The virtues of doing nothing: Why focusing on Afghanistan’s opium makes the opium problem worse

July 21, 2009

Joshua Foust is an American military analyst. He blogs about Central Asia and Afghanistan at . 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.

The discrepancy is really a trick of language: When the UNODC declares a province poppy-free, what they mean is, production there is “negligible”, not non-existent. Whether that is in the context of total production, other provinces, or some sort of absolute number (a percentage of arable land or total worldwide opium production) isn’t really clear. In Nangarhar, several times declared “poppy free” by the UNODC, there remain active opium eradication missions in outlying districts such as Sherzad. What’s noteworthy about it is not the presence of some fairly smallish opium farms in southwestern Nangarhar, as most opium farms are small family affairs. What is interesting is the density of the farms. In a single 5 km stretch of the countryside, teams found and destroyed 100 poppy fields. For a supposedly poppy-free province, that is simply stunning.

It also covers up the substantial effect of destroying the opium economy. In many parts of Afghanistan, opium is the economy, and the World Bank estimated in 2008 it accounts for 1/3 of the country’s economy. In opium-adjacent communities, opium funds underpin the entire local economy: especially in the opium “heartland” in the South, the only way for small farmers to get microcredit loans or deal with exporters is through opium traders. Through a system of loans called salaam, they in essence create informal futures markets on crops… but only opium. Cereal crops and fruits, or other licit agriculture, are not included in this system (even though it is possible for other actors, whether the government or NGOs, to provide this service). In fact, the ways these markets have developed in the south is remarkably similar to how informal credit markets formed in rural medieval Europe. It is normal. The West just happens to dislike the crop.

But even in opium “success stories”, there are significant problems to simply removing the crop. In Nangarhar, the wild swings in opium prices and cultivation crashed the rural economy again and again. Most of the microcredit salaam loans farmers take out are not denominated in any currency – they pay in opium. So, when prices crash or an eradication team sweeps through, farmers become trapped in a horrendous debt cycle where the only means of escape is to grow yet more opium. There are even rumors of farmers selling a daughter or son to the traffickers in payment, and many families have fled to either Iran or Pakistan to avoid reprisals for unpaid opium debt.

There is a more fundamental economic problem to growing poppy, however: areas that grow opium actually tend to be the wealthiest. Sherzad District in Nangarhar, where there is still opium cultivation and eradication, actually has relatively high income compared to the rest of Nangarhar. According to the International Monetary Fund (pdf), when Nangarhar province saw a huge drop in opium cultivation in 2005/6, province-wide GDP was about $1.3 billion (which was a big drop from the year before, when there was much more opium). The next year, 2006/7, when opium production spiked 285%, province-level GDP rose to $3.2 billion, only to fall the next year to $1.8 billion as the UNODC declared it poppy-free.

So what is to be done? The Obama administration has wisely recognized that opium eradication is a non-starter, and does far more harm than the marginal good of destroying some opium crops. UNODC Chief Antonio Maria Costa recently agreed, and suggested a “flood of drugs” in its place. Under this plan, somehow the borders of Afghanistan would be sealed so that no drugs can “escape”, in their words, thus crashing the price of opium. Feasible or not, Costa’s idea at least tries to examine other ways of reducing the need for opium cultivation. Looking at opium cultivation as an economic factor, however, leads one to many other conclusions that are inconvenient for a political and military apparatus designed to oppose the very idea of drug cultivation.

If opium is an economic puzzle, and not a political-military one, then there should be an economic (or at least non-military) solution to it. Several years ago, the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit published a study (pdf) comparing the factors behind the cultivation of opium in adjacent provinces in the “poppy-free” north. Water shortages, soil moisture and salinity, severe socioeconomic inequality driving food insecurity, a poor presence of formal institutions, all have decisive impacts on a household decision whether or not to cultivate opium.

More recently, a team of Norwegian researchers has noted a strong causation between violence and opium cultivation, but not in the way most think: in their research paper (pdf), they assert that opium follows conflict, and not the other way around. In other words, opium cultivation is simply a feature of ungoverned conflict zones, and especially in Afghanistan, something people do as a last resort when other economic activities fail to provide for their families.

Taken together, these studies (and the many others like them—this is a growing field of study) point to a counterintuitive conclusion: do nothing. That is, focusing only on opium misses the point, and doesn’t address the reasons why it is grown. If opium cultivation were an indicator of an ungoverned or contested space, then that would indicate that making that space governed and uncontested would also address the opium.

