Afghanistan’s Drug Production Is a Global Crisis


There is a grave international crisis looming, and its base is Afghanistan, Brian Cloughley writes.

In May 2003, Senator Joseph R Biden of Delaware gave evidence at a U.S. Senate Committee hearing on “Narco-terrorism: international drug trafficking and terrorism — a dangerous mix” and declared he had “spent a considerable portion of my life trying to figure out how to deal with the drug problem and international drug trafficking.” He said it had been decided in 2001 that Afghanistan was not again “to become the single largest opium producer in the world” but this had happened “in two short years.” He was rightly indignant that in regard to narcotics control the Bush administration “is doing a horrible job — and I want to make it clear, a horrible job — in Afghanistan.”

Mr Biden considered the opium problem in Afghanistan to be serious and a necessarily high priority on Washington’s agenda for the country’s future, but eighteen years later it is apparent that now-President Biden has put Afghanistan’s drugs on the back burner of U.S. policy as the Pentagon withdraws its troops after so many years of conflict, chaos, destruction and death. It is notable that when he delivered “Remarks on the Way Forward in Afghanistan” in April he did not make a single mention of poppies, opium, narcotics or anything else to do with Afghanistan’s booming drug industry. When he met with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani in Washington on June 25, the White House Readout of what transpired was similarly bereft of reference to any drug problem in the country. But Afghanistan’s drug production is a large and growing international emergency.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Mr John Sopko, has identified eight High-Risk Areas for Afghanistan, ranging from “increasing insecurity” to the thriving “Illicit Narcotics Trade” about which he notes that “various U.S. government agencies have sought to address Afghanistan’s narcotics trade through interdiction and counterdrug law enforcement; opium-poppy eradication; alternative development programs aimed at creating licit livelihood opportunities; and the mobilization of Afghan political and institutional support, to little effect.” He warns that “The deleterious effects of the illicit narcotics trade in Afghanistan extend beyond health impacts. It also helps fund insurgents, foster corruption, and provoke criminal violence.”

Since 2002 the U.S. government (read taxpayer) has spent eight billion dollars in attempting to control Afghanistan’s drug production industry. Very few people can imagine what eight billion dollars looks like, but it is clear that it is a vast sum of money that has been utterly wasted because, as reported by Voice of America on 3 May, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that “opium cultivation in conflict-ridden Afghanistan increased by 37% in 2020 compared to the previous year, potentially producing an estimated 6,300 tons of opium.” The reasons for the drug surge are many, and include “corruption, instability, and insecurity caused by insurgency groups” but the basic causes are down at the field-production level, because employment opportunities are small in rural areas, there is no decent education (no matter what is claimed by Washington), and farmers have limited access to markets for their legal produce. This is all compounded by a “drastic reduction in rainfall that has caused levels of food and water scarcity across 25 provinces.”

It might be thought obvious that employment, education and marketing were of the greatest importance to rural communities, which the World Bank calculates are 74 per cent of the country’s population. But even if the planners did work this out, they didn’t succeed in doing anything about it, and it is understandable, as described evocatively in the New York Times in January, that so many farmers and other rural dwellers have turned to poppy growing and drug smuggling simply in order to survive.

Poppy farming is illegal in itself, of course, but the wider juridical, social and humanitarian problem is that criminals can make vast profits from the processing and sale of opium, morphine and heroin. In a region notorious for corruption there is little than can be done by any central government to alleviate criminal activity of such a lucrative nature — even if the government itself were not ridden with corrupt officials.

As the SIGAR records in his 2021 Report : “According to the latest Asia Foundation survey results, 85% of respondents in 2020 reported that corruption was a major problem in their daily life and 95% of respondents said corruption was a major problem in Afghanistan as a whole.” The place is a sink of sleaze and iniquity. After twenty years it remains a battlefield, with the Taliban undeniably in the ascendant. The New York Times reported that in the week 17-24 June “At least 123 Afghan security forces and 53 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in the past week. This last seven days saw a cascade of more than 50 districts, mostly in Afghanistan’s north, fall to the Taliban in a sweeping offensive . . .” But in the Oval Office on June 25, in an all-too-common display of public relations hype, President Ashraf Ghani declared that “Today, the Afghan Defence and Security Forces have retaken six districts, both in the south and the north. It’s showing our determination”.

On June 22 Deborah Lyons, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said that all major indicators for Afghanistan’s security and development looked “negative or stagnant” and that the “possible slide toward dire scenarios is undeniable”. And one of the direst scenarios is the drug scene, for there is evidence of a wider and even more serious threat. The BBC notes that “a new report . . . warns that Afghanistan is becoming a significant global producer of methamphetamine [known as crystal meth]. The country’s opium poppy fields are already the source of the majority of the world’s heroin, and now . . . the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction warns that crystal meth could eventually become just as big an industry.” Indeed it is prospering, because as reported in April, for example, “Indonesian police seize 2.5-ton haul of crystal meth shipped from Afghanistan.”

The Director of the Monitoring Centre warns that “The degree to which producers in a small corner of the country have adopted new technologies, and established methamphetamine production with a potential global impact, serves as a reminder of how dramatically drug markets can change over short periods of time. We are now starting to see signs that methamphetamine produced in Afghanistan is beginning to appear on the international market . . . a clear need exists now to consider how we respond to the threat posed by increasing methamphetamine production in Afghanistan, both to the country itself and to the international community.”

But there is no indication whatever that the administration in Washington or the limping government in Kabul are considering any response at all to the massive threat posed by meth addiction around the world. There is a grave international crisis looming, and its base is Afghanistan.

In 2003 President Biden declared he had “spent a considerable portion of my life trying to figure out how to deal with the drug problem and international drug trafficking.” He must now figure out how to deal with the approaching international drug crisis which is largely due to ineptitude on the part of U.S.-NATO countries that were intended to “create the space and lay the foundations for improvements in governance and socio-economic development for sustainable stability.”


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