Afghanistan opium cultivation explodes

I have written before about how getting rid of poppy production has been a major goal of US policymakers in Afghanistan. They have targeted a large number of airstrikes in the province of Helmand, seen as the major source of poppy cultivation. This is due to the belief among US policymakers that the production of heroin is the main source of income for the Taliban and that if farmers could be persuaded to grow other crops, then the Taliban would be weakened and then eliminated. Experts have cast doubts on this theory, arguing that the Taliban is not that dependent on income from the heroin trade and that there are sound economic reasons for Afghan farmers to grow poppies that have little to do with larger political issues.

This policy has not worked in the past despite repeated attempts and now comes a new official report from the US government that confirms yet another failure.

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan hit a record high last year, a US government watchdog has said, describing American-funded counternarcotics efforts in the war-torn country as a failure.

Since the American-led invasion in late 2001, the US has spent about $8.6bn on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, yet the country remains the world’s largest producer of opium.

According to a new study by the office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar), opium cultivation reached about 328,000 hectares (1,265 square miles) in 2017 – a 63% jump from the year before and the greatest amount tallied since 2002. [My emphasis-MS]

The report found that no program by the US, the Afghans or by coalition partners had succeeded in causing lasting reductions in poppy or opium production.

Over and over again one reads in the reports that the US is trying to gain control of Helmand province and seems to never succeed.

But despite these repeated failures, don’t expect any changes. This is because the US seems to have no viable options in Afghanistan. They are in a stalemate that has lasted 17 years and seem to be resigned to just spinning their wheels. As people have suggested, the US has not fought a 17-year war in that country, they have a fought a one-year war 17 times, with only the number changing with each succeeding year.

As any student of history will tell you, Afghanistan has been a graveyard for imperial powers from time immemorial, the most recent being the British, the Russians, and now the US. The only question is not if but when the US decides to cut its losses and withdraw.


  1. says

    If you want to see something really fucked up, google image search for “us troops guarding opium poppies afghanistan” -- apparently the brave heroes over there are making sure the local economy is not upset by the taliban, which means, since “local economy” is opium, there are US soldiers guarding fields of opium poppies. They sure are pretty! (the poppies, not the troops)

  2. cartomancer says

    Pffft, amateurs. We in England figured out what to do with Afghan opium centuries ago -- you force the Chinese to buy it in exchange for their tea. Have a couple of bloody and contentious wars if they’re not cooperating. Worked out just fine for us, with no global political recriminations whatsoever. No indeed. Nothing to see here. Move along…

  3. kestrel says

    This is so frustrating to me. Even one of my chickens would have figured out to change tactics long before this.

  4. says

    Have a couple of bloody and contentious wars if they’re not cooperating

    The best kind of ‘customer’ is the kind you can use gunboats in your sales-cycle with.

    Urr, how the fuck does that sentence work?

  5. Art says

    It wouldn’t work, but I don’t think anyone has tried this:
    Let the farmers grow opium. Buy the opium at current prices from each individual farm and pay in US currency. Load the opium onto helicopters and fly away.

    If it just ends there you have given the farmers more spendable money than they normally get. Direct payments to an estimated 200,000 individual family farms could rattle the power dynamics a bit. Maybe they buy guns, organize with the other previously poor and downtrodden farmers. Perhaps not. Either way, opium is no longer flowing to warlords to finance their private armies. The warlords and profiteers in the opium trade can no longer make money being middle men. They are no longer moving opium one way and money the other. It is also far less likely to get US troops killed. In this scenario we are the good guys who fly in to politely and generously buy their opium and then go away. In opium growing areas we could expect protection from the locals.

    What do we do with all that opium? We could process it into morphine and stockpile it for emergencies. In the 50s we had vast quantities of morphine on hand for WW3. We have likely diversified a bit but large quantities of pain killers are still vital to military and rescue operations. It makes free-market fanatics heads explode but why can’t the military subcontract the manufacture of its own supplies? Does the DoD and VA really have to buy from big pharma at exorbitant prices?

    We could burn it. Possibly the least productive use but buy and burn is still cheaper than our existing anti-narcotic efforts. We could, if we were less self-righteous, selectively flood various markets to disrupt illegal narcotic sales. Well played the US could corner the low-cost market in legal narcotics while significantly disrupting illegal supply lines.

    Probably wouldn’t work but, then again, nobody has ever tried.

  6. Ketil Tveiten says

    Hey, stockpiling morphine is a brilliant idea; “it probably wouldn’t work” is all due to the people in charge being morons.

  7. jrkrideau says

    IIRC under the Taliban, pre-US invasion, opium production had dropped precipitously. I guess the Taliban were trying to placate other countries and had enough control over the country to enforce a ban.

    Once the country returned to anarchy after the invasion, the Taliban had no reason to restrict production and both they and the various warlords needed money and they could find a market for the opium.

    Even though the typical opium farmer does not make a lot of money on the crop, it is hard to find another cash crop with anything near the return.

    @ 5 Art
    I believe something like your idea was implemented in Viet Nam. It was called Air America.

  8. says

    Adam Curtis’ film Bitter Lake explains that Afghani opium crops were a result of American/British intervention -- the construction of dams raised the water level, which salinized a lot of soil, making it less suitable for crops.

    Even though the typical opium farmer does not make a lot of money on the crop, it is hard to find another cash crop with anything near the return.

    The US Department of Agriculture used to manage the economy (ssh! socialism!) by paying farmers not to overproduce certain crops. For the cost of keeping a bunch of marines standing around guarding opium fields the US could pay farmers not to grow opium. But then that leads down a slippery slope that ends with American planes spraying agent orange.

    My piece [stderr] describes declassified views into a CIA operation to dispose of 450lbs of opium by dropping it into the Mekong.

  9. Dunc says

    Either way, opium is no longer flowing to warlords to finance their private armies.

    You mean like our good friend and ally, former deputy defence minister (under President Karzai) and now Vice President of Afghanistan (not to mention former Soviet collaborator, notoriously brutal warlord, noted torture fan, and commander of Afghanistan’s largest private army) General Abdul Rashid Dostum? Yeah, I think I might see a small problem there…

    (Aside: I had no idea that Dostum was not only back, but actually Vice President now. See what happens if you don’t pay attention?)

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