The South Asia Channel

Kicking Afghanistan’s opium habit

On November 13, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual Afghanistan Opium Survey, which found that opium cultivation reached record levels in 2013, despite a decade of attempted counter-narcotics activities by U.S. and NATO forces. It also comes just a few weeks after NATO announced it will scale down its post-2014 ...

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

On November 13, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual Afghanistan Opium Survey, which found that opium cultivation reached record levels in 2013, despite a decade of attempted counter-narcotics activities by U.S. and NATO forces. It also comes just a few weeks after NATO announced it will scale down its post-2014 troop commitments to Afghanistan.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan will conclude at the end of 2014, marking the end of the largest, most expensive, and most politically contentious mission in the alliance’s history. The announcement reflects NATO members’ eagerness to put the Afghan saga behind them, leaving only a small vanguard of trainers and advisers in place to oversee the transition. Yet Afghanistan’s rampant drug trade, now at an all-time high, threatens to upend NATO’s decade of fragile progress and mixed successes.

For over a decade, U.S. and NATO policymakers have struggled with the inconvenient truth that the insurgency in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the opium poppy trade. Opium poppy plants are hardy and durable, require little water, fetch a high market price once processed into heroin, and store without rotting, making them an ideal crop for Afghanistan’s inchoate economy and arid mountain climate.

When U.S.-led ISAF forces initially entered Afghanistan in October 2001, they ignored the opium poppy fields, convinced that destroying a primary income source for many Afghans wouldn’t earn them any local support. ISAF forces also elicited support from local Afghan warlords to combat insurgent groups with hundreds of millions of dollars. This flooded the Afghan money market, rapidly devaluing the already weak Afghan currency and prompting Afghans to put their money into the only safe and profitable investment in the Afghan economy: opium poppy farming. By 2003, when NATO assumed control of ISAF, Afghanistan’s estimated opium income was $4.8 billion, compared with $2.8 billion in foreign aid.

Many U.S. policymakers eventually acknowledged the severity of the burgeoning drug trade problem in Afghanistan, but the diagnosis proved easier than treatment. Indiscriminate eradication, ISAF’s next attempted strategy, failed miserably as it significantly undermined the coalition’s popularity with Afghans who had no means of income outside opium poppy farming. Moreover, NATO forces could only eradicate the opium poppy fields in areas they controlled. By 2008, 98% of the poppy plants were cultivated in insurgent-controlled areas, and total poppy cultivation in Afghanistan grew to the point where the drug trade’s potential export value constituted nearly 25% of the country’s GDP.

One of the few positive outcomes from this failed policy was a slight improvement in NATO-Russia relations, as illustrated by the NATO-Russia Council’s small Counter Narcotics Training Program (which today remains one of NATO’s only formal initiatives tasked with addressing Afghanistan’s drug trade). However, while this program represents a modest success story in the otherwise anemic NATO-Russia relationship, it is anchored in Russia’s stubborn support for full-scale eradication policies, which stems from the widespread use of Afghan opiates and heroin in Russia.

The Obama administration took stock of these failures and transitioned to a strategy of selectively eradicating poppy farms that were linked to the Taliban, while simultaneously implementing "alternative livelihood efforts" for Afghan farmers. Yet poppies remain the most profitable crop available; farmers can earn up to $203 per kilogram of harvested opium, compared with $1.25 for a kilogram of harvested rice. Additionally, many Afghans doubt whether the alternative crop subsidies that currently counterbalance these price discrepancies will outlast ISAF’s 2014 mission mandate.

While the selective eradication concept was promising, NATO provided no framework for its members to coordinate targeted eradication policies across their respective sectors of command. This led to a phenomenon known as "the balloon effect" — if NATO forces effectively countered opium poppy production in one region, production would simply increase in another region.

