Opium cultivation and production is an epidemic in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2002, opium production has steadily risen from near nothing to capture over 90% (93% according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime) of the world’s opiate trade.1 This affects rural farmers, government ministers, and everyone in-between. By some estimates opium revenues, all unofficial, illegal, and untaxed, account for half of the Afghan gross national product.2 At the cultivation level alone the revenues exceed one billion dollars, before the transport, refining, and export are tallied.3
Figure 1 - Afghan Opium Production (PDF)
Unfortunately, Afghanistan as a country of localities, clans, and tribes, can witness the complete cessation of planting in one province, while next door cultivation continues to grow at an exponential rate. In essence, the “it-won’t-happen-to-me” philosophy seems to have a hold on many poppy growing communities, and as long as they drive away Afghan counter-narcotics forces through a combination of corruption and violence, statistically they are correct. While the number of poppy-free provinces has risen, so too has the amount of opium produced.
Figure 2 - Opium Cultivation by Province Percent Change 2007 (PDF)
In 2007, opium cultivation has not surprisingly risen again, this time by 17%, and potential production by 34%. While over 80% of Afghanistan’s opium is cultivated in the Southern regions (Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Day Kundi, Zabul, Farah and Nimroz), the largest increases in yields have been in the Central (Parwan, Paktya, Wardak, Khost,
Kabul, Logar, Ghazni, Paktika, Panjshir) and Eastern regions (Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman, Nuristan, Kapisa) (123% and 23%, respectively).4 Additionally, it must be remembered that much of the opium cultivated and collected elsewhere flows towards Afghanistan’s eastern border for refining and trafficking.
Only Paktia, Paktika, Panjshir, Wardak, and Logar have reported no production for the last two years. Ghazni was hoped to be among that number, but recent disturbances in Andar District have made that questionable. Bayman, Parwan, Nuristan, and Khost are reporting they have achieved zero cultivation in 2007.
Figure 3 - Opium Cultivation 2005-2007 in Metric Tons (PDF)
There are five readily identifiable groups with interests in the production of opium in Afghanistan: farmers, middlemen (traffickers and refiners), insurgents, the Afghan government, and coalition forces. Some are profiting from it, some are hindered by it, and some find it creating schisms within their own ranks. As with illegal narcotics enterprises elsewhere, the cultivation and production of opiates in Afghanistan attracts the needy, the covetous, the pathological and the sociopathic. Few if any opium producers are doing so in order to clear Afghanistan of non-Muslims or bring about a world-wide caliphate, but many may say so in order to gain acceptance from their demi-monde peers and avoid moral discord.
On the opposing side, there is no disagreement that the narcotics industry is a serious problem, but the level of priority opium is acceded is a subject of much debate. Further points of discord include the method by which the country is to be rid of opium, whether through eradication, a buyback program, or something else.
Of course, as in any counterinsurgency, the center of gravity in Afghanistan is the rural masses, poor and often illiterate. Already over ten percent of the Afghan people are involved in the opium trade.5 Any effort to end opium production in Afghanistan must incorporate their needs.
Farmers, not surprisingly, form the majority of those involved with the opium trade, and being the lowest on the pyramid, are paid the least. Farmers go into opium cultivation most often for economic reasons. 2007, however, marks a frightening shift within the opium farmer demographic; for the first time more farmers were growing opium poppies because of “the high sale price of opium” (26.2%), as opposed to “alleviating poverty” (20.5%), which had previously been the most common response.6 Additionally, while the average Afghan can make ten times more per hectare growing opium poppies instead of the usual wheat,7with only a 10% risk of eradication,8 the probable payout makes the risk worthwhile. In rural Afghanistan, where opiate abuse is rare, most opium farmers have never seen the results of their harvests.
Traffickers & Refiners:
Over 400 refineries are thought to exist in Afghanistan and 80% of the opium produced in Afghanistan is refined there.9 Additionally, numerous refineries are thought to exist across the border in Pakistan’s tribal territories. Many of these traffickers use the same smuggling routes into Pakistan that Taliban and other insurgent groups use as well. The drug merchants operate in much the same shadow environment and remote geography as anti-government insurgents, and as a result there has been cooperation between the two. There are estimated to be profits from the Afghan opium trade annually in excess of US $3.1 billion, most of which is definitely not reaching the actual poppy growers.10 With so much money involved, financially dependent criminal groups can be expected to fight the destruction of their income streams by whatever means possible.
The Taliban, as well as warlords and various other criminal elements, are known to be involved in the opium trade, and making a handsome profit doing so.11 They guard the fields, and in doing so encourage more and more rural Afghan farmers to act against the government resentment towards those who would limit or end the production of opium is viewed as growing, and a risk to coalition and Afghan government forces operating in the area.12 It has been reported that the Taliban is paying approximately US $20 per day to young men to guard the crop, harvest, and caravans of opium. This is considerably more than the Afghan government can pay, and has brought many young men into the fold of anti-government entities.13
Figure 4 - Nexus of Security and Opium in Eastern Afghanistan 2003-2007 (PDF)
The Afghan government stands firmly against the cultivation, production, sale, transport, or consumption of illegal narcotics. Individuals within the government may have differences of opinion, however, and corruption does exist. Eradication missions, carried out by anti-narcotic personnel, are alleged to have been targeted away from the fields of generous poppy-growers and towards those of growers who failed to render their “due.”14 The corruption has included members of parliament, police, governors, border security forces, and a host of other positions. In some cases, those officials with particularly low salaries (such as Afghan National Police at US $70 per month)15
The U.S. has so far spent approximately $300 million to eradicate the crop since invading Afghanistan.16 Some American officials have spoken of an eradication tipping-point of 25%; when a quarter of all opium crops are eliminated, the average farmer will reconsider growing opium and the decline of cultivation will begin.17 So far, coalition forces have made little progress towards that 25%, and by eradicating fields representing in some cases a farmer’s entire annual crop, have only created more anti-coalition and anti-government sentiment. Compensation to those farmers affected has been attempted with some success.
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