Opium intervention: Government policy

Opium intervention: Government policy


Afghanistan: Marjah residents take stock after offensive, IRIN, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 16 March 2010

During their two-year rule in Marjah, Taliban insurgents banned schools, TV and beard-shaving, and allowed farmers to grow opium. Afghanistan is the world’s top opium-producing country and Helmand Province accounted for over 50 percent of the 6,900 tons of opium produced there in 2009, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Taliban insurgents make hefty profits from the drugs trade, says UNODC.

The government has vowed to reopen schools, restore civil liberties and enforce the ban on poppy cultivation: “We will eradicate all poppy fields in Marjah because opium cultivation is illegal,” Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman of the Counter-Narcotics Ministry (MCN), told IRIN.

But farmers are pleading for a stay of execution: “We ask the government not to eradicate our current poppy fields; in return we promise not to cultivate poppy next year,” said local farmer Abdul Ghani. The farmers say destroying their poppy fields could ruin them, and that the conflict has damaged their livelihoods.

A senior government official, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN the government had unofficially agreed to allow farmers to harvest poppy this year because eradication was deemed too risky. “The government does not say this publicly because it is illegal but no eradication will be conducted in Marjah this season,” he said.

Database of Participants, Central And South Asia States Counter Narcotics Security Working Group, (as of December 19, 2006), CCJ3-JIACG, Counter Narcotics

Provides listing of names and organisational affiliation by member country and organisation, which include:

  • Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
  • Republic of Kazakhstan
  • Kyrgyz Republic
  • Islamic Republic of Pakistan
  • Republic of Tajikistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Republic of Uzbekistan
  • United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • Russian Federation
  • Federal Republic of Germany
  • Republic of Turkey
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime / Other U.N. Organizations
  • European Union / Other Civilian Organizations
  • United States of America
  • The George C. Marshall Center


Australian Federal Police Annual Report, 2005-06, Chapter Two.

“Approximately 80 per cent of heroin seized in Australia continues to originate from the Golden Triangle region of South-East Asia, predominantly Myanmar. Statistics collated by the Australian Illicit Drug Intelligence Program indicate South-West Asian heroin (produced primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan) has a potential market in Australia, however seizure levels in Australia remain comparatively low (approximately 20 percent). In the past y ear low-grade brown heroin likely to be sourced from Afghanistan was detected in parcel-post importations and at street level. Afghanistan is the world’s primary opium producing region, accounting for more than 85 per cent of global production. Even though the Australian drug market has shifted to amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), heroin will remain a danger to the Australian community as long as large-scale global cultivation of opium poppies continues.”

Australian help sought for drug fight, Mark Dodd, The Australian, 20 February 2007

“Afghanistan has warned it could unravel into a terrorist-backed narco-state unless Australia and the rest of the international community send specialist police to combat the heroin trafficking which is funding the Taliban insurgency. The war-battered nation’s ambassador to Canberra, Mohammed Anwar Anwarzai, said yesterday Australia’s military deployment had helped build local trust, but a dangerous vacuum existed in the wake of their withdrawal last year. ‘Unfortunately, we are now on the verge of becoming a narco-state. I can confess to that,’ Mr Anwarzai told The Australian. In its first acknowledgement of the extent of the problem, Canberra is planning to send four AFP [Australian Federal Police] agents to Afghanistan to help with police training and monitoring of illicit opium exports. Two armed AFP agents will be based in the opium heartland of Jalalabad to gather intelligence on opium smuggling.

United Kingdom

The UK role in counter-narcotics, UK Operations in Afghanistan, Thirteenth Report, Defence Committee, House of Commons, United Kingdom, 3 July 2007.

“146. The MoD’s position is that it will not take part in the eradication of poppy until alternative livelihood schemes are available. We call on the Government to ensure that this message is communicated clearly to farmers in Helmand. We are deeply concerned that uncertainty has arisen among Afghans about ISAF’s policy towards, and role in, poppy eradication and that UK Forces, under ISAF command, may consequently have been put at risk. This uncertainty undermines the effectiveness of the entire ISAF mission.


“147. The Senlis Council argues that until alternative livelihoods are made available for poppy farmers, the threat of eradication of their crop will result in them becoming increasingly involved with the Taliban. In places where alternatives to growing poppy do not exist, the Senlis Council advocates a pilot scheme in which farmers in designated areas are licensed to grow poppy in return for a guarantee that the State would buy their harvest.[165] The Senlis Council asserts that the legal production of opium in Afghanistan would help address a world-wide shortage of morphine and that similar trials had taken place successfully in India.

“148. During our visit to Afghanistan we met with much scepticism about the Senlis Council proposals. We were told that Southern Afghanistan, where much of Afghanistan’s poppy crop grows, currently lacks the necessary security in which trial schemes could take place without being taken over by those involved in the illegal narcotics industry. When we asked the Secretary of State to comment on the Senlis Council’s proposals, he expressed concern that the introduction of licensed opium trials would encourage farmers to start growing poppy crops and have the unintended consequence of increasing supply:

If I thought that buying the crop would solve the problem I would be first in the queue to persuade people to do that. My view is…that proposing to buy the crop currently would double the crop.

“149. During our visit to Afghanistan in April 2007, we were told by officials involved in counter-narcotics policy that the world market price for illegally produced opium was up to three times that of legally produced opium. With that being the case, there would be little incentive for opium farmers to join any legal scheme.

“150. Ending opium production in Helmand will require a long-term commitment by the international community to create a secure environment in which farmers can be encouraged to pursue alternative livelihoods. We recommend that the Government continue to pursue imaginative ways to policies to address narcotics production in Afghanistan but we are not persuaded that licensed production is a viable alternative strategy at this time.

