The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's recently published summary report on Afghanistan's opium harvest in 2013 paints a dire picture on first glance: Estimated opium poppy cultivation expanded by 36 percent and, at 209,000 hectares (ha), set a new record, slightly exceeding the previous record of 193,000 ha in 2007. While estimated opium production in 2013, at 5,500 metric tons, is only the fourth-highest year recorded (well below the 2007 peak level of 7,400 metric tons), it rose steeply -- by almost 50 percent -- from 2012. And despite a modest reduction in opium prices, the volume of drug money -- most of which goes to drug traffickers, their sponsors and associates inside and outside the government, and to warlords and the Taliban insurgency -- also has risen sharply.
However, the temptation to see these developments in alarmist (or even apocalyptic) terms must be resisted. While the growth and spread of the opium economy in 2013 is concerning, it does not represent a fundamental change in the situation, and poorly thought out and misguided reactions would cause more harm than good and could turn out to be more problematic and destabilizing than the rise in opium cultivation and production itself.
Part of the increase in 2013, which was predicted and should not have come as a major surprise, can be attributed to the large year-to-year fluctuations that have always been the norm for Afghanistan's opium economy, especially since 2012 was a year of low yields and production. This reflects the importance of weather and other factors for Afghan agriculture more broadly, with a climate characterized by low and variable precipitation and little in the way of water conservancy investments to stabilize water supplies. Moreover, the 2013 figures are not grossly out of line with longer-term trends in opium cultivation and production. In fact, estimated opium production is exactly in line with those trends (as projected based on 1995-2012 data). Although the cultivated area is somewhat higher (about 25%) than the long-term trend, this is similar to some of the annual fluctuations seen in earlier years.
What 2013 does underline, however, is the resumption of continuing growth of Afghanistan's opium economy after temporary and unsustainable reductions in poppy cultivation and opium production in the years following the 2007 peak. This is not surprising, as the factors which supported those reductions have been dissipating.
First, the withdrawal of U.S. and other international military forces, especially from key opium-producing provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, has been reducing the overall security presence and associated pressure to reduce poppy cultivation, particularly in more remote areas where the Afghan National Army is not able to maintain the level of activities carried out previously by International Security Assistance Forces. Even though international troops were not directly involved in the eradication of poppy fields, their presence provided a security umbrella for counter-narcotics activities and also was used by Afghan officials as a threat against local leaders and farmers to dissuade them from cultivating poppies.
Second, funding for programs promoting alternative livelihoods is being sharply reduced, leaving much smaller potential financial incentives for farmers and other local actors. Even though such programs were not sustainable and were often characterized by inefficiency and waste, adequate funding will clearly be a prerequisite for effective and sustained rural development in the future.
Third, concomitant with foreign troop withdrawals and reductions in international funding, the political leverage to press for counter-narcotics actions is declining. Moreover, the drug issue is likely to be distinctly secondary on the list of political priorities for the United States and other international partners.
Fourth, domestic political and other trends in Afghanistan have weakened the ability to contain, let alone curtail, the opium economy. The 2014-2015 election cycle is distracting from drug issues and will likely lead to avoidance of politically sensitive counter-narcotics actions; some stalwart anti-opium provincial governors have been weakened or changed in the past year or so; there has been some recovery of opium yields from unusually low levels in 2012; and prices for opium remain relatively high despite modest reductions.
These recent trends, which are expected to continue in the future, demonstrate that the counter-narcotics policies implemented during the past decade, reliant as they were on temporary factors and, as in the case of the Helmand "Food Zone," endeavoring to replace opium largely with wheat (a low-value, relatively low labor-intensity crop with no export prospects), were not sustainable. Moreover, the suppression of poppy cultivation in core growing areas, such as the canal area of central Helmand, stimulated a shift of farmers and cultivation to new areas, leading to the further spread and entrenchment of opium.
Even though predictable and occurring for understandable reasons, the adverse impacts of recent developments should not be minimized, including:
- Continuing Afghanistan's overall economic dependence on opium;
- The resurgence of poppy cultivation in some provinces where it had been largely eliminated, and its spread to and entrenchment in new areas (developed with tube-well irrigation that is financially viable only with opium);
- The associated erosion of governance and rule of law;
- Benefits and support that drug money provides to a variety of criminal and anti-state actors;
- The likely use of drug money for political financing, including in the upcoming presidential and provincial council elections, as well as in the 2015 parliamentary elections; and
- Worrisomely high levels of drug addiction in Afghanistan.
However, there are also some mitigating factors that need to be kept in mind:
- Except briefly during the nearly complete Taliban ban in 2000 and 2001, the drug trade in Afghanistan has been a large part of the economy since the 1990s (in fact it is much smaller as a share of GDP now than in earlier years due to rapid growth of the rest of the Afghan economy), so recent developments are nothing new and are unlikely to prove destabilizing;
- Opium provides hundreds of millions of dollars annually in income for Afghanistan's farmers, as well as injecting large amounts of money more generally into the economy, even as aid and international military expenditures, are declining;
- There are fairly low levels of drug-related violence in Afghanistan, considering the size of the opium economy -- it does occur, but nowhere near to the extent seen in Latin American "drug wars;" and
- Overall, drugs seem to have become, to a considerable extent, integrated in Afghanistan, and while this results in serious problems as noted earlier, it also means that the opium economy in and of itself is unlikely to be a critical factor derailing transition.
In any case, knee-jerk reactions and ill thought-out actions against the illicit narcotics trade in Afghanistan will be counterproductive. Whether aerial spraying or massive eradication of the opium crop at one extreme, or attempts to institute licensed opium production for legal pharmaceuticals at the other, there are no "silver bullets." These options, as well as other simplistic solutions, are not implementable or sustainable and will make the situation worse.
What, then, can be done? First, modest expectations and a long-term time horizon are called for on the part of both the international community and the Afghan government; eliminating illicit opium cultivation in Afghanistan most likely will be the work of decades, not years.
Second, there is a need to be prepared for growth in the opium economy in coming years and to avoid hand-wringing or overreaction. In particular, adverse short-term developments and fluctuations should not become an excuse for the international community to sharply cut or stop overall funding for Afghanistan, let alone exit from the country.
Third, preserving gains made in eliminating opium poppy cultivation in localities with favorable resource endowments, good access to water resources, proximity to urban markets, good roads, and at least a modicum of government presence and security will be very important and is certainly possible based on past experience.
Fourth, law enforcement efforts against drug traffickers, drug transport, heroin processing, and money laundering need to continue and be built upon over time, keeping in mind that progress inevitably will be gradual.
Fifth, investments in rural infrastructure -- in particular major water conservancy projects -- will be essential. More generally, broad-based rural development is the way forward over the medium-term to enable rural areas to escape from dependence on opium poppy cultivation, requiring sizable investments and effective programs to this end.
Sixth, value chains for suitable Afghan labor-intensive cash crops that enable them to reach both domestic and export markets will need to be developed. There is no substitute for the private sector to do this -- particularly elements of the international private sector that represent and link to the demand side and will be able to promote and ensure the essential quality and health and safety standards for exports. Creative ways to incentivize the international private sector to engage with Afghanistan in this way will need to be found.
Finally, it has to be recognized that none of this will be easy, that the drug industry will be present in Afghanistan for quite some time, and that keeping modest expectations while avoiding major mistakes and wrong turns on the counter-narcotics front will be essential.
William Byrd is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
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