Afghanistans opium economy cannot be eradicated by military means alone
Fair taxes for Latin America
[ NATO ]
Afghanistans vicious circle
Military action alone will not succeed in the fight against opium cultivation. Destroying opium fields simply increases the drugs value on the black market, and repression encourages dealers and producers to form well-organised and brutal mafia hierarchies. There are neither shortcuts nor quick-fix solutions in the fight against Afghanistans deep-rooted drug economy.
[ By Janet Kursawe ]
Afghanistans opium crop reached a record high of 6,100 tons last year. Accordingly, the calls for a harsher anti-drug strategy have intensified. Crop yields last year increased by almost 50 % over 2005. Afghanistans opium fields made up 92 % of global opiate production which, at about 6,700 tons, also reached a new record amount.
These disheartening figures, nevertheless, hide one encouraging trend. The gross income from opium cultivation per hectare has clearly fallen. In 2003, it still exceeded the income from wheat 27 times. In 2006, the ratio was only nine to one. Opium is still economically attractive compared to other plants, but no longer to the same extent as was the case earlier. The high level of production has caused prices to drop, as is to be expected in a market determined by supply and demand (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Government of Afghanistan, 2006). Considerable quantities of opium have probably been stored to prevent the prices from falling further.
Twenty-five years of warfare have left their mark on Afghanistan. During this time, the drug trade became the countrys most vital industry. It burgeoned when the Mujahedin used opium money to buy weapons to fight Soviet troops. The west tolerated such deals, particularly as the Red Army proved no match for the militias in the long run, even though it was vastly superior in technical terms.
According to realistic assessments, the drug trade was equivalent to 46 % of Afghanistans GDP last year. According to official statistics, 165,000 hectares almost four percent of the countrys arable land currently in use were used for opium-poppy cultivation. About 450,000 families earned their livelihood from opium cultivation, which also provided seasonal work for thousands of migrant workers. The total number of people involved in opium production was estimated at 3 million almost 13 % of Afghanistans total population.
The reasons people in Afghanistan turn to opium-poppy cultivation come as no surprise. According to UNODC figures, 41 % of farmers say the high sale price of opium was their main incentive. Others mentioned debts, or wished to save money for the event of illness or high wedding costs. 8.6 % also indicated personal consumption. However, the UNODC survey did not confirm the often-cited link between opium-poppy cultivation and the availability of loans. Only eight percent mentioned this aspect, which may be due to the fact that access to loans has become more difficult, as lenders are paying more attention to the risk of crop eradication (Mansfield, 2006).
There has been a significant increase in the physical destruction of opium fields over the last two years. In 2006, an estimated area of 15,300 hectares was eradicated that way, an increase of 210 % over the previous year. Eradication was carried out mainly by teams acting on behalf of provincial governors, the Afghanistan Eradication Force and the national police. Sticks, scythes and sickles, and sometimes tractors, are used to eradicate the poppy plants. These methods are easy and fast and, on the surface, they appear successful.
Following the recent bumper crop, the US and British governments in particular have called for more aggressive eradication programmes. Both advocate spraying fields with herbicides from airplanes in order to significantly decimate crop yields this year. However, Afghanistans president Hamid Karzai has spoken out repeatedly against this method, saying that Afghan authorities should continue to eradicate plants using traditional methods. Among other things, Karzais stance is inspired by the fact that many farmers plant opium poppy in concentric circles together with other crops. Aerial spraying would therefore destroy their entire harvest and cause a humanitarian disaster.
Opium-poppy cultivation is illegal in Afghanistan. In 2004, Karzai even declared Holy War against the narcotics trade. Nevertheless, donor pressure on his government continues to grow. Donors expect action to follow words, they want state repression to rapidly contain the drugs problem. Far from helping to solve the problems, however, such pressure has only compounded them.
Eradication measures have destroyed the livelihood of countless farmers. Consequently, the security situation in Afghanistan has become even more precarious. Many farmers sought the protection of powerful local militia commanders, who enjoy great popularity. Furthermore, the smuggling network has now turned professional. Political office-holders involved in drug-trafficking have started to act under better cover, given that their business is pursued internationally as criminal. A strictly hierarchical, professionally-operated mafia has been organised from cells that were initially only loosely organised. The network operates underground, and escapes newly-created institutions of law-enforcement.
The donor community and NATO leaders tend not to distinguish between the Taliban, drug-trafficking and drug cultivation. All three are considered as interlinked evils, the extent of which must be reduced until they disappear. The reality, however, is that over the last two years, statistics have not shown any significant correlation between opium-poppy cultivation and the influence of the Taliban and its associates in the provinces. The opium trade is also flourishing in areas without Taliban influence.
Two groups dominate the drug mafia in Afghanistan. These are the influential and wealthy wholesalers, estimated by the UN to be between 200 and 250 in number throughout the country. Then, at the top of the hierarchy, are about 25 to 30 very influential people. They have excellent political connections and are able to pursue their criminal activities unhindered, thanks to family connections and the payment of protection money (see D+C/E+Z 1/2007, p.4).
Close ties between the drug mafia and politics is another reason for eradication measures remaining ineffective. State campaigns often only hit those farmers who are too poor to pay protection money, or who simply have no access to the patronage networks. In practice, officials decide on eradicating fields at whim, thus intensifying the differences between rich and poor and exacerbating related conflicts.
