Legalizing Opium Won't Work for Afghanistan


With a unique incoming U.S. administration, many are contemplating ongoing U.S. foreign policy issues with the hopes of shaping a policy platform that has yet to be clearly (or consistently) articulated. A prominent topic on this list is America’s longest war, Afghanistan, plagued by a lack of progress, an ongoing insurgency, and political dysfunction. With no indication that the situation will improve without drastic changes, many are contemplating what those changes should be.

In recent months, a debate has been raging over what to do about poppy cultivation in the country. Some are reviving old arguments in favor of legalization of the opium trade in Afghanistan, but these arguments suffer from a significant misunderstanding of the political realities on the ground (along with some logical errors and argumentative missteps).

The numbers, as they say, don’t lie: the illicit opium trade in Afghanistan is a problem. 90 percent of the global opium trade is supplied by poppies grown in Afghanistan, generating approximately $68 billion in annual revenue. 12 percent of the population is employed in some way by the opium trade. The Taliban is estimated to earn over $400 million each year from opium alone. The problem continues to worsen, with the UN reporting a 43 percent increase in opium production in 2016. The U.S. State Department has recognized that the cultivation of poppy is a fundamental concern for the statebuilding operation there, saying that “the drug trade has undermined virtually every aspect of the Government of Afghanistan.” In an effort to address this issue, the United States has made counternarcotics a major part of their statebuilding effort in Afghanistan.

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Poppy eradication efforts were a primary component of U.S. counternarcotics strategy in the early years of the operation, but this strategy was either ineffective or, at times, counterproductive. Farmers whose poppy crop was destroyed by eradication operations and were provided no compensation or replacement became desperate for resources and security, things the Taliban were happy to provide. Afghans would then turn to a violent non-state actor to solve a problem that was created by the state, a circumstance that statebuilders should be interested in avoiding. These, and other problems, are common when trying to eradicate an illicit substance from a state’s territory. An unfortunate, reinforcing cycle is created: illicit drugs fund criminal organizations; criminal organizations inhibit the state’s ability to provide security and economic goods and services; more people are forced to produce drugs to survive because of the state’s weakened capabilities; more funding is provided to criminal organizations.

The problem doesn’t only exist in Afghanistan, and the eradication efforts of other regions show the difficulties and dilemmas inherent in such an undertaking. The states of the Golden Triangle, China, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, all work to eradicate and replace opium. Thailand has funded numerous projects to help compensate farmers who move away from poppies and to help them begin farming other crops. Thailand is also funding crop replacement projects in neighboring Myanmar. Yet even after many years of crackdowns and economic funding, complete eradication may still be wishful thinking in the Golden Triangle region.

Meanwhile, eradication in one state or region usually only serves to push cultivation to another state or region. Afghanistan itself played a minor role in opium production until it was banned in the 1970s in nearby Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. When the Taliban instituted their total ban on poppy growth in 2000-2001, the majority of poppy cultivation shifted or continued in regions not consolidated under Taliban rule or completely outside their control, like Badakhshan province under the Northern Alliance.

Despite the United States’ strong early efforts in Afghanistan, eradication operations didn’t significantly decrease the amount of opium being produced. Progress in some provinces was more than offset by sudden increases in production in others. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction documented the limits of counternarcotics efforts in the country. Between 2002 and March of 2014 the United States had appropriated over $103 billion for relief and reconstruction alone. Of this, $7.55 billion was spent specifically on counternarcotics efforts. Yet from 2008 to 2013, seizure operations have only affected on average about 1 percent of total opium production per year.

These dismal numbers, and the international communities’ inability to make any progress on opium eradication in Afghanistan, have left many to wonder what’s going wrong and what needs to change.

The Legalization Argument

One argument that has reemerged as a popular solution is to simply legalize the trade. This would include legalizing and regulating the cultivation of poppy in the country and producing the opium needed for legal pharmaceutical products. Legally produced opium is used in pharmaceuticals like morphine, diamorphine, and codeine (all painkillers). The major producers of licit opium are Turkey, India, Australia, France, Spain, and Hungary, along with some other minor producing countries. Advocates would like to add Afghanistan to this list. This argument is largely predicated on basic economics regarding the prohibition of drugs and alcohol, but they ignore the political realities of a country that doesn’t control a third of its territory.

The economist would say that criminalization of any good merely pushes it underground, providing a revenue source for criminal and non-state organizations. This was the case with alcohol prohibition in the United States, and it is the case with a myriad of other substances. Thus, the argument goes, legalizing opium would bring it above ground and deny a vital revenue stream to criminal organizations. However, this is an economic oversimplification; other, more realistic economic arguments suggest replacing the trade in Afghanistan with something else that provides similar income potential, like lithium mining.

While there is a new wave of the legalization argument surfacing in journals, periodicals, and news outlets, this argument has been made in the past. In 2007, the U.S. State Department, along with the U.K. and Afghan governments, officially opposed the legalization of opium in Afghanistan. The United States gave several reasons for its decision: legal opium has a lower market price and farmers will still sell to the black market; there would be no demand for legal Afghan opium because legal global demand at the time was met; the implementation of legalization is unfeasible in countries that don’t have strict controls and sophisticated law enforcement; and similar experiments in countries with similar conditions (like in Pakistan and Bolivia) went poorly.

