- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
In 2000, Afghanistan reached a remarkable milestone: Opium production in the country hit a record low. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared its cultivation un-Islamic and initiated one of the most effective — and most brutal — counternarcotics campaigns in history. The Taliban used threats, public punishment, and forced eradication to eliminate poppy fields. Consequently, territory under its control saw a 99 percent reduction in acreage used to grow opium.
Fourteen years later, the Taliban’s bloody gains have been mostly erased. According to a report released Thursday by the U.N., opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased 36 percent from 2012 to 2013 and was the main reason global opium cultivation jumped to its highest level since 1998, when the organization began tracking it.
Since storming into Afghanistan in late 2001, NATO forces have tried to match the Taliban’s eradication success. Unwilling to rely on its brutal methods, however, they have largely failed. The economic collapse that accompanied the 2001 invasion pushed many farmers to return to growing poppy. U.S.-led NATO forces’ efforts were also hindered by their inability to drive the Taliban out of key poppy-growing territory — large sections of the country never came under International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) control. Disagreement over anti-drug strategy within ISAF also made implementing an effective anti-drug campaign virtually impossible.
Moreover, in search of cash to fight Western troops, the Taliban was happy to reverse its previous stance that drugs are un-Islamic. By taxing the drug trade and opium production, the Taliban discovered a cash cow.
Still, U.S. officials have insisted on pursuing an eradication strategy. “In purely technical terms, aerial spraying is by far the most efficient method,” William B. Wood, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told NPR in 2007. “There is also a political, social, and drug environment to take into account, but we are going to use all of the tools that we can to fight drugs in Afghanistan.”
With U.S. troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, that strategy hasn’t worked. According to the U.N. report, the land devoted to opium growing in Afghanistan went from 154,000 hectares in 2012 to 209,000 hectares in 2013, beating 2007’s record of 193,000 hectares. The spike was mostly concentrated in nine southern and western provinces, with the biggest increases in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The global production of opium, as opposed to the area of land under cultivation, in 2013 was estimated at 6,883 tons, which is similar to production levels in 2011 and 2008. Opium production in Afghanistan, estimated at 5,500 tons, accounted for approximately 80 percent of the global total.