There are a few examples even within Afghanistan where governance and security came first, and then opium cultivation simply dropped off. Badakhshan province was the only province in the country that was completely Taliban-free in 2001, and as a result was the only one to grow opium in any really measurable amount during the Taliban’s prohibition. Since the American invasion, it has remained mostly quiet, and has seen a growing success in both trade connections to neighboring areas and better governance by multiple levels of officials. As an aid worker active there told me recently, “the price of poppy has fallen fastest in the north (where the poppy has a lower morphine content), and in Badakhshan, farmers can already make more from okra or onions than opium.” Selling vegetables is relatively low risk and carries a good profit margin – something that cannot be said for the majority of Afghanistan’s non-subsistence farmers.

Drug traffickers have taken enormous measures to lower the risk of drug cultivation, but the development community has not taken the time to do so for legal agriculture. It remains prohibitively expensive to ship anything out of Afghanistan, and border politics especially with Pakistan (one worker recently complained that difficulties in crossing the border into Pakistan meant an entire crop of potatoes from Khost province rotted at the border crossing, unsold) keep export-driven agriculture uncertain and extremely risky. By focusing so much of its energies onto eradication or somehow controlling the cultivation of opium, both the International Community and the government of Afghanistan have ignored providing other ways for farmers to make money legally – even when Alternative Livelihood programs exist in an area, they’re poorly administered and often barely make a dent in the local economy.

So why not do nothing? Opium is not Afghanistan’s biggest problem – it is horrendous poverty, bad infrastructure and no security. When it comes to all three problems, Afghanistan faces two major hurdles – underinvestment (money, equipment, education, health, and security) and corruption-driven illegitimacy. Making matters worse, the overwhelming majority of aid in the country flows outside government channels or oversight, which undercuts Kabul’s legitimacy even among the people it helps.

Focusing only on opium, therefore, doesn’t actually focus on the more fundamental problems facing the country. It is an obsession on symptoms, while the causes go unaddressed. The missing piece of governance, and with it the development of the necessary institutions of society and economy, is the critically ignored piece of almost all plans to eliminate opium in Afghanistan. And as examples like Badakhshan have shown, when even moderate progress is made on these fronts, people will voluntarily switch to growing other crops, and they will make enough money to support themselves. It’s enough to make one wonder just why there needs to be a plan in the first place. It’s counterintuitive, but scrapping the West’s counternarcotics policies is surest way to actually achieve the counternarcotics goal of a poppy-free Afghanistan.

(Reuters photos: Opium fields in Farah province/Goran Tomasevic)


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[…] Joshua Foust is an American military analyst. He blogs about Central Asia and Afghanistan at . 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 smuggliRead more at 7/21/the-virtues-of-doing-nothing-why-fo cusing-on-afghanista… […]

Posted by Army has too few helicopters…. British soldier killed in Helmand as…. | Australia News | Report as abusive

Without drugs, how is the group of people that runs this country in the shadows going to manipulate it?

Posted by Douglas | Report as abusive

Could this opium not be used by the medical industry? If it were sold to mainstream medicine companies perhaps it might be able to turn it from a curse into a blessing.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

Couldn’t we just legalize drugs just like alcohol? Then legally control supply, facilitate increased quality controls, and let all the organized crime and fighting caused by it wither away? I tend to think if people want to hurt themselves with drugs or alcohol — because it actually makes them feel better — who are we to stop them?

Posted by NoName | Report as abusive

I think the better way to control drugs is to legalize them and make people responsible for their activity and rehabilitation is needed

It is hard to make people stop things they like to use and suffer the consequenses

Posted by Azam | Report as abusive

This all misses the obvious point. Under the Taliban – opium production in Afghanistan was nada, nothing, zilch, zero.

Throw in the UK and US Army; and a few client states and a puppet government – bingo: poppy production is back to, and exceeds pre-Taliban levels.

One needs to study history to understand the link between drugs and Imperialist governments.

The Opium Wars in China started because of the UK Government’s illegal trade in narcotics.

Is history repeating itself?

Posted by Steve | Report as abusive

We Americans have some nerve. These people cultivate opium to survive. We build bombs and sell them. What is the difference??

Our compainies, building weapons of mass destruction wave huge american flags and their workers think of themselves as heroes.

Go figure..

Posted by Giovanni | Report as abusive

This is the point…”If opium is an economic puzzle, and not a political-military one, then there should be an economic (or at least non-military) solution to it.” Nice, lets stop doing the research and “just do it”!!!!

Posted by guinness | Report as abusive

NoName and Azam have already correctly said it but this is a very easy problem to fix. Legalize drugs and these honest farmers then come into contact with taxed corporations rather than underground terrorists.