Nowhere in the world has crop eradication alone proved successful in the fight against drugs. This is true in Afghanistan too where no statistical connection has yet been seen between eradication programmes and falling levels of opium crops. Even at the individual level, results vary immensely. Some farmers whose fields were destroyed subsequently reduce opium-poppy cultivation, while others increase it in order to recover lost income (Mansfield and Pain, 2006).
Eradication measures alone do not lead to long-term success. Aerial spraying is inconsistent with the logic of the black market for opium. This strategy is routinely applied when crop yields are particularly high, but that is exactly the time when the situation for trade and producers has become especially unfavourable because of low prices. This, in other words, is when farmers tend to find opium-poppy cultivation less appealing and chances would be relatively good to convince them and their migrant workers of alternative sources of income.
Instead, crop eradication creates a market shortage, which actually serves the drug lords well. Destruction of crops automatically makes cultivation more lucrative again and particularly attractive to any farmers who have lost earnings because of state repression and who possibly have to service high levels of debt. Many will see no alternative but to cultivate opium once more.
This dynamic was evident most recently in 2001/2002, when the Taliban enforced their opium prohibition. Before being overthrown, the Taliban took a rigorous stance against almost all opium-poppy fields, thereby driving up the price for opium. After the Talibans fall, highly indebted farmers immediately resumed production as intensively as ever (Transnational Institute, 2006).
If eradication programmes are carried out without simultaneously providing those affected with alternative sources of income, the drug economy will at best be weakened in the short run. In Thailand, there is no longer any significant opium production. In this case, governmental success was due not only to repression but also to integrated rural-development programmes. Education, health services and physical infrastructure improved opportunities for farmers to enhance their standard of life by legal means and with little risk involved (Korff and Djedje, 2005).
What Afghanistan needs most are legal livelihoods outside of agriculture, which is still the main source of income for 80 % of the Afghan population. Industrial production must be stepped up, and the infrastructure must be developed and not only in the main provinces of opium cultivation. Many migrant workers go there during harvest time from other regions, where, at first glance, the drug trade seems to be of little significance. There is evidence, however, that opium-poppy cultivation is diminishing in districts with better access to public services, including law-enforcement and security in general (Mansfield, 2006). The same link is evident within individual provinces.
Afghanistans National Drug Control Strategy was formulated in 2003 and amended in early 2006. The government considers disrupting the illicit drug trade a top priority, and is relying on the penal law. The 2005 Drug Laws approach is of zero tolerance to any possession of illegal substances, imposing prison terms of several months even for small amounts (Ministry of Counter Narcotics, 2006).
A number of agencies have been created to implement the strategy. Jurisdictions overlap in part, and many state bodies are working in competition with one another. Some are controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, others by the Ministry of Counter Narcotics. International advisors and military services have trained these agencies. The judiciary has a specialised Criminal Justice Task Force to pursue drug offences with specific teams of police, judges and public prosecutors, as well as a central court to hear drug offences.
At first sight, the results look promising. In 2006, 248 heroin labs were seized and destroyed. In 2005, more than 190 people were given prison sentences by the court. The snag, however, is this: the judges hardly dealt with major dealers. Law-enforcement bodies that supposedly implement Afghanistans drug policy in line with constitutional provisions continue to be thwarted by corruption and patronage. Because of the ambiguous performance by state agencies and politicians, distrust of the government and the newly established administrative order is growing among the Afghan people.
The last five years of international involvement in Afghanistan have shown that the complex nature of the drug trade demands a comprehensive approach, tackling all levels affected at once. To date, anti-drug strategies have mainly focussed on the farmers as the weakest and most visible knots in an extensive and clandestine patronage network.
Among NATO decision-makers, the perception continues to dominate that opium-poppy cultivation is the root cause of the problems. However, in reality the situation is considerably more complex. The use of purely repressive methods for drug eradication thwarts reconstruction efforts, undermines newly-created democratic institutions and increases poverty. Simple, clear recommendations cannot be made there are no quick fixes. A promising anti-drug policy would need to be part of an integrated reconstruction process, reducing the economic dependence of the Afghan people on the opium economy in the long-term.
is doing research on drug policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg. She teaches at the Asia-Africa-Institute at the University of Hamburg.
Korff, R. and S. Djedje, 2005:
A triumph of sorts in Thailand. D+C/E+Z, July 2005, p. 294f.
Mansfield, D., 2006:
Exploring the shades of grey: An assessment of the factors influencing decisions to cultivate opium poppy in 2005/06. A report for the Afghan Drugs Inter- Departmental Unit of the UK Government http://www.fco.gov.uk/Files/kfile/FinalFinal2005DriversDocumentdm%20(2).pdf
Mansfield, D. and A. Pain, 2006:
Opium-poppy eradication: How to raise risk when there is nothing to lose? AREU Briefing Paper, August 2006.
Transnational Institute, 2006:
Losing ground: drug control and war in Afghanistan. TNI Briefing Series, Number 2006/5, December.
Ministry of Counter Narcotics, Afghanistan, 2006:
National drug control strategy: an updated five-year strategy for tackling the illicit drug problem. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Government of Afghanistan, 2006: Afghanistan Opium Survey 2006. http://www.unodc.org/pdf/research/AFG05%20_full_web_2006.pdf