The Good and Bad News about Afghan Opium

The Good and Bad News about Afghan Opium

International efforts have helped reduce the number of Afghan provinces growing opium poppies. But CFR’s George Gavrilis says the drug trade continues to flourish, requiring broader counternarcotics efforts.

February 4, 2010 11:20 am (EST)

Expert Brief
CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.

Some rare good news is coming out of Afghanistan these days. Internationally led counternarcotics efforts have gained momentum, opium cultivation is decreasing, and more provinces have gone "poppy free," a term developed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that indicates provinces where opium growing has ceased or reached negligible levels.

But the bad news is that many of Afghanistan’s poppy-free provinces remain critical enablers of Afghanistan’s opium economy. Though poppy growing may be eliminated, criminal networks in a number of provinces now focus on refining, stockpiling, and transporting opium. A broad range of authoritative international sources indicates these networks are at times aided by Afghan government officials who are little bothered by the Western-led counternarcotics efforts that seek to eradicate opium crops and chase down Taliban smugglers.

As a result, Afghanistan’s drug industry remains intact and very likely to undermine new anticorruption efforts by international donors and agencies. If international policymakers are to secure greater advances against opium, they must adopt efforts that will prod Afghan officials to take the lead in confronting internal smuggling routes, processing havens, and protection rackets in poppy-free provinces.

International Counternarcotics Efforts

Opium has been an enduring feature of Afghanistan’s political economy. As Afghanistan experts like Barnett Rubin and Jonathan Goodhand have shown, a variety of warlords, local chiefs, insurgents, and government elites played their part in taxing, trading, and protecting the country’s vast opium industry long before the U.S.-led intervention in 2001. Even the Taliban took a strategic view of opium as they rose to power in the 1990s, at times taxing it for revenue and other times doling out concessions in the opium economy to win over local warlords. By 1999, eighteen provinces in Taliban-led Afghanistan were producing an estimated 75% of the world’s illicit opium until an unexpected and brutally enforced ban in 2000 led to a 98% drop in poppy production.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan After the Taliban were driven out of power in 2001, opium made an astonishing comeback in the impoverished Afghan countryside. By 2006, twenty-one of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces were producing 94 percent of the world’s supply--estimated at a pre-export value of $4 billion and equivalent to nearly 50 percent of the country’s GDP.

Afghanistan had no capacity to prevent the export of opium and the country’s scant border police were ill-equipped and living in mud huts, conditions that left some susceptible to bribes and others helpless against well-armed traffickers. Officials from neighboring Iran, coping with a full-fledged addiction problem fed by cheap imported opiates, desperately offered to donate saffron seeds to lure Afghan farmers away from poppies.

By 2008, the UNODC, Britain, and the United States--lead forces in Afghanistan’s anti-drug initiatives--deepened efforts through coordinated development, education, alternative crops, and eradication strategies. International donors disbursed up to $2 million in development funds to governors in provinces that went poppy-free, and the British supplemented their efforts with a PR campaign in the Afghan countryside that portrayed drugs as counter to the teachings of Islam.

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Drug Policy


If international policymakers are to secure greater advances against opium, they must adopt efforts that will prod Afghan officials to take the lead in confronting internal smuggling routes, processing havens, and protection rackets in poppy-free provinces.

Eradication was difficult and controversial. It first required dedicated work by UNODC field surveyors who collect data on opium planting and harvesting. Next, international officials had to ensure that target districts were eligible for alternative livelihood programs. Then, internationally led and Afghan-government-led eradication teams were put together under severe constraints; Afghan security forces were ill-prepared, and many ISAF member states excused their soldiers from counternarcotics operations. In the field, teams faced hostile farmers, corrupt district chiefs, and well-armed local militias intent on protecting poppy fields.

Nonetheless, the renewed efforts bred modest successes. By 2009, UNODC registered a 22 percent drop in cultivation (PDF), twenty provinces reached poppy-free status, and three others came close. Policymakers are now gearing up for the 2010 growing and harvesting season and will likely focus on Afghanistan’s fourteen remaining poppy-growing provinces, many of which host insurgent pockets.

The Taliban Link

Afghan drugs provide a deadly subsidy for insurgent field commanders who buy arms, explosives, vehicles, and foot soldiers, and so it is understandable that international military officials pursue traffickers and drug laboratories when intelligence indicates an insurgent link. But the size of subsidy remains unclear.

NATO officials say that insurgents get 40 to 60 percent of their income from drugs, though some of this may come from Pakistan’s opium fields. The State Department estimates the Taliban annually reaps $400 million, while British officials in Kabul say the number is somewhere between $100 and $450 million per year.

In arms-buying power, any of the above estimates are alarming. But in relative terms, they indicate the Taliban to be a small stakeholder, in control of a fraction of Afghanistan’s $3 to $4 billion opium economy.