Drug War has always been the easiest problem to fix in the United States, but our gov’t prefers to simply grow law enforcement and turn us ever closer to a militaristic gov’t rather than do what’s best for the people of the country and the world.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

A few years back the Germans suggest that we buy the poppy product off the formers for medicinal use, and with these we will have a win win situation on all sides of the spectrum, but the idea was strongly opposed by the Americans.

The boss (Americans) have changed their policies several times but none of them are working, as it is known a province becomes poppy free one year and when forgotten it goes back to the normal trend.

Making Afghanistan poppy free will require funding, honesty and commitment; they all lack at the moment.

It is worth mentioning that many leaders of Afghanistan are involved in this dirty trade and are all known to everyone….

Posted by Siddiq | Report as abusive

Hello Joshua,
The real problem that everybody in Afghanistan politics have interest in opium trade.

Country full of tribes/gangs/clans. Some aligned with gov/US while some opposed them (Taliban). They constantly change sides.
Pro-US side extract money/power from corruption, and racket/taxing drug traffic.
Anti-US side extract money/power from racket and taxing drug production.
For both sides control over territory is crucial. This explains Nangarhar mistery :).
It natural that Nangarhar province became more violent once it stopped grow opium. The opium elite (Taliban??) fought back to gain control over territory. Violence stopped once territory was under control again.

Idea to seal borders to stop drug traffic is wonderful. But this idea is stillborn because both sides have deep interest in drug production/traffic.

The only way to solve this issue is brutal and simple – defoliate drug crop for server yrs. It will drive drug elite bankrupt. In this scenario farmers would suffer most.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

Perhaps a new solution is required.

We should use aircraft to spray the poppies with toxins or poison chemicals. Not enough to kill the poppies, but to leech into the poppies and the soil.

The intention will be to render the products of those poppies so that they are poisonous or lethal when used.

This way, the farmers can grow their poppies if they wish. But the people who supply and purchase those drugs, now know that there is a good chance they will end up with a lethal batch.

Hopefully this will result in a fear factor at the end market, which will cut down the number of people who begin or continue to use opiates. And hopefully effect dealers, because they now have the potential to be on a murder/manslaughter charge.

And of course, any drug users who actually use a poisoned batch would be guaranteed to stop using it in the future.

Posted by Hmmm | Report as abusive

Another club remix of western hypocrieses. Fighting the drugs in South America, using but all the resources possible, yet shrugging pathetically in Afghanistan, where all the kings men are already in place. Why coca farmers do not get that much hearty compassion and understanding from DEA? Should they simply change their confession?
The untold explanations are floating in the air. First, due to sheer geography the drugs are getting to ‘bad’ countres first. Second, now wait a minute, have you forgotten the Iran-contras deal? Does that ring a bell. Should we go on really.

Posted by viktor | Report as abusive

Your solution has been tried with little success in other theaters; historically, such shortsightedness has done nothing more than catalyze those determined to do what they feel necessary for their own survival. Further, would such draconian measures encourage your resignation to abject poverty? Or would you fight back? Check your history before embracing such extremities.

Posted by jb | Report as abusive

I think that the problem is that there is no problem.Things are going according to plan.
If we wished to stop this traffic we would intercept,confiscate,and distribute the drugs to the users free of charge.
And have programs for the growers and addicts who wished to free themselves from the drug dependency.
Of course ;this will never happen without a change in the present ruling structure.

Posted by frank hayes | Report as abusive

The ‘counterintuitive’ argument is interesting, although I’d prefer to use the term ‘educated’ which though less ‘buzzy’ is more accurate!

What exactly is the opium problem?
-Drugs are baaaaad?
-Cash crop for the Taliban and allies?
-Depresses local subsistence agriculture?
-Poor indicator of US progress in controlling the ground?
-A propaganda issue?
-A non problem?

Doesn’t it depend on what your perspective is?

From the larger western perspective Afganistan is a domino state. It has been necessary to engage there to counter the process of rogue states self replicating. Whether you personally agree with the policy is irrelevant, it is the policy, and all governments have to have a policy, and this one has a remarkably international consensus. Hardly suprising because governments don’t like rogue states, just as no politicians encourage political assassins.

It appears that re-integrating Afganistan into the international political scene is the ultimate goal here, again irrespective of one’s personal cynicism. Hence the gradual (very gradual thanks to conventional US military thinking) application of a 21st Century version of the Briggs Plan by the US and allies(aka the Malayan Emergency in the 1950’s). This is basically a civil/military combination of powers to re-assert the authority of the state in a contested area.

