Afghanistan continues to be the world’s largest producer of opium, constituting about ninety percent of the illegal global supply, despite a poppy blight in 2010 that severely reduced crops. While potential poppy production decreased over forty percent from 2009 to 2010, with moderate increases, Afghanistan is expected to have dramatically increasing poppy production in 2013. Although the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and foreign aid have been working to decrease rampant Afghan opium and heroin usage and distribution, the country continues to suffer from high addiction rates and Taliban profiteering as local government fails to appropriately address agricultural needs.

Impending surge in opium cultivation

The UNODC recently published the Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment for 2013, which details the expected poppy production for the coming year. Central Afghanistan has experienced little to no poppy production and is expected to remain largely poppy-production free; yet Eastern, Southern, and Western Afghanistan are all likely to experience mixed production changes, with Southern regions of the country expected to experience a substantial increase in opium cultivation. Helmand and Kandahar in the Southern region have high production projections, resulting from a high price for opium, as well as an effort to make up for low production the past several years.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the regional representative for the UNODC Country Office for Afghanistan, told the BBC, “Traditionally, what we tend to argue is that the demand causes the supply,” but further expresses that in Afghanistan, “the sheer appearance of that product on the market causes a local demand.” Poppy grows easily in Afghanistan, a country with little arable land, since its weed-like nature allows it to flourish in the severe climate. Because opium is so readily available throughout the country, Afghanistan is suffering from a populace-wide addiction, with women and children accounting for about forty percent of the country’s addicts. William Byrd, an Afghanistan Senior Expert at the US Institute of Peace, explained to Record that “high addiction rates in Afghanistan for opiates are a relatively recent phenomenon,” and that this widespread addiction is “a product of the several decades of protracted conflict and associated poverty and other problems Afghanistan has suffered from since the late 1970s.” *

Moreover, Afghanistan produces approximately 90 percent of opium in the global market, with a large reserve. As the drug does not rot like other harvested products, such as wheat, a supply of opium is essentially like money in the bank. Afghanistan’s illegal opium production constitutes approximately twenty percent of the country’s GDP, acting as one of the largest sources of economic activity along with foreign aid. Approximately 80 percent of laborers in Afghanistan are involved in agriculture, yet only twelve percent of the land is arable, and only 6 percent is cultivated. The USDAhas worked to provide agricultural aid to Afghanistan, as the Afghan government remains too unstable to provide substantial assistance.

How effective is the anti-opium campaign?

Afghanistan experienced an 18 percent increase in poppy production from 2011 to 2012, and 2013 will likely see another similar rise. As NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan, planning to give the security mission control to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, the country faces a bleak future in anti-drug campaigning efforts. Russia, a country with an estimated 1.5 million users, has been vocal in opium reduction efforts. In 2010, when opium production was already experiencing a natural decline, Russia stated that the US should destroy all poppy crops, and accused the US of collusion with Afghan drug producers and the Afghan government. Russia expressed concerns with Western drug eradication policy in a statement, saying that the US and NATO campaign “ignores the fact that thousands of people die from heroin.”

However, Byrd asserts that as “NATO troops withdraw, the associated pressure to hold down opium poppy production can be expected to ease, leading to expansion of the cultivation and production,” but advises that “as is happens, the international community must resist pressures to respond with extreme solutions such as aerial chemical spraying.” He explains that such extreme measures would only “make the situation worse.”

A dramatic decline in poppy cultivation from 2009 to 2010 was explained to be the result of “more robust counter-narcotics operations by Afghan and NATO forces” by the UNODC 2009 Afghanistan Opium Survey. Despite such strong eradication efforts, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa admitted that “eradication continues to be a failure,” explaining that as more of the opium-backed economy is removed, the risk of drug trafficking increases. As the economy suffers from a smaller opium market, human trafficking of “Opium Brides” has increased as a means for addicts to repay drug debts. NATO and Afghan troops continue to work on destroying the illegal market that has a global presence, but as 2014 approaches, the withdrawal of troops has the potential to destabilize the entire effort, leaving the Afghan government to address issues potentially beyond its immediate capabilities.

There is likely to remain a US presence as some troops will stay in Afghanistan for minor support. However, it is unclear what their role will be, and how that will affect the effort to reduce opium production and addiction. Furthermore, Afghanistan has repeatedly asked the US to clarify what their future role will be. Regardless, the withdrawal of foreign forces is likely to help drive poppy production as a means of stimulating the economy as foreign agricultural aid declines. The UNODCreport suggests that there is a “strong association” between opium production, insecurity, and agricultural aid.

How involved is the Taliban?

Approximately 80 percent of the country’s laborers are in agriculture, but with a lack of significant agricultural aid, Afghan farmers see a greater profit growing opium, as opposed to wheat or fruits. Opium is one of the country’s largest exports, supplying almost the entire European market. Southern regions, such as the Helmand province of Afghanistan, have the highest opium cultivation levels, and are subsequently expected to have the largest increase in production this coming year.

The Helmand province has seen Taliban groups established throughout the area, which have profited from the extensive drug markets. NATO forces encountered these groups in 2006 and in 2009 held talks with the Taliban, requesting they yield in regional control and opium profiteering, both of which perpetuate the drug cultivation. However, it has been difficult to eliminate Taliban presence in Afghanistan, mainly in the opium-rich south, because as Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, explains, “the Taliban in southern Afghanistan are masters at shielding themselves behind the civilian population and then melting in among them for protection.”

Byrd clarifies that while the Taliban profits from opium trading, because “Opium remains Afghanistan’s leading economic activity, whoever is in power in main opium producing and drug transit areas will most inevitably be involved,” so even parts of the Afghan government are likely to be profiting. News coverage in recent years has alluded to collusion among high officials and the drug sector of Afghanistan as well. In 2008, reports emerged that President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was involved in the narcotics trade. The case was never investigated, and some fear that President Karzai was protecting his brother, despite a counter-narcotics initiative. The opium industry “appears to be managed through politically connected networks of patronage,” which include Taliban and non-Taliban members, according to Byrd.

An addicted future?

Despite drug eradication efforts, the opium industry in Afghanistan is likely to continue and increase, as foreign presence subsides and demand increases. The driving force behind the drug trade in Afghanistan “is global demand and high profits associated with it being an illegal commodity,” explains Byrd. He further states that, combined with “weak governance, lack of state control, and insecurity in Afghanistan,” the opium market thrives. An opium production increase, likely to flourish as the country faces instability and failure to provide sufficient agricultural assistance to farmers, has the potential to exacerbate the severe addiction throughout Afghanistan and the global distribution. Thus far, Afghanistan’s addiction rate has reflected the upward trend in poppy cultivation, a lack of government independence and political insecurity.

*William Byrd is an Afghanistan Senior Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. His comments in the article are his personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Institute of Peace which does not take policy positions.