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American-Style Combat Against Drug Trafficking In Afghanistan

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 22:45

At present, Afghanistan is a springboard for drug producers and terrorist groups in the eyes of the world community. However, historically, the role of this state in the world production of opiates was insignificant. The situation changed in the 1970s, when bans on cultivation of opium poppy were imposed in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Thus, the producers began to develop the territory of Afghanistan, where the ongoing socio-political crisis had created the necessary conditions for this type of illegal economic activity. The results were obvious: in the early 1980s, poppy crops accounted for as little as 0.15 percent in the total structure of cultivated areas in Afghanistan; by 1989, the area under poppy crops increased 10-fold. Opium became Afghanistan's main export commodity; the country delivered one third of the world production. At the same time, 96 percent of the opium poppy acreage was located in the territories controlled by the Taliban, which had seized 90 percent of the territory of the IRA by the mid-1990s. The remaining 4 percent accounted for the regions controlled by the “Northern Alliance.”


Worth noting, the attitude of the Taliban towards drug production was ambiguous. On the one hand, the Taliban severely suppressed the activities of the population related to manufacturing, selling and consuming cannabis, as such activities contradict the principles of Islam. On the other hand, such prohibitions led to the fact that the opium poppy cultivated by the Taliban began to displace hemp from the crop rotation.


The main reason for this dual position in relation to drug production was the Taliban's desire to preserve such a major source of income, but at the dame time to be recognized by the world community as the legitimate leadership of the IRA and to receive economic assistance.


The results of the Taliban's policy were:


  • - Guarantees of the field commanders' loyalty to the single center of the group;
  • - Significant tax revenues: the annual tax revenues figure surged from $30 million received from the “opium economy” in the mid-1990s to $75-100 million received in the late 1990s.

In 2000 alone, the leader of the Taliban, M. Omar, introduced a real ban on the cultivation of opium poppy in order to create a deficit in the world market and, accordingly, an increase in drug prices. Strict penalties were imposed for violation of the ban: public beating and the subsequent “walk of shame” through the streets of the settlement with a blackened face, followed by imprisonment. These measures have contributed to a significant reduction in the production of opium in 2001: down by 95 percent across Afghanistan, and by 99 percent in the Taliban-controlled areas.


Figure 1. The changes in the opium poppy cultivation area in Afghanistan, 1994-2001.

1994 – 71,000 hectares
1995 – 54,000 hectares
1996 – 57,000 hectares
1997 – 58,000 hectares
1998 – 64,000 hectares
1999 – 91,000 hectares
2000 – 82,000 hectares
2001 – 8,000 hectares


The table was compiled on the basis of the source data: Afghanistan. Opium Survey. Cultivation and Production. (November 2014).


However, after the launch of the “Enduring Freedom” military operation in Afghanistan in October 2001, the volume of opium production increased several fold. In 2013, it was twice as high as the highest recorded during the Taliban reign (in 1999). The below figure demonstrates the dynamics of the expansion of the opium poppy cultivation areas in 2001-2013.


Figure 2. The changes in the opium poppy cultivation area in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.


2001 – 8,000 hectares
2002 – 74,000 hectares

2003 – 80,000 hectares

2004 – 131,000 hectares

2005 – 104,000 hectares

2006 – 165,000 hectares

2007 – 193,000 hectares

2008 – 157,000 hectares

2009 – 123,000 hectares

2010 – 123,000 hectares

2011 – 131,000 hectares

2012 – 154,000 hectares

2013 – 209,000 hectares

2014 – 224,000 hectares


The table was compiled on the basis of the source data: Afghanistan. Opium Survey. Cultivation and Production. (November 2014).


Taking into account the fact that the US government proposed and implemented several strategies to combat Afghan drug production, it can be concluded that either the specialists developing them were incompetent, or their goal was to conceal Washington's reverse efforts of in this sphere. American experts identify the following three strategies for the US to combat drug production in the IRA:


  • The strategy of non-intervention;
  • The ban strategy;
  • The strategy of alternative activities.


Let's consider each of them in more detail.


The Strategy Of Non-Intervention (2001-2002)


This strategy was to use the interests of the opium producers to promote the interests of the US. To be more specific, Washington tried to create military alliances with regional warlords to jointly fight the Taliban. In order to secure their support, the US ignored the issue of drug trafficking, which was bringing the main income to these warlords. As a result, the anti-drug policy was carried out by extremely limited and ineffective Afghan law enforcement structures. This thesis is confirmed by the data on a sharp jump in the size of the opium poppy acreage: from 8,000 hectares in 2001 to 74,000 hectares in 2002


The Ban Strategy (2003-2009)


After three years of record growth in drug production, which resulted from the permissive strategy, the United States declared a radical change in its position on the issue. A war on drug trafficking was declared. To this end, the US expanded programs to train personnel and to provide the necessary equipment and intelligence information to the law enforcement agencies of the IRA. Through the Program on Combating International Drug Trafficking, the US State Department allocated $220 million to Afghanistan in 2004, and $710 million in 2005. In addition, US military personnel, which had never been involved in anti-drug campaigns, joined forces with the law enforcement agencies of Afghanistan to conduct anti-drug raids and destruct the opium poppy crops. Opened in Kabul in 2003, the Agency for Combating Drugs was constantly expanding its network of representative offices in the republic. The main objective of these offices was to provide advice to Afghan law enforcement agencies in carrying out anti-drug measures.