How does opium fit in to this? Primarily in the re-engagement with the civil population. Does eradicating opium farming enhance the link between the civilian population and the authority structure we are blessing?

That’s where the counter intuitive argument comes in. Personally I don’t know, I’m not sure there’s a precedent. Ultimately the whole process is about Control, that’s what government does, but practically now is not the time to assert this type of control in Afganistan irrespective.

In counter revolutionary warfare the principle is to re-engage the populace with your desired form of government by offering them more than the opposition. Give them schools, hospitals, etc etc, hopefully where the other side offers only propaganda and ideology. What precisely do the Afghans in the rural provinces want? Do they want opium farming, or is it enforced or just a means to an end where options are limited?
Find this out, apply the principles of the Briggs Plan (consistently, my dear ‘Vietnamisation’ friends) and the ‘problem’ will disappear.

Posted by rhoops | Report as abusive

Judging by these comments, there is no way in hell of getting a crowd sourced solution to the opium problem.

/so why do we expect our governments to do better?

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

To VultureTX, one reason to expect our governments to do better is because they are sending our young troops to fight there and paying for it with our tax money which could be used to fix problems at home. Another reason is that they are supposed to be leaders.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

Every day a new drug is being invented and another way to get high is becoming popular. Many of the current ways of getting high involve normal products like cleaning supplies or cooking supplies. A simple plastic bag can be used to cause a high by asfixiation, for God’s Sake.

Addicts will get their fix any way and at any time they want from anything. They don’t fear being laboratory rats.
If the mentality that creates a large number of addicts isn’t dealt with to begin with, the fight is in vain. Why is it that so many in our western world feel disenfranchised enough to want to evade reality at any cost? The issue with addiction is first and foremost a psychological one. The physical merely follows.

In the meantime, wars on foreign countries do more to create and disseminate more addicts and more substances. Look at the example from the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Look at the number of s***heads that came home already soaked in pharmaceutical and recreational drugs that perhaps they wouldn’t even dream they existed had they NOT been uprooted to fight something nobody understood, and many of those young soldiers already knew a thing or two about drugs.

The problem with heroin is that it’s highly addictive and enjoyed by a bunch of people with money, either theirs or someone else’s. And the farmers in Afghanistan need to make a living. The moral considerations take second place when you have a family to feed or a machine-gun pointed at you if you don’t.
When there is no more money to be made by growing they’ll quit, forced by the lack of demand. Pure and simple. There is nothing complicated about that because it’s in Afhganistan. No religious, tribal or cultural issues. It’s all about the profit.

Posted by Danny | Report as abusive

A farmer is forced at gunpoint to grow poppies, instead of food for his family. If he refuses to do so, he is beaten or killed.

When he does grow the poppies, he is paid almost nothing for the crop. And he needs to use that money to buy food. And the food is supplied by the same gunmen who buy his poppies.

The farmer is a slave. He does not want to grow poppies. He earns no profit. He makes no living. He has no say in what he does or does not do.

The gunmen are criminals. They force others to work for them. They support crime. They kill, murder and kidnap those who resist them.

And the people who don’t believe we should do something about it are apologists. The words “its not my business” doesn’t cut it in international politics anymore.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Opium has been one of the main income for the families of war hit Afghanistan. The people will definitely Find out an alternative way to smuggle out the opium, even though the borders might have been virtually sealed off. And i don’t think there’s any solution stopping the families in Afghanistan from growing them, being the only prime revenue. Instead the gov from other countries could actually import opium from Afghanistan and use it for useful purposes.
Opium has good uses not just the cliche one. The below link provides just a peek into the uses of opium. ium.htm

Posted by Nithin.A.G | Report as abusive

[…] Since the Foreign Affairs Select Committee wants Britain to stop trying to fight a war on drugs in Afghanistan whilst also fighting a war on the Taliban, I thought I’d link to an older post by Joshua Foust on how our governments’ opium obsession is making things worse. […]

Posted by Selected Reading (03/08/09) « The Bleeding Heart Show | Report as abusive

[…] Unfortunately, the Marines in Marjah seem determined to stamp out opium—a far cry from the clear thinking that accompanied their first deployment to Helmand in 2008, when they vowed to resolutely ignore the opium and focus on more important things (seriously: focusing on opium instead of almost anything else badly misses the point). […]

Posted by Afghanistan: Why the Poppies Trouble the Marjah “Victory” (Foust) | Enduring America | Report as abusive