Asia-Pacific, Afghanistan, Editor's Choice

Drugs in Afghanistan: Failure in the Poppy Fields

Since the US invasion of Afghanistan, drug production has exploded to a staggering 35 times of what it used to be in 2001. According to UNODC report, the country provides for around 90% of the world’s heroin, not to mention other drugs, such as morphine, of the poppy.

Poppy, the ‘joy plant’, as it was dubbed in the ancient Mesopotamian lexicon, is the main source of opium sap which is further refined to synthesize drugs such as morphine and heroin. In Afghanistan, last year, a startling 201,000 hectares of land was cultivated with poppy, an increase of 10% as compared to the figures of 2015. Such startling numbers, at first sight, speak for the gross failure of the ISAF forces in scuttling the production of drugs in the country; one of the latent agendas of the invading force. The Afghan drug problem, however, has roots in a number of other socio-political problems of the country as well, which the occupation forces have either neglected or have miserably failed to address properly.

Poppy Production in Afghanistan

Before going any further, let us look at the extent of the problem and analyze how serious of a danger it poses to the domestic and international community. Afghanistan is a country with a mere 10% of the total arable land, and it is agriculture from this very land which contributes a hefty 78% to the state’s economy. A considerable portion of this land devoted to the cultivation of poppies means that this industry provides livelihoods to roughly 12% of the Afghan population.

The problem doesn’t stop there, the illicit drugs production has provided refuge to a galling 2.9 million Afghan addicts, whose numbers are surging with each passing day. NATO forces, at the outset, were willing to find a solution to the problem. They also allocated huge chunks of money for the project. The US alone allocated $12 billion to wage war on drugs in the country. But even after one and a half decade of US presence in Afghanistan, any solution to the problem remains elusive.

Critics have lambasted the forces for not paying due attention to the burgeoning drug problem, which in my opinion is not a fair assessment. After all, it was this drug money which was being routed to buy weapons: weapons to fight ISAF forces. In fact, there are a number of other factors which have contributed to foil all attempts at finding a solution to the Afghan drug problem.

Issues Boosting the Drugs Trade

First and the foremost is the lack of employment opportunities. Unemployment ratio had remained at roughly 9% throughout the mid and late 2000s. The situation changed rather rapidly with the US withdrawal of 2014 and the percentage reached 25% in the same year, 40% in the next. With nowhere else to go, Afghan farmers risked their fields and their lives to cultivate the ultimate cash crop which provided huge profits. They were, on one hand, hunted down by the Afghan police but on the other, they were given protection by the Taliban, especially in the Southern regions.

It must be kept in mind that Afghanistan is a country which has witnessed no central authority consolidate its power for decades. It has been the fighting ground for world powers, local warlords and competing ethnic groups alike. A normal citizen who farms for his subsistence does not take any moral considerations into account. He wants to make up for all the time that is lost to war. For him, cultivating a cash crop which is used in the manufacturing of drugs is far better than seeing his family starve.


One ponders whether these farmers have joined hands with al-Qaida, a terrorist organization, to provide for their families? In fact, it is difficult to say whether those fighting against these forces are al-Qaida fundamentalists or not. General Jim Jones, former US National Security Advisor said in an address to the Congress in 2009 that there were 100 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan. The rest of the fighters are Afghan citizens, mostly of Pashtun ethnicity aggrieved over the devastation of their homeland, fighting against the occupation forces.

Also, some of them are said to have been produced as a result of indiscriminate bombing campaigns launched by coalition forces causing appalling numbers of civilian casualties. Especially in the areas nearing Pak-Afghan border, there is said to have occurred huge collateral damage; as Lt. Colonel David Kilcullen — General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency advisor in Iraq — claimed that in the Pak-Afghan border region, aerial strikes have killed 14 al-Qaida leaders at the expense of 700 civilian lives. Thus these fighters might very well be seen by Afghans as freedom fighters seeking vengeance for the spilled blood of their brothers and sisters.

Drugs are Here to Stay

Another major problem lying at the root of the issue is the Afghan government’s lackadaisical attitude. Despite acknowledging the problem, they have done nothing substantial to address it. Both the Afghan presidents in their respective inaugural addresses did not care to mention an issue of such far-reaching consequences. Adding insult to the injury is the newfangled list of 22 national priorities, designed by the administration of the incumbent president, which also makes no mention of the Afghan drug problem.

As of now, any successful attempt at solving the Afghan drug problem, without trying to solve the overall situation of the country, seems unlikely. One possible attempt to sift the drugs issue and find an immediate solution to it is to mend the country’s porous borders with the neighboring states. That is the only way drug trafficking can be checked and thus poppy cultivation can be discouraged. Otherwise, finding a solution to the drugs problem alone, without addressing the political instability and insurgency, might prove to be a herculean task for the administration.

For the poppy cultivation to stop, the international community must find a solution to the Afghan conundrum in totality.

About Ibtesam Ahmed

Ibtesam is an eager beaver trying to figure out his role in this topsy-turvy world. After graduation, he has opted to switch his field and pursue something where he could contribute, however little, to the wellbeing of others. He is an avid reader and is trying to bone up his skills on topics of his interest. He hopes that the least service he could do is that he could write a book of his own one day.

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