However, the adopted organizational measures and the allocated funds did not contribute to reducing the volume of drug production. In 2004, the total area of poppy cultivation exceeded 100,000 hectares for the first time in the history of Afghanistan. Although a certain decline was observed in 2005 (from 131 hectares in 2004 to 104 hectares in 2005), the opium poppy acreage totaled 165 hectares in 2006. As a result, Afghanistan became a world leader in the opium production. The republic provided 80 percent of the opium supply in the world market. For the first time in history, the Afghan shadow economy received over $4 billion in monetary terms from the opium exports.


The Strategy Of Alternative Activities (2009-2016)


Coupled with the need to prove to the world community the feasibility of the US military presence in the IRA, the failure of the anti-drug campaign once again made it Washington's task to radically change its approach to combating drug trafficking. The essence of the new strategy was to provide Afghan farmers with legal earnings. There were developed programs to provide them with seeds of the crops that were an alternative to opium poppy. The US military was removed from direct participation in the physical elimination of poppy crops. The organization and implementation of these campaigns and programs were entrusted to local authorities, which received funding from the US State Department through the Economic Assistance Foundation managed by USAID. In addition, the US Embassy in Afghanistan and the State Department announced financial rewards to the administrations of those provinces that achieved significant results under the alternative employment program.


Nevertheless, the adopted measures did not bring the declared results. The volumes of the Afghan opium poppy delivered to the world market continued to grow. The revenues from its exports accounted for 15 percent of the Afghan legal GDP. The main cause of such a situation was the fact that Afghanistan had been able to establish stable export channels only for narcotic drugs, which was a result of the conditions of permanent conflict. In this regard, the alternative economic crop cultivation activities (for example saffron) were not profitable. In turn, the funds allocated by local authorities to reorient their economic activities to other types of crops were often either put aside or used to expand their “opium farms.”


The situation is also complicated by the facts that:


  • - Firstly, the neighboring Central Asian states do not view Afghanistan as an important trade and economic partner;
  • - Secondly, the IRA does not have a developed transport and logistics system necessary for the sale of a legally produced commodity;
  • - Thirdly, the weak central government controls only a part of the territory of the republic;
  • - Fourthly, an “effective” corrupt system has been established in the republic. Its functioning involved the central government officials that were making profits on creating detour routes for the drug manufacturers. In particular, a heroin dealer was appointed as the head of the anti-corruption commission of the IRA in 2007. An Afghan official said in an interview with an American journalist, “...drug trafficking has corrupted everything in Afghanistan, beginning with the central government and ending with field commanders who actually control the country.”


At present, a number of American experts from authoritative analytical centers – in particular, CatoInstitute and MERCATUS Center – suggest legalizing drug production in Afghanistan. They argue that this will cause a drop in prices for narcotic substances in the world market. Accordingly it will become unprofitable to manufacture them. However, this measure does not seem to be a way out. Firstly, the ban on opium poppy cultivation is merely declarative, judging by the reports of the United Nations on the annual increase in its acreage, as well as the corruption of the official government of Afghanistan. Secondly, although the cost of the opium poppy in the domestic market of Afghanistan is low, Afghan farmers prefer to grow poppy rather than any alternative crops, as there exists a stable system for exporting opium poppy. Consequently, the predicted refusal from poppy cultivation due to a fall in prices after its legalization is unlikely to occur. We should also take into account the fact that the US project for Afghanistan's integration with the countries of Central and South Asia. The “New Silk Road” envisages opening the markets of integrable countries. Such measures will cause an increase in the flow of legalized Afghan drugs to Central Asia.


In this regard, the question arises as to how serious the US's commitment to combat the production of drugs in the IRA is, given that:


  • - The US military commanders have made open statements that their units are not ready to and will not be involved in any anti-drug campaigns;
  • - Very large groups of American and British troops were located in the southern provinces where half of the Afghan drugs are produced. The main centers for distribution of Afghan drugs in Europe also coincide with the locations of American armed contingents, in particular in Kosovo;
  • - The method of “alternative activity” was also used by the United States in Latin America in the mid-1980s. However, all the attempts were ineffective.


According to the famous expert A. Knyazev, drugs are an effective weapon used by the US to destabilize the situation not only in Afghanistan, but also in Central Asian countries. Drugs are a powerful factor in corruption and criminalization of society, as well as in undermining the country's defense capability. These negative consequences were fully manifested in Afghanistan. At the same time, Afghan drugs are not a systemic phenomenon for the United States. They threaten national security – first of all, in the countries of Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, as well as Russia and China. This allows Washington not to hamper their production and distribution, which generally corresponds to their national interests that are implemented as part of the strategy of managed chaos on the Eurasian continent.


In conclusion, we should note the following points regarding the strategies of the US fight against the Afghan drug trafficking. First, all three strategies were declarative in nature. As a result, they were ineffective, as the available data demonstrates a permanent increase in drug production in the IRA after the outbreak of hostilities involving ISDNA. Secondly, given the symbiotic relationship between drug production and the conditions of hostilities, given the lack of opportunities and resources for the state to establish control over the entire territory of the country, the priority of the anti-terrorist military action over the fight against drug production is unreasonable. Thirdly, the proposals for legalization as a method of combating the drug production can lead to the reproduction of the situation with illegal deliveries of oil to the world market. Even though the oil prices in the world market are low, this terrorist group continues to operate using the money received from oil smuggling. Consequently, a declaratory ban on the purchase of the “terrorists' oil” does not limit the ability of the Islamic State to receive funds from its main source of revenue, and its legalization will only result in bringing the transactions for its purchase out of the shadow.


Therefore, it seems that the most productive methods of combating drug trafficking will be introducing an effective ban on the production of drugs and launching a non-military settlement mechanism for the Afghan conflict through negotiations with the Taliban. In 2000, the latter already demonstrated its capabilities and influence in the aspect of reducing drug production by transferring it to the category of illegal form of economic activity in the controlled territories.

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