The Opium Economy Booms in Afghanistan


AFGHANISTAN — The concerted efforts of Afghanistan and US governments will not be enough to curb this year’s opium industry in Afghanistan. The high unemployment rates and political instability in the country will create a surge of opium production and usage; which is predicted to break records for this year. With the threat of complete crop destruction forcing people into the arms of the Taliban, but also a desire to eradicate the drug, this year’s booming opium growth is prompting new courses of action.

Opium, from poppies, is the main ingredient used in heroin. Three-quarters of the world’s supply of opium is grown in Afghanistan. According to VICE News, it is predicted to reach ninety-percent by this year. The Washington Times reports there has been a thirty-six percent increase in poppy farm acreage, to approximately 516,000 acres. The US currently spends $7.5 billion on defensive measures against the opium trade.

Despite production of opium in mostly the southern and western provinces of Afghanistan, US forces are being located to the east to combat the trade. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction defends the shift to the east because it is “generally less than the threat in the south and southwest”. The US forces are trying to fight the trade in the opposite direction of the problem.

Because of the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan forces have little jurisdiction in combatting the opium trade themselves. A report from Washington’s Afghanistan war watchdog said on the issue, “Drug labs, storage sites, and major trafficking networks are concentrated in rural areas that are increasingly off-limits to Afghan forces due the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) drawdown and declining security in these areas.”

Due to the end of the war in Afghanistan, foreign troops will be leaving by the end of the year, taking with them the most effective combative forces against the trade, as well as much of the country’s stability. As they face staggering unemployment and security concerns against forces like the Taliban, the lack of foreign aid could promote the opium industry.

Opium-use is rising among Afghans because of the tough economic times. The Guardian reports about 1.3 million Afghan adults were regular drug users in 2012 out of a population near 32 million.

Not only is the demand increasing, but it is providing jobs for those unemployed more than any other form of cultivation. Some see the possible utilization of opium production as a solution to actually provide economic growth and stability for the weak Afghan government. Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on counter-narcotic efforts in Afghanistan, told VICE News that because opium cultivation is labor-intensive and profitable, if the 806 square miles of opium fields last year were instead wheat then that would only create twenty percent of the jobs that the opium fields provided.

Felbab-Brown goes on to say, “What we really need to ask ourselves is, is it bad to have this illicit economy? It probably is bad, but is it much worse than the alternative? The alternative right now would be huge political instability and it would also be huge unemployment,” she said. “So yes, it’s undesirable that there is a major illicit economy that constitutes so much of the country’s GDP, but there’s just no way to walk away from that.”

What concerns the US government, though, is more than the illicitness of the opium trade and drug use; The US is more concerned with the implications that this trade can have on strengthening the Taliban and warlords.

The poor farmers are not the ones who profit off of the opium crop. The local warlords, Taliban, and wealthy elites connected to the government instead pocket the revenue, according to VICE News. The DEA claims that high-ranking Taliban members double as drug lords who finance terrorist attacks using drug money.

However, eradicating the drugs could also promote the Taliban. With eliminating the crops, it would cripple the poorest farmers who would them be forced to turn to the Taliban. Felbab-Brown told VICE News, “[…] what would inevitably happen is that eradication would target the poorest sectors of society, and they would then become dependent on the support of the Taliban for basic survival, and consequently they would dislike the state and dislike the counterinsurgency, and strengthen their bond to militants like the Taliban.”

To regulate the opium trade prompts the concern of drug use and funding terrorists, however to eliminate the trade offers similar outcomes. Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told VICE News, “The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan will continue to be the world’s leading opium producer probably for many years to come and the international community will need to help Afghanistan get off the sauce when it comes to finding another way to bring in hard currency.”

Follow Allyson on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @allysoncwright

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