Poppy Cultivation Analysis
The Program for Culture & Conflict Studies provides a central hub for analysts to understand the provincial impact of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. Our current focus is on Eastern and Southern Afghanistan, areas most affected by the influence of opium.
2007 Opium Trends and Reports
Opium cultivation and production is an epidemic in Afghanistan, and the country is in danger of becoming a narco-state. 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
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.
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.
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,7 with 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 and 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
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.
Opium in Afghanistan is a part of the pernicious troika of corruption, insurgency and narcotics running down that nation. All three of the diseases feed off each other, and without an element of the others, none could exist. The challenge is to destroy, wean, or subvert the opium product coming out of Afghanistan without losing the support of Afghans dependent on the billions of dollars it brings into the country.
Trends in Southern Afghanistan
Opium production in Southern Afghanistan has risen rapidly, mostly in Helmand, Kandahar, and Nimroz. In those three provinces alone, production has increased by over 36,198 hectares (an area approximately as large as the Gaza Strip, or Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn together), an increase greater than the entire production of Eastern Afghanistan. In fact, Southern Afghanistan accounts for approximately two-thirds of the globe’s opium.
Coupled with an extremely difficult and convoluted security situation, opium cultivation and production is devastating the South and hobbling development there for years to come. While cultivation rose by a much greater percentage and amount between 2005 and 2006 (56,018 hectares), the smaller increase this year should not be taken as a good omen; the South can only produce so much more opium. In Helmand this year every single person expected their village to cultivate opium, and the British forces operating there do so in an extremely hostile environment. In Helmand alone 80% of families are involved in the opium trade.
2008 Opium Trends and Reports
Opium cultivation remains a serious concern for Afghanistan, particularly in the south where 98% of the overall poppy output is confined to seven provinces; Helmand, Kandahar, Farah, Uruzgan, Nimroz, Dai Kundi, and Zabul. The refinement and processing of opium into morphine and heroin continues to be conducted in-country. The UN estimates two-thirds of all opiates leaving the country have been refined into either morphine base or crude forms of heroin. Additionally, criminal networks and insurgents continue to merge in southern Afghanistan, sharing profits, tactics and anti-government ideology. Suicide attacks against eradication personnel have surged in 2008 and have continured in early 2009.
Recent trends in Afghanistan's poppy cultivation include an overall decrease in output nationally, but an increase in the production and cultivation capabilities of Helmand Province, the true epicenter of Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation and opium production. According to UN statistics, Helmand province alone cultivated 66 percent of the country’s opium poppy in 2008. Almost 98% of Afghanistan’s opium derives from southern and southwestern Afghanistan, up from 88% in 2007. Farmers continue to cultivate the crop where security remains elusive, corruption is rampant, and high yields are likely. Farmers in the north have abandoned the crop due to increased pressure, better governance, and enhanced security which allows for the implementation of alternative livelihood programs. "The number of opium poppy-free provinces increased to 18 in 2008 compared to 13 in 2007 and six in 2006,” according the UNODC’s 2008 Afghanistan Opium Survey.
Poppy-Free Provinces in 2008
|Central Region||Ghazni*, Khost*, Logar*, Nuristan*, Paktika*, Paktya*, Panjshir*, Parwan*, Wardak*|
|Northern Region||Balkh*, Bamyan*, Jawzjan, Samangan*, Sari Pul|
|Northeastern Region||Kunduz*, Takhar|
|Western Region|| |
*indicating poppy-free provinces in both 2007 and 200818
Main Opium Poppy Cultivating Provinces in Afghanistan (ha) in 2008
|Province||2003||2004||2005||2006||2007||2008||Change 2007-2008||% Total in 2008|
Senior Drug Trafficker Arrested in 2008
In late October 2008, authorities in Jakarta, Indonesia apprehended Afghan drug kingpin Haji Juma Khan, an ethnic Balouch who ruled the Baramcha heroin distribution center since 2001. Khan, who ran one of the largest opium/heroin trafficking organizations in Afghanistan, could trade morphine base in quantities as large as 40 tons or refined heroin in quantities as large as 100 kilograms. Khan represents the most senior Afghan drug trafficker ever arrested. Khan has been extradited to the United States and is charged with several counts of narco-terrorism. He currently awaits trial in New York and faces a sentence of 20 years to life.
Global Market and Cultivation Expectations for 2009
The decrease in overall opium production has been attributed to the falling price of opium (about 20%), a trend that is likely to continue for the next three years due to the substantial overproduction witnessed in 2007 and 2008. The UN suggests there is no province that will likely see an increase in poppy cultivation in 2009. Additionally, the 18 poppy-free provinces from 2008 are expected to remain so this year. Baghlan and Herat will likely be the next two provinces to be listed as poppy-free as cultivation is expected to plummet and eradication measures expanded. The UN also predicts a decrease in opium cultivation in seven provinces: Badakhshan, Badghis, Faryab, Kabul, Kapisa, Kunar and Laghman.19
Heroin and Morphine Processing
Domestic production of morphine and heroin has increased substantially since 2004. Illicit precursor chemicals needed to facilitate the chemical conversion of opium into morphine base and heroin, some 1,500 tones of acetic anhydride (heroin processing) and 9,000 tones of other chemicals, are trafficked through Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan each year. Interdiction measures have succeeded in confiscating some shipments but have not made any significant impact on the industry (see chart below).20 Additionally, resistance to government eradication efforts have plagued counternarcotics personnel since 2005, a trend that is steadily increasing as insurgents actively participate in the "protection" of poppy fields, refinement laboratories, trafficking routes and markets.
Drugs Seized by Kilogram (through 2008)
Precursor Chemicals Seized (through 2008)
Arrests for Trafficking (through 2008)
Drug Labs Destroyed (through 2008)
2009: NATO's Counternarcotics Approach
In late 2008, NATO officials announced plans to target drug traffickers and laboratories associated with insurgents for the first time. The plan drew criticism from some European NATO countries citing legal concerns over killing unarmed traffickers. Critics claim International law prohibits nations from using military force against criminals, including drug traffickers.21 Nevertheless, senior NATO officials, US military leaders, and Canadian officials have announced the upcoming initiative to target traffickers has been settled. "NATO will not act outside international law. This nexus between the insurgency and the narcotics business leads to the killing of our soldiers in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters in February.22 "We have full agreement … that we can go indeed after laboratories where the poppies are brought in and turned into heroin … or after the guys and the people who bring in the precursors," he said.
2009 Opium Trends and Reports
In August 2009, the UNODC reported a 22% nationwide decrease in poppy cultivation but only a 10% decrease in opium production due to enhanced farming techniques which resulted in higher yields of opium being produced (56kg/hectare).The number of "poppy-free" provinces has increased from 18 to 20 according to the same report. Additionally, the UN has revised its estimation of the Taliban's financial gain from the drug industry, claiming the Taliban acquired $450-600 million from taxing the industry over the past four years. More bad news regarding Afghanistan's narcotics conundrum is the steady rise in cannabis cultivation, the plant needed for hashish production, of which Afghanistan is the world's number two producer of (see Afghanistan’s Other Narcotics Nightmare article below). The UNODC is expected to release their first Afghan Cannabis Survey in late 2009.
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