Opium economy in Afghanistan

From SourceWatch
Jump to navigation Jump to search

In 2000 the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar in collaboration with the United Nations launched a vigorous campaign against opium production. Omar convinced Afghani farmers that that growing poppies was un-Islamic, resulting in one of the world's most successful anti-drug campaigns. As a result of this ban, opium poppy cultivation was dramatically reduced (estimates range from 91% to 94% reduction) from the previous year's estimate of 82,172 hectares. The ban was so effective that Helmand Province, which had accounted for more than half of this area, recorded no poppy cultivation during the 2001 season.[1] In terms of tons, production declined from over 4,000 tons in 2000, to 185 tons in 2001, almost all of that produced in regions controlled by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.

Following 2001 US-led "coalition bombing campaign and [the] ensuing rout of the Taliban government Afghanistan's "Opium Economy" was quickly re-established. By October 2002, the opium trade had "roared back to life" to surpass prewar levels and, by December 2002, opium seed was already in the ground for the next crop. [1][2]

Although it was reported that there were "some indications the US, Britain and the drug and crime arm of the UN [were] serious about taking on" the crisis, the battle was "being lost to the powerful incentive for opium farmers to sell their crop to swindlers, who then turn the plants over to be refined, packaged and shipped to capitals from Moscow to Glasgow, Boston to Tehran." Additionally, the war had made the cultivation and sale of opium appear "to be the only avenue by which many Afghanis [could] make a living." [3][4]

Good Intentions 2001

The official line of apologists for the US invasion of Afghanistan ignored the fact that the Taliban in collaboration with the UN had almost eliminated opium production in Afghanistan[2]. US Today, for example, pretended as if the Taliban inspired campaign against the drug had never existed and optimistically speculated that

As American bombers continue to pound Taliban facilities in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say the campaign against the terrorist-friendly regime inevitably will target its biggest moneymaker: a vibrant drug network that supplies more than 70% of the world's opium. Authorities in the USA and Europe already have frozen an estimated $24 million in assets linked to Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban. But the American-led effort is just beginning to put a dent in a drug trade that U.S. officials believe nets the Taliban up to $30 million a year in taxes and tolls that it collects from Afghan drug rings.[3]

Skyrocketing Opium Production ... Resurgence of Violence and the Warlords 2003

Despite reports a year later, in December 2003, that violence had returned to Afghanistan, and was "attributed to the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda, ... aid workers in Afghanistan" reported that the violence was initiated by warloads associated with "the production and trade of narcotics ... behind many of the attacks," as the "sharp rise in killings .. [coincided] with the autumn harvest of the poppy crop." [5]

NPR's Emily Harris reported December 29, 2003, that, although the "U.S. military is under increasing pressure to crack down on Afghanistan's drug trade" and the "trade in poppies, used in opium and heroin, is seen as a threat to the country's weak central government, ... the U.S. mission in Afghanistan specifically excludes battling drug trafficking." [6]

In the December 30, 2003, New Zealand Herald, Gwynne Dyer asked how the Bush administration's "project for a democratic and prosperous Afghanistan [was] coming along" two years after troops arrived in Kabul. "Well," Dyer commented, "the opium crop is booming - 3600 tonnes this year, almost back to the peak production of 4600 tonnes reached before the Taleban banned the crop in 1999." [7]

"Two years after the ruling Taliban were ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition, opium production has skyrocketed as farmers in lawless provinces crank up output, threatening efforts to strengthen the government and establish a proper economy," added Reuters' Scott McDonald February 8, 2004. [8]

Poppy Cultivation Projections 2004

The U.S. Department of State reported that Afghanistan "cultivated a record 800 square miles of poppies" and the United Nations says that the 2004 crop, "more than three times as much as the year before, yielded nearly 90 percent of the world's opium, the raw material for heroin," according to Kim Barker in the Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2005. [9]

Early in March 2004, she wrote, "the State Department warned that Afghanistan was in danger of becoming a narcotics state and that the country's heroin production 'represents an enormous threat to world stability.'"

Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai, however, stated that "fewer poppies are being grown nationwide" this year, as he had "declared a holy war on poppies after his election in October" and a "new Counternarcotics Ministry was created." Additionally, the "international community stepped up its anti-poppy campaign" and local officials and police "a number of whom were involved in the drug trade - appeared to take poppy fighting more seriously," Barker reported.

The UN reported that "poppy production has fallen in 29 of the country's 34 provinces. Farmers told surveyors that they stopped growing poppies because they feared the government's ban and eradication."

Although the UN survey "is only a snapshot in the middle of the growing season ... it's not clear what will happen to the drug trade. Fewer poppies could just mean more-expensive heroin, not an end to opium smuggling in Afghanistan. But such a drastic drop in poppies could be a major step forward for security in many provinces."

"Government officials say they are certain that this year's poppy crop will be much lower than last year's. But they worry about next year. They believe the farmers will try to go back to poppies if promises fall short."

Opium Production Reality 2004

  • "The opium harvest in Afghanistan this year will be one of the biggest on record," the British Foreign Office said July 27, 2004, triggering "a flood of heroin on Britain's streets." [10]
  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that cultivation of the opium poppy was up 64 percent from 2003 to 2004, to more than 131,000 hectacres. The harvest in 2004 was estimated at 4,200 metric tons, an increase of 17 percent from last year.
"While the price per kilogram has dropped 67 percent during that period, all 32 provinces in the country and a record number of farmers are involved in some form of opium cultivation." Afghanistan's "spiraling $2.8 billion-a-year heroin trade" illustrates "a narco-economy where 40 to 50 percent of the GDP is from illicit drugs," according to an Afghani official.
The UN's report also showed that the drug trade had "been rising steadily for decades -- except for an abrupt one-year decline in opium poppy cultivation in 2001 that followed a ban imposed by the Taliban regime." (.pdf)[11]

The "ugly truth" of Poppy Politics

John Hickman wrote in November 2004 that "The ugly truth is that Afghanistan’s opium boom and the resulting flood of cheap heroin in Western Europe appears to serve important, if distasteful, foreign policy purposes. Opium growing keeps the Afghanis out of more serious mischief. Better they engage in organized crime than Islamist terrorism. The military deployments which would be needed to give Afghanistan a stable, legitimate government and the capital investments that would be necessary to put it on the path to industrialization are being used elsewhere, in Iraq. Dealing with Afghanistan remains an afterthought, the perennial lower priority in the foreign policy interests of the United States and the other powers." [12]

New Opium "Eradication Program" 2005

April 12, 2005, the first day of Afghanistan's new opium eradication program, hundreds of Afghan "eradicators under the command of American private security contractors" headed to the "fields around the town" of Maiwand to "destroy the beautiful red and white blooms days before they could be harvested for their narcotic sap," wrote Nick Meo in the Independent (UK). [13]

However, "instead of the peaceful, model operation that was promised as an example to demonstrate the Kabul government's serious intentions," Meo said, "Maiwand and its surrounding villages exploded into violence in what could be a foretaste of resistance to Western-backed efforts to bring Afghanistan's opium industry under control."

"By the end of yesterday four government soldiers had been wounded by gunfire from farmers, American security contractors were said to be sheltering behind razor wire in a protected camp, and Afghan police and counter-narcotics forces had fought fierce battles which local people said left five dead. Plans to eradicate poppies were temporarily shelved in the area as political bigwigs shuttled to and fro trying to ease tensions and broker some kind of deal with the angry opium farmers," Meo wrote.

Maiwan had been "targeted first" for eradication, as it was considered a "relatively peaceful area with effective government control." Only two days earlier, the "poppy eradication force had driven out of Kandahar" and Meo reported that the "hard cases have yet to be tackled."


Related SourceWatch articles


External articles







External resources


  • Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Lawrence Hill Books, 1991. (revised and rewritten version of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia). Contains many references to Afghanistan.


Reports & Testimony