By Mohammad Rasouli

The ugly story of opium in AfghanistanAfghanistan is an impoverished and war-torn country that due to the usual challenges of rebuilding, (continuation of the riots, existence of severe and widespread corruption, lack of modern institutions, and deficiency of rule of law) is witnessing the most complicated situations. For more than two thousand years, this country was at the crossroads of civilizations and a major contributor to the global culture. But, in the last twenty five years, it has become a major center for international terrorism and violence, and one of the key producers of narcotic drugs in the world.

At the present, Afghanistan faces a historical challenge. The war on terrorism still has not reached its vital outcomes. In addition to this hardship, the country has been faced with an enemy even more dangerous than international terrorism- narcotic drugs.

Despite the establishment of democracy in Afghanistan and the steps that the Government and international community have taken to solve the problems of narcotic drugs, its production and trade needs adequate and effective actions that have not yet been taken. According to statistics obtained from combat against narcotics, the country experienced one of the highest rates of drug fabrication in the past year.

Not surprisingly, the nagging questions raised by the public have increased both at home and abroad. Questions such as: Why, with the presence of more than 100 thousand international forces in Afghanistan, are we still unable to take this issue under our control? Or why is the central government in Kabul unable to ban the cultivation of opium, like what the Taliban regime did before (between 2000 to 2001)?

Answers to these questions are not simply possible to answer. The opium economy in Afghanistan has become a very complex phenomenon. After numerous years of civil war, this singularity has deeply influenced the political and economic structure of the country. And different groups in Afghanistan, including governments and military officials, the rural poor communities, large and small businesses, as well as local warlords and international criminal syndicates are among the main beneficiaries. Elimination of the opium economy will be a long and complex process that is not as simple as military or authoritarian measures. The procedure would require the instruments of democracy, rule of law and economic development all together.

In the past two decades, Afghanistan had provided more than 90 percent of the world’s opium and was a key producer in this field. According to statistics, the total illicit narcotic drug trade is equal to one third of the country’s GDP, benefiting millions of Afghan citizens directly or indirectly.

Some of the main reasons for production of opium include the combination of anti-government unrest, nationwide insecurity, armed rebellion and widespread corruption in the state itself.

The Counter Narcotics experts believe that due to the corruption in the government and bribery of the authorities to exempt some fields from the elimination of the opium program, farmers prefer to ask Taliban forces to protect their opium crops.

On the other side of the moon, according to UN estimates, only about 10 percent of total opium profits go into the pockets of farmers and 20 percent is the share of insurgents. The rest of this magical income is for traffickers, police forces, local strongmen and those government officials who are complicit in the trade or facilitating in the transport of drugs.

The strategy of the central government, which has benefited from the backing of the international community, is to fight against narcotic drug trafficking and opium production. According to these strategies, wherever farmers have better situations and the cultivating of alternative crops are available, the ban of farming of poppy should be declared, such as the cases in Bamyan and Parwan provinces. However, in terms of insecurity in provinces or corrupt financial situations of farmers, the cultivation of the alternative crops cannot be feasible. This means that the ban of farming of poppy should be declared over a practical time period.

The challenge is that due to the inefficiencies in this strategy, many farmers in insecure areas continue to grow opium.  Even some of the farmers who lived in relatively safe zones also took advantage of the gaps in this strategy to grow the plant.

Because making a living under the rule of law can only be possible under the competent government and security, the results of the legislation will allow market development and economic growth to be dominant. Therefore, the government should do their best to ensure security, fight against corruption in its structures, and try to boost mutual respect and trust between local citizens and central government as well.

In recent  years, the biggest problems are the lack of law enforcement against drug traffickers, local powerful people, police officers, and politicians who are involved in the narcotic drug trade. These people abuse their position in government to support the arrest and prosecution of the main traffickers and smugglers.

For example, in one case, a significant amount of opium was found in a governor’s office in Helmand.  Shir Mohammad Akhund Zadeh is a prominent ally of the President Hamid Karzai. He was dismissed by a push of the British forces, but interestingly later he was designated as a senator by President Karzai.

Another example of the lack of law enforcement against narcotic drug trafficking can be found in a 2006 case. I this case, Afghan – U.S. forces found a substantial amount of heroin in a car owned by the Haji Zaher Qadir (first Deputy of WJ), who was supposed to be appointed as the commander of the border police forces at the time. Unfortunately, like the other cases, he was not accused of drug trafficking nor we can see any pursuit of judicial charges.