“151. Success in combating the narcotics trade will be crucial to the future stability of Afghanistan. We remain concerned that the coalition’s counter-narcotics policy lacks clarity and coherence. We recommend that, in its response to this report, the Government set out in detail the international counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan, including its assessment of progress to date and targets for the years ahead.”

United States

Can anyone pacify the world’s number one narco-state? The Opium Wars in Afghanistan, Alfred W. McCoy, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 2010

In ways that have escaped most observers, the Obama administration is now trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and death in Afghanistan from which there is neither an easy end nor an obvious exit.

The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the three Afghan wars in which Washington has been involved over the past 30 years — the CIA covert warfare of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s (fueled at its start by $900 million in CIA funding), and since 2001, the U.S. invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency campaigns. In each of these conflicts, Washington has tolerated drug trafficking by its Afghan allies as the price of military success — a policy of benign neglect that has helped make Afghanistan today the world’s number one narco-state.

Opium first emerged as a key force in Afghan politics during the CIA covert war against the Soviets, … and Afghanistan in the 1980s. In one of history’s ironic accidents, the southern reach of communist China and the Soviet Union had coincided with Asia’s opium zone along this same mountain rim, drawing the CIA into ambiguous alliances with the region’s highland warlords.

Under these circumstances, no one should have been surprised when, during the first year of the U.S. occupation, Afghanistan’s opium harvest surged to 3,400 tons. Over the next five years, international donors would contribute $8 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, while opium would infuse nearly twice that amount, $14 billion, directly into the rural economy without any deductions by either those Western experts or Kabul’s bloated bureaucracy.

Short of another precipitous withdrawal akin to 1991, Washington has no realistic alternative to the costly, long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan’s agriculture. Beneath the gaze of an allied force that now numbers about 120,000 soldiers, opium has fueled the Taliban’s growth into an omnipresent shadow government and an effective guerrilla army.

Quick fixes like paying poppy farmers not to plant, something British and Americans have both tried, can backfire and end up actually promoting yet more opium cultivation. Rapid drug eradication without alternative employment, something the private contractor DynCorp tried so disastrously under a $150 million contract in 2005, would simply plunge Afghanistan into more misery, stoking mass anger and destabilizing the Kabul government further.

So the choice is clear enough: we can continue to fertilize this deadly soil with yet more blood in a brutal war with an uncertain outcome — for both the United States and the people of Afghanistan. Or we can begin to withdraw American forces while helping renew this ancient, arid land by replanting its orchards, replenishing its flocks, and rebuilding the irrigation systems ruined in decades of war.

Poppies a target in fight against Taliban, Dexter Filkins, NYT, 28 April 2009

American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations. The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency.

Ambassador: Washington Will Change Its Afghan Counternarcotics Programs, Richard Weitz, EurasiaNet, 30 July 2007.

“US Ambassador Thomas A. Schweich, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs acknowledged that US programs had only achieved mixed results in curbing the narcotics trade in Afghanistan. US government experts estimate that opium production currently amounts to almost a third of Afghanistan’s total Gross Domestic Product, or slightly over $3 billion. Schweich concluded that it could take a minimum of five years to get the problem “under control.” In his view, success will not involve completely ending local opium production, which he termed impossible.”

Status of Security and Stability in Afghanistan, Statement of Karen P. Tandy, Administrator, Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, June 28, 2006

“The large scale production of opium in Afghanistan is not only a significant threat to Afghanistan’s future and the region’s stability, but also has worldwide implications. In response to this threat, the DEA has undertaken an aggressive approach to combat the production of opium in Afghanistan. The DEA has opened and staffed our Kabul Country Office, initiated our Foreigndeployed Advisory and Support Team [FAST] program, and has begun to establish an aviation presence in Afghanistan and expand our regional presence.

“Working with the CNP-A [Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan] and the Department of Defense (DoD), the DEA has established the National Interdiction Unit (NIU), which is comprised of CNP-A officers who have been selected to work on major narcotic enforcement operations with the Kabul Country Office. Through assistance, training, and mentoring, DEA’s goal is to make the NIU capable of conducting independent operations. Five classes of the NIU have graduated from a six-week training program that was sponsored by the U.S. Government. All NIU graduates are operationally deployed and work bi-laterally with DEA’s FAST teams. Presently, there are approximately 100 NIU officers with a total force of 125 expected this summer.

“To help achieve our goals in Afghanistan, DEA has established specially trained, Foreigndeployed Advisory Support Teams (FAST). FAST is a key tool by which DEA advances its enforcement and training operations. FAST consists of five teams of six specially trained agents and analysts who deploy to Afghanistan for 120 days at a time to assist the Kabul Country Office and CNP-A in the development of their investigations. They advise, mentor and train our Afghan counterpart.

“The Department of Defense is funding and constructing a FAST and NIU base camp in Afghanistan which is expected to be completed in the first quarter of FY 2007. This facility will be capable of housing and providing mission support for our deployed FAST teams and their NIU counterparts. FAST personnel currently are being housed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and at the Bagram Air Field until this base camp is completed.”

CCJ3-JIACG, Counter Narcotics, US Central Command

United Nations

UN wants ‘flood of drugs’ in Afghanistan to devalue opium, Jon Boone, Guardian, 25 May 2009

United Nations officials in Afghanistan are attempting to create a “flood of drugs” in the country intended to destroy the value of opium and force poppy farmers to switch to legal crops such as wheat. After the failure to destroy fields of the scarlet flowers in Afghanistan’s volatile south, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the answer is to stop the drugs from leaving the country in the first place.


Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
Additional research: Ronald Li
Updated: 12 April 2010