Joshua Foust is an American military analyst. He blogs about Central Asia and Afghanistan at Registan.net . Reuters is not responsible for the content - the views are the author’s alone.
It would be an understatement to call opium cultivation in Afghanistan America's headache. The issue of illegal drug cultivation and smuggling has vexed policymakers for three decades, and led to a multi-billion dollar campaign to combat the phenomenon.
Opium causes all of our problems, so they say—according to a factsheet at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul (pdf), opium creates instability, funds the insurgency, and wreaks havoc on the government. They’re not alone - entire books have been written on the subject.
The blame game on opium, however, ignores a critical - and quite uncomfortable - fact: it misses the point. The reality is, while the cultivation of opium does not help matters from a Western perspective, in Afghanistan it is actually a healthy economic activity. The concerns over its cultivation, too, are overblown: even a brief look at the numbers show it to be at best a trailing indicator of insecurity, insurgency, corruption, and economic malaise. Opium, therefore, is only an indicator of other, more substantial problems.
Consider, for example, what I call The Nangarhar Swing. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, in 2005 Nangarhar produced nearly 1/5 of Afghanistan’s opium, but was virtually poppy-free in 2006. 2007 saw a 285 percent increase (pdf) in cultivation, making the province one of the country's top poppy producers. Yet in 2008, it was once again virtually poppy-free (pdf). This shift cannot be tied only to security, as many like to claim: according to the violence statistics compiled by the Long War Journal, even as Nangarhar has stopped the large scale cultivation of opium, it has become steadily more violent. Moreover, there are many other areas of the country, like Khost province along the border with Pakistan, or Kunar province further north, where the insurgency has become worse even as those provinces were emptied of opium.