The latest example of involvement of high-ranking members of governments in the narcotic drug trade goes back to 2010. At that time, several Afghan Air Force personnel claimed that some of the Army Air Force staffs took advantage of aircrafts at night and by the assistance of the Department of Defense they were committing narcotic drug and weapon trading. However, this investigation was confronted with the disruptions of senior officials of the Ministry of Defense and the Presidency.

The enormous benefits of narcotic drug production go into the pockets of its manufacturers, drug dealers, government officials and Taliban commanders, making a very strong network that has infiltrated all levels of the administration and its opponents. These linkages play an active role in making the country unsafe and risky. The seriousness of this concern can be seen in the opinions of Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. special representative in Afghanistan.  Holbrooke stressed that the Afghan government is similar to the narcotic drug administration, and stated that the prerequisite to victory over terrorism is to reform the government first.

At the moment, on the eve of the departure of thousands of international troops there are very serious concerns about the future of this issue. Although most of Afghanistan’s leaders have asserted the need to combat against narcotic drugs, most of them know perfectly that there is little chance of success until the end of the NATO mission in 2014.

It should not be forgotten that the decline of western donor contracts to the illegal economy (human trafficking, precious stones, arms and drugs) will account for a larger share of the economy itself.

Even though the figures represent a reduction of drug production in 2012, this decrease is not due to the government’s narcotic drug eradication or the effectiveness of the state strategies.   It is in fact due to the bad weather conditions. The statistics show that the risk of widespread drug cultivation will be high in the coming years. As the farmers suffered substantial losses this year, they feel the need to compensate the fatalities in the coming years.

But hopefully experience has taught us that reductions in opium cultivation are within our reach. For example, in parts of the provinces that farmers have proper access to city centers and human labor, and local governments are implementing effective strategies to combat narcotic drugs, the issue has decreased dramatically.

In fact, valuable horticultural, agricultural and industrial crops in many parts of the country could potentially be exported to foreign markets.  This is especially true for agricultural products such as cotton, oil seeds, fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, which can contribute on a fundamental level to the emerging economy of Afghanistan. Granting these opportunities directly related to the modernization of agriculture and the impact of large investments in this sector,  we should remember that investment in this division creates the opportunity of employment for impoverished people ( especially in the production and processing stages), and will also help us to provide security for our country.

The golden key to developments in agriculture lies in the packaging, processing and marketing industry in the country. Replacement with products that are popular in the global marketplace, such as saffron, is another way of reducing the cultivation of poppy and curbing the dependence on the narcotic drug economy.

Afghanistan, to build a healthy economy based on private enterprise and away from the influence of illegal businesses, needs comprehensive and long-term plans. The major challenges facing the healthy economy include the non-stabilized currency (Afghani), wide currency sent out of the country, the problem of access to land, lack of energy sources, the price of land, corruption and high transaction costs, disorder in the industrial and service infrastructure and human resources, and above all massive and indiscriminate imports to the country. Generally, the Afghan economy is liberal and market-oriented with no specific long-term strategy.

While most Afghan traders aim to establish import and export companies, in fact the activity of these companies is importing non-quality products from China and Iran (goods such as oil, eggs, dairy products, wool, food, soap, shoes, etc.).   In a nutshell, we can summarize that this evidence shows the shape of the consumer economy of Afghanistan.  It should not be forgotten that this kind of business only consists of exporting the raw materials, including fresh fruit, dried herbs, precious stones and carpets.

With a focus on investment in rural businesses we can see its direct influences on the reduction of the impacts of the opium economy. Investment in this sector requires a sharp change in policies for landlords and financial services. The government must give away the state lands and long-term loans to farmers and motivate them to kick the narcotic drug habit. Due to the financial weakness of the central government, they can only give incentives to private banks and make them enthusiastic to give loans to the farmers.

It should be noted that Afghanistan is unable to solve this global problem alone. The international community and countries on the drug transit route should join hands together to solve this problem that is greater than the threat of terrorism.

The Ugly truth is that the Afghan opium boom and a flood of cheap heroin to Europe and other rich countries reveals that powerful states prefer to allow some farmers to cultivate opium and only support them against international terrorism. Countries with poor policy implementation and who underestimate this ominous trade choose to marry these two dangerous phenomena. Every day that goes by, the two are becoming more intertwined and dangerous.


  • The Khaama Press News Agency is the leading and largest English news service for Afghanistan with over 3 million hits a month. Independent authors/columnists and experts are welcome to contribute stories, opinions and editorials. Send stories to [email protected]