All the while, drug money became a vital source of funding for the insurgents. By 2013, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that Afghan insurgent groups earned over $200 million annually from the drug trade. In the words of former ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus: "drug money has been the oxygen in the air that allows these groups to operate."

The unchecked drug trade dovetails Afghanistan’s notorious and ossified corruption problems, which pose as large of a threat to Afghanistan’s stability as the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made dramatic, but ultimately disingenuous, public promises to tackle corruption. In practice, he has perpetuated corruption and the drug problem through his internal political entanglements, affiliations, and dependencies. For example, Karzai’s current anti-corruption czar, Izzatullah Wasifi, was once arrested for attempting to sell $2 million worth of heroin in Las Vegas (an act that Karzai waved off as a "youthful indiscretion"). Karzai vehemently counterattacks allegations of corruption, arguing that the bigger problem in Afghanistan is the corruption in ISAF contracts with private security firms. As this blame game continues, it risks undermining already feeble public confidence in Afghanistan’s fledgling democratic institutions and poisoning the roots of Afghanistan’s future.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for NATO to fully confront Afghanistan’s opium poppy trade will likely close with its 2014 drawdown, especially now that NATO’s post-2014 commitment represents only a modicum of its initial plans. However, NATO can still take a few relatively low-cost steps to at least curb Afghanistan’s drug trade in the short-term, as it lacks the resources for a long-term effort.

The perennial first step is admitting the problem. NATO leaders have quietly acknowledged the dangerous drug trafficking problem Afghanistan faces without offering any real solutions, lest the alliance be labeled as the party in charge of ‘fixing’ the drug problem while lacking the means and will to do so. However, after 2014, Afghanistan will take responsibility for its own security. When that happens, NATO will be on the sidelines, with more political breathing room to raise awareness for and o
ffer suggestions to the Afghan government on the opium poppy trade.

Second, NATO can increase its financial and political investments in the Counter Narcotics Training Program, which has potential, but only if the alliance can convince Russia of the pitfalls of indiscriminate eradication. Counter-narcotics units are most effective when they are stringently vetted and highly trained with expert support. Afghanistan cannot produce such units without NATO funding and support.

Third, NATO can provide helicopters to support Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics efforts, as they are the only viable way for counter-narcotics units to swiftly respond to and interdict drug traffickers in a mountainous country devoid of transportation infrastructure. As the U.S. Senate Drug Caucus concluded, "there is no end game capability in Afghanistan without the appropriate number of helicopters." As a corollary to interdiction efforts, NATO should leverage its integrated command structures, intelligence sharing capabilities, and well-established intelligence infrastructure in Afghanistan to support these counter-narcotics activities.

Finally, NATO needs to conduct an honest assessment of how the opium poppy trade impacted its own counterinsurgency. A NATO Counter-Narcotics Center of Excellence, a member-initiated and independent in-house think tank, offers one mechanism to provide the post-mortem on ISAF’s failed drug policies and serve as NATO’s institutional memory for its Afghan mission. As European Union forefather Jean Monet famously said, "the lessons of history are doomed to be forgotten unless they are embedded in institutions."

Though NATO members are reluctant to commit to costly long-term missions in the foreseeable future, the alliance has agreed to provide a residual force of trainers and advisers to the country under the auspices of Operation Resolute Support. Yet many of the threats that NATO’s stability and reconstruction initiatives aimed to eliminate still persist. And for better or worse, NATO’s reputation as a viable international security alliance is inextricably linked to Afghanistan. If NATO is ever pulled into another major operation, the world will look to Afghanistan as the benchmark for its successes and shortfalls.

NATO’s announcement that it is scaling back its already sparse commitments to Afghanistan after 2014 does not augur well for efforts to curb the country’s prevalent drug trade and record-high opium cultivation levels. Afghanistan’s fate hangs in the balance, and the opium poppy plant may prove heavy enough to tip the scale against the full weight of NATO and a nascent Afghan democracy.

Robbie Gramer staffs the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He can be reached via email at

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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