Afghan Opium: A Failed Jihad?

By Jean MacKenzie, Wahidullah Amani, and Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

KABUL, Afghanistan, December 7, 2006 (ENS) - Jan Mohammad is an opium poppy farmer in Balkh, in Afghanistan's north. Last year, his crop fell victim to the government's eradication efforts. This year, he was wiser.

"I grew poppy on five hectares last year," said Jan Mohammad, 35. "Three hectares were destroyed by the police, but they left my neighbor alone. I later found out that he had paid off the local officials. This year I too paid, and I was able to profit from my land."

Jan Mohammad's story illustrates the uphill battle that counter-narcotics officials are facing as they tackle what some describe as Afghanistan's number one problem.

In December 2004, newly inaugurated President Hamed Karzai gave a stirring speech in which he called for a "jihad" against drugs. But two years later, this holy war seems to have failed.

Few international efforts in Afghanistan have consumed as much time, effort and money as the counter-narcotics program. But despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested, poppy production skyrocketed in 2006.

A report issued in November by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, indicated a nearly 50 percent increase in opium production over last year.

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Afghan poppy growers examine their crop. (Photo credit unknown)
"We expected an increase, but we were shocked at the size of it," said Syed Mohammad Azam, head of public relations for the counter-narcotics ministry. "This is very bad news for Afghanistan."

Afghanistan is by far the world's largest producer of opium, accounting for 92 percent of world supply last year. The 2006 crop was the highest ever recorded, at 6,100 metric tons of raw opium. This, according to Doris Buddenberg, UNODC country representative in Afghanistan, is 1,500 metric tons in excess of worldwide demand.

The bulk of Afghanistan's poppy crop ends up as heroin sold on the streets in Europe and Asia.

Coordination Problems Undermine Effort

The counter-narcotics campaign has been plagued by inefficiency, corruption, and miscommunication. Moreover, there are signs of serious disagreements, both on tactics and strategy, between the international community and the Afghan government.

U.S. State Department officials can quote chapter and verse of the anti-drug strategy. Based on five "pillars" that include judicial reform, crop eradication, alternative livelihoods, public information and law enforcement, the counter-narcotics effort has already cost the American taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars.

While exact figures are difficult to come by, one U.S. counter-narcotics specialist acknowledged that the amount of money devoted to the cause will "significantly" exceed the US$780 million pledged in early 2005. The British government, which spearheads the fight against drugs, has pledged over 850 million pounds, about US$1.7 million, for the period 2002-09.

The money is intended to achieve what amounts to an overhaul of Afghan society. Eradication will be ineffective without a concerted effort to stamp out corruption; public information campaigns are useless unless impoverished farmers are given viable alternatives; interdiction will not work if there are no courts or prison cells for those who are detained.

Counter-narcotics officials freely admit that the effort is going to take time, and are at some pains to point out that progress, however slow, is being made.

"There has been a giant learning curve," said a U.S. State Department official, who did not want to be named "But are things better than two years ago? Yes. There is no silver bullet. It will take time."

There have been successes, insisted the official. Afghanistan has a more professional Supreme Court, a new attorney general who has declared war on corruption, and a brand new high security wing in Pul-e-Charkhi prison waiting for its first drug lord inmates.

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Young poppy plants in Helmand province, March 2006 (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
But the authors of another recent UNODC study say efforts to combat narcotics have been targeted at the wrong people and have failed to achieve significant, sustainable results.

Millions of dollars are funneled into information campaigns, enlisting the support of religious scholars and educators to reach farmers and spread the word that growing poppy violates both Islamic law and the Afghan legislation. There is a carrot-and-stick approach - the promise of assistance in obtaining alternative livelihoods for those who do not grow poppy, the threat of punishment for those who do.

Yet for the majority of farmers, the promises seem as empty as the threats, judging by the soaring production. Still, both British and American officials insist that the strategy was correct.

"The campaign has been largely successful," said a western diplomat who did not want to be identified. "Most farmers now know that growing poppy is bad."

A Nuanced Approach to Opium Farmers

U.S. officials insist that in many areas, farmers grow poppy out of greed, not necessity.

"We are not targeting places like Badakhshan, where farmers have nothing else," said the State Department official, describing the eradication program. "Instead, we are looking at those Kansas style fields. Those are the target areas."

The UNODC study shows that less than 25 percent of the proceeds from the 2.7 billion dollar Afghan drug trade makes its way into farmers' pockets. An average farmer makes just over US$1,800 per year.

Those who lack the funds to buy seeds and fertilizer, or to hire labor to work their land, are forced to take out loans. The lenders are interested in only one crop - opium poppy.

"Many local commanders have retained their weapons, and they force farmers to grow poppy," explained Jan Mohammad. "We are poor, and do not have money to purchase seeds and supplies. The commanders lend us money on condition that we grow poppy."

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Opium poppies (Photo courtesy Papaver Somniferum)
The rates dictated by lenders ensure that many farmers lead a virtual sharecropper's existence. They also assume all the risk. If their fields are eradicated or the crop fails, they may be forced to hand over their land, or not infrequently a young daughter, to their creditors.

Efforts to help the farmers run an obstacle course of misunderstanding and poor communication.

According to a UN source, almost US$500 million has been given to alternative livelihood programs over the past two years. But the counter-narcotics ministry, whose job it is to implement the fight against drugs, denies that any such program is in place.

"Poppy cultivation is a crime and we have no plans to reward criminals by giving them alternative crops," said ministry spokesman Azam.

Officials Complicit in the Trade

Corruption, as both Afghan and foreign officials freely admit, is a major factor in the drug war. With the ministry of the interior, which controls the police force, seen as particularly problematic, the government is regarded as part of the problem rather than a major factor in the solution.