A Drugged state

As experts have noted previously, much of Afghanistan’s drug problem lies in Kabul and the poppy-free provinces, well beyond the poppy fields of insurgent-littered districts. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to revisit events of the past few years.

While UNODC raised the alarm over Afghanistan’s bumper crop of poppies in 2006, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that President Hamid Karzai had failed to remove officials accused of being leading drug traffickers from government positions in the south. To justify his inaction, Karzai cited the officials as loyal Pashtun bulwarks in the fight against insurgents. At the same time, Karzai and his allies in key ministries began reshuffling officials in the highway police, border police, and district offices in northern provinces. These appointments enhanced Karzai’s political hand but decreased the prospect of counterdrug efforts.

In 2007, some officials from poppy-growing provinces were transferred by Karzai to districts in the north and northeast that were transitioning quickly toward poppy-free status. Of five major police appointments in Takhar and Badakhshan provinces that year, three had a history of trafficking. Alarmed international officials warned that the ministry of interior was renting positions at internal smuggling routes and border crossings for immense sums.


Provincial and district officials collude with criminal networks and other government officials to protect, profit, and even provide public services by virtue of the opium trade.

By 2008, as more areas in the north and northeast went poppy-free, the northern drug route into Central Asia appears to have become more important. Tajikistan’s authorities seized record volumes of heroin; Turkmenistan experienced unprecedented drug-related violence in the capital; and at a high-level ministerial conference on Afghanistan that December, the Uzbek foreign minister blasted Afghan authorities for cross-border "narco-aggression." By this point, international officials and political officers in Afghanistan were reporting that the northeast border provinces of Kunduz, Baglan, and Takhar were crisscrossed with drug- and weapon-smuggling routes and that in newly poppy-free Badakhshan, local commanders and centrally appointed officials allegedly reached power-sharing agreements over drug routes.

Today, even as fewer provinces cultivate opium and licit GDP increases, much of the Afghan state remains politically and economically reliant on drugs. As it has in the past, opium continues to monetize the Afghan economy, as earnings from drug cultivation, processing, and smuggling inject cash into Afghanistan’s agricultural, consumer, labor, and construction markets. Despite measured international confidence in Afghanistan’s current minister of interior, a growing number of international bodies active in Afghanistan confidentially indicate that provincial and district officials continue to collude with criminal networks and central government officials to protect, profit, and even provide public services by virtue of the opium trade. Given this, it’s easy to understand why Afghanistan today produces much of the world’s opium supply but only seizes 2 percent.

Last Chance, Sisyphus

As they gear up for the 2010 growing season, UNODC, U.S., and British authorities will push ahead with policies designed to eradicate the vast poppy carpets in the south and chase after suspected Taliban traffickers. Their success will depend on a number of factors that counternarcotics officials and research institutions in Afghanistan have become better at anticipating: climate conditions, viable crop alternatives, market prices for opium, security conditions, and impediments and obfuscation by officials and locals opposed to eradication. But a long-term decline will require major changes in the politics and economy of Afghanistan’s drug industry.   

A counternarcotics strategy that targets transiting and cultivating provinces alike is in order. This strategy can be encouraged by the international community but ultimately must be Afghan-led. Such a strategy can begin with the formation of a task force composed of the UNODC, UNAMA, and ISAF, as well as Afghan, U.S., British, and Russian representatives. Russia is an underutilized stakeholder in Afghanistan and a major destination country for Afghan heroin via northern smuggling routes. The task force can devise a broader strategy that will implement the following measures:

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Drug Policy


  • Retool and expand the Counter Narcotics Trust Fund to give rewards that better reflect a province’s advances against narcotics. Current sums are woefully inadequate. Giving Afghan governors $2 million for development if their province goes poppy-free is no incentive at all if a province generates $100 million in drug revenue. More importantly, the trust fund should create a new reward category that doles out development funds to provinces that show substantiated declines in trafficking, not just cultivation. This will encourage Afghan district and provincial-level officials to suppress smuggling and processing of opium and discourage official collusion in the opium economy.
  • Create a trafficking-free province program to map internal smuggling routes and compile data on local and district-level officials suspected of trafficking, processing, and stockpiling opium, precursors, and heroin. While the UNODC compiles and publishes outstanding district and province-level statistics to monitor poppy cultivation, there is no equivalent mechanism to map trafficking networks and gauge how a province helps process, transport, and export opium. The field offices of international organizations (such as UNAMA) and Provincial Reconstruction Teams located across Afghanistan produce frequent and highly detailed reports that can be mined and aggregated to create updated trafficking maps, which could be used as intelligence tools to help suppress internal smuggling routes, interdict opium supplies, and shame drug-tainted officials.

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