The U.S. State Department makes good points, ones that are almost universally ignored or discounted by those making arguments for legalization. One article argued for legalization in Afghanistan and then used Switzerland as a successful example. Aside from the vast differences in security forces, geographic size, and sophisticated law enforcement, Switzerland is a destination country for opium; Afghanistan is an origin country. They cannot be compared. Switzerland’s successful use of opium addiction treatment facilities is irrelevant for Afghanistan, which largely wants to produce opium for export. Alleviating an opium addiction problem within a country and denying criminal organizations access to a highly valuable illicit exporting market are two different things, and only related in the sense that they both deal with opium.

Another article presents the contradictions and nuances fairly, but ultimately advocates for legalization, having concluded that the potential of failed legalization isn’t any worse than the status quo. This is a fair point, to a certain extent. However, the author takes the strong abilities of local power holders as a given and assumes that this would be sufficient for regulation. This does not necessarily follow. Powerful local leaders or warlords could just as easily direct their area’s opium output to the black market as they do to the legal market. This is an especially poor argument since the illicit market pays more than the licit market, making cooperation on regulation unlikely. After all, many of the powerholders in Afghanistan, both at the local level and at the higher levels in Kabul, have their mansions referred to as Poppy Palaces. Seeking local powerbrokers’ cooperation would also provide local warlords with a new and powerful bargaining chip, one that could be used to manipulate and undermine the central government.

Yet another article argues that legalization would be an opportunity to strengthen the central government and to push out into rural areas, without explaining how the central government would actually do so. Why has the central government not already pushed into rural areas with the United States and others pumping billions of dollars into its coffers, especially for the security forces? NATO forces expanded out of Kabul and into the provinces beginning in January of 2003. This expansion brought ground forces, provincial reconstruction teams, aid dollars, and governors from Kabul. All of this was insufficient to prevent the Taliban from taking back a third of Afghanistan. The argument lacks a mechanism, assuming that legalization will provide the money to support increased government control. It’s unreasonable to think that this will prove true, when billion in reconstruction dollars and the U.S. troop surge beginning in 2009 didn’t work. The authors would say that these efforts were insufficient because they were being undermined by opium revenues going to the Taliban. The truth is, these efforts were being undermined by much more than just opium: regionally unfavorable conditions, policy mistakes and weak government performance, lack of a significant occupying force immediately after the fall of the Taliban, and weak economic performance and opportunity. Legalization of opium, even if it was successfully implemented and regulated, only solves a small number of these factors.

The success stories of countries converting their illicit opium trade to licit trade have occurred exclusively in states that exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of force throughout their territory. Afghanistan does not. Even if the Afghan government did decide to legalize and “regulate” the production of opium, the Taliban still controls or contests a third of the country (with the Islamic State also contesting for territory). Kabul has no control over what is, or isn’t, grown in these areas. It is unreasonable to expect the legalization and regulation of opium by Kabul to have any decisive impact on the cultivation of poppies. The Taliban couldn’t completely eradicate its production in 2001, and they controlled over 90 percent of the territory (more than Kabul does today).

Any legalization effort is necessarily dependent on security and consolidated control throughout the country’s territory, as well as reliable regional partners (which Afghanistan does not have). Even if these preconditions were achieved, it is further dependent on a crackdown on corruption. Without a legitimate and functional government agency to oversee the operation and regulation of cultivation, bribes will just be paid to Afghan security forces instead of the Taliban. And even then, if opium production in Afghanistan was able to be legalized and regulated, illicit production would most likely just shift to a new location, most likely to the largely ungovernable regions of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. In which case, all of the effort and resources spent to legalize opium would achieve nothing more than to shift its $400 million per year in Taliban revenue from the Afghan contingent to the Pakistani contingent. Is that really any better?

A Poor Lesson From the Taliban’s Days in Power

In 2000, the Taliban released an edict declaring opium illegal in the country. After the 2001 growing season, production in the country was almost entirely wiped out. UN officials reported its eradication and American narcotics experts confirmed on the ground. Cultivation was cut by 91 percent in the country (approximately 99 percent in territory held by the Taliban). Helmand province alone accounted for over half of all poppy production in Afghanistan, but in 2001, zero poppy production was recorded in Helmand.

Some would take this as evidence that opium eradication in Afghanistan is possible, but if President-elect Trump wants to make any progress in Afghanistan, he’ll avoid strategies that are preaching a false hope. The United States invaded Afghanistan shortly after the near eradication was reported in 2001. When opium production rebounded in 2002, most assumed this was because of the lawlessness that resulted from the toppling of the Taliban regime. However, it’s impossible to know what would have happened to opium production had the Taliban remained in power. Some had their doubts that the ban could have been sustained. The Taliban exacted a significant cost on the farmers who were dependent on it. Such a weak regime was unlikely to be able to withstand the political pressure in such a tribally fragmented country and maintain the total ban.

No one strategy for Afghanistan’s opium problem will work on its own, and analysts and policymakers should stop looking for a quick fix. It will likely take a combination of many strategies used to fight illicit economies. While the opium trade clearly funds criminal and terrorist organizations, it also funds other things, like political powerholders whose support for the National Unity Government (NUG) is vital. Some have advocated turning a blind eye to that which cannot be stopped, and to recognize that opium eradication is not a vital interest for the United States. In the best-case scenario, quality policy decisions will also have to be complemented by favorable structural conditions, economically, politically, and militarily. There is no silver bullet.

Adam Wunische is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a Ph.D. student at Boston College. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamWunische

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