UNODC's Buddenburg pointed to a "probability" that high level officials are involved in the drugs trade, and quoted her organization's study outlining the process by which organized crime has been consolidated, especially in the illegal drug industry.

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Milking the poppies for their lucrative milky white sap, raw opium. (Photo courtesy VOA)
"This emerging underworld is connected through payment and patronage to senior political figures who provide the required protection," said the UNODC report.

Afghans share the perception that counter-narcotics programs cannot be successful until corruption is reduced among those tasked with the war on drugs.

"Many of the ministries involved in poppy eradication plans are the main cultivators of the crop," said Qayoum Babak, a political analyst in Balkh province. "These officials will never get rid of poppy since they are the main beneficiaries. They are just trying to defraud the world community."

One observer quoted an old Afghan proverb, "Do not ask a wolf to keep the sheep safe."

Chris Alexander, deputy special representative of the UN Secretary General, delivered a backhanded compliment at a press conference in Kabul in late November. "Speaking of the narcotics trade, he said, "It is important to realize that not everyone [in the government] is involved."

When the laughter died down, he added, "But it is an absolute imperative to remove those who are."

That will not be an easy task. Zalmay Afzali, spokesperson for the counter-narcotics ministry, disputes such allegations.

"I deny that officials are implicated in the drug industry," he said. "If you have evidence, present it, and an arrest will be made on the spot."

Instead, Afzali pointed the finger of blame right back at the international community, complaining of unfulfilled promises.

"They pledged US$65 million, but we have received only US$33 million," he said. "We are battling an international drug mafia here."

Security Problems Allow Opium Production to Flourish

The Afghan government and its international partners are also battling a growing insurgency. The Taliban have regrouped and returned in the volatile south, and there is a close relationship between the increasing violence and soaring poppy production.

Many areas are virtual no-go zones for the Afghan army and police, as well as for international counter-narcotics forces. The exact relationship between the Taliban and narcotics is not clear, but many insist the fundamentalists' coffers are bulging with drug money.

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The Afghan Eradication Force is positioned outside Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
The nexus of insurgency plus drugs is clearly seen in Helmand province, one of the most violence plagued provinces in Afghanistan, and also responsible for over 40 percent of the country's opium crop.

"Helmand is the highest producer [of opium] because of insecurity and instability," said Azam. "It is special. But we have not yet devised a plan."

According to Azam, the government plans to concentrate on punishing officials found to be either involved in the drugs trade, or ineffective in combating it.

"The ministries of interior affairs and counter-narcotics have drafted plans in which responsibility for preventing poppy cultivation will be handed over to responsible people. If they succeed, they will be rewarded and if they fail, they will be fired from their posts and punished."

But the realities in Helmand make such rhetoric ring rather hollow.

"If you consider Helmand as a separate country, it is the second largest producer of poppy in the world," said General Daud Daud, deputy interior minister with responsibility for counter-narcotics. The rest of Afghanistan, of course, would still be in first place.

The former governor of Helmand, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, was widely implicated in the poppy growing industry, a charge he repeatedly and vehemently denied.

The governor was finally removed in December 2005, but he did not face investigation or punishment. Instead, he was elevated to the upper house of the Afghan parliament. And his younger brother, Amir Mohammad Akhundzada, was appointed as deputy to the new governor of Helmand.

Such cases of apparent ambivalence lead many western officials to conclude that the Afghan government does not have a viable approach to counter narcotics.

"The government's position, in terms of having a supportable plan, was not that good," said one counter-narcotics specialist, who asked to remain anonymous.

Western Countries Should Curb Consumption

The Afghan government insists it is achieving successes. The Interior Ministry's General Daud boasted that over the past year more than 700 traffickers have been arrested and over 420 heroin laboratories destroyed. The ministry also burned 100 tons of opium, out of the 6,100 tons believed to have been produced.

"Obstacles existed in the past, but in the current year the plan for arresting and sentencing the smugglers is on schedule," said Daud.

Other Afghans complain that given the difficulties they face in rebuilding a nation destroyed by decades of war, it is unfair to expect that they can solve the drug problem alone.

"Condemning Afghanistan is dishonest," said Zulmay Yunusi, an influential politician from Balkh province. "Consumer countries should also be told to reduce their level of consumption. There will be production as long as there is demand."

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Senlis banner advertising a symposium on drug policy in Afghanistan hangs from a rooftop in Kabul. September 2005. (Photo courtesy DRCNet)
The Senlis Council, a French-based think tank, has advocated licensing poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and purchasing the opium for legal morphine production.

While western diplomats say mildly that Senlis's stance "has not been helpful" to the anti-drugs campaign, Afghan officials are ready to blame the group for the huge jump in production over the last few years, and some have advocated banning it from working in Afghanistan.

"Senlis was agitating via the media to legalize poppy," said Daud. "We want to prohibit them from these illegal activities."

Senlis rejects the charge that it is breaching any law. "We respect the law," said Almas Bawari, spokesman for Senlis in Afghanistan. "But the policy that is being run by the Afghan government, the British and the Americans has failed and it will continue to fail."

Daud remains optimistic. The Interior Ministry has modified its tactics, and has been conducting an active public information campaign during the autumn planting season.

This year, it wants to focus on preventing farmers from planting poppy, rather than carrying out ineffective eradication campaigns once the crop is standing in the fields next spring. Future tactics will then be designed around the success of this policy - in other words, on next year's harvest figures.

"If this plan doesn't work, we'll make a new plan," laughed Daud. "We will always have a new plan."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR.}