and Markets in Afghanistan

The release on Thursday of the annual survey by the United Nations of opium production in Afghanistan briefly renews attention to a topic that hasn't seemed to have gotten much of it lately: the role of Afghanistan--producer of 90 percent of the world's opium--in the global narcotics trade.  Too many other serious problems in Afghanistan understandably have crowded out attention to drugs and reduced the relative priority of that subject.  A renewal of attention is good, however, both because of the intrinsic importance of the problem of illicit narcotics and because what is happening with opium in Afghanistan inspires some thoughts about what else is happening there.

There always has been a tension between the goals of reducing the growing of opium poppy--and with it the amount of opium going to heroin labs and onto the world market--and of reducing the insurgency in Afghanistan.  Most Afghan farmers can make more money growing poppies than growing legal crops.  This is in large part because opium is a high value, low bulk commodity that, given Afghanistan's terrain and decrepit infrastructure, is easier to bring to market than melons, pomegranates, or other legal crops.  Efforts to eradicate poppy fields consequently have tended to mean more angry farmers and a harder time winning their allegiance.  This is why U.S. military commanders, whose mission is to quell the insurgency, have argued for decreased emphasis on poppy eradication.

The good news in the UN report, as far as countering narcotics is concerned, is that Afghan opium production in 2010 is only about half that of 2009.  This is because a plant disease, which hit the prime growing areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces especially hard, halved the yield per acre even though the total acreage used for growing poppy remained about the same.  The associated bad news is that the lower production has caused the price that farmers can get for their opium to increase 164 percent over last year, providing even more incentive for them to grow still more opium next year and making legal crops appear even less attractive by comparison.

Perhaps a lesson to draw from this is that in Afghanistan sometimes it is best to let nature take its course.  The price boost would have happened whether the slash in production was due to natural causes or human efforts, but at least the fact that a blight rather than eradication operations by the government or NATO did the job will mean less resentment among the farmers.  And perhaps we should remember that forces such as blights and markets often will prove to be more powerful than all the manpower and firepower that we can bring to bear.

Another dimension of Afghan opium that we should remember is how much it engages the interests of other states, whose cooperation rather than opposition would be useful.  Two of the biggest concentrations of end users of drugs that begin in those Afghan poppy fields are in Iran and Russia.  Tehran is highly concerned about its growing drug problem, of which Afghanistan is such a large part.  Countering narcotics represents some missed opportunities for leveraging parallel interests with these other states.

Meanwhile, the high price for opium will intensify some of the contradictions inherent to what the U.S.-led coalition is endeavoring to do in Afghanistan.  There is even less incentive than before for growers to shift to legal crops and thus even less reason for the government or NATO to pressure them to do so.  Letting the farmers stay content by growing their poppies for higher prices may be the best approach toward the hearts-and-minds thing in the near term.  But as Yury Fedotov, the head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, said in releasing the report, "Corruption and drug trafficking feed upon each other and undermine any development effort in Afghanistan."   And failure to ameliorate the corruption problem in turn undermines much of what the counterinsurgency and the hearts-and-minds efforts are all about.