The narcotics industry in Afghanistan and the region around it supports domestic instability and increases the terrorist threat emanating from the region. There needs to be a regional and multi-faceted approach to combating the problem.

Fabrice Pothier, Director of Carnegie Europe, gave a testimony on counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan and the surrounding region before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament on the 25th of March, 2009. The following is a summarized transcript of his testimony.

Q: Is the term "poppy-free” useful for gauging the success of the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan?

The term “poppy-free” can be misleading; it does not necessarily mean free from the threat of the narcotics industry. There are currently 18 provinces that have a near-zero poppy cultivation level, but still support drug trafficking and processing activities.

The opium challenge in Afghanistan is commonly assessed in quantitative terms - by hectare and tonnage, production and cultivation. In order to understand the full context of the Afghan narcotics industry and tackle it effectively, a more comprehensive analysis is required – including the compiling of data on the local economy (e.g. level of access to credit and markets, prices of licit crop), security (e.g. political and criminal violence, control exerted by anti-state actors), drug trafficking (e.g. precursors seizure, laboratories) and governance (e.g. government control, corruption).

‘Poppy-free’ should not mean that provinces with low opium cultivation are free from counter-narctocisnarcotics efforts. They face the important dilemma of how to sustain, in the long-term, the low level of opium production, without, on one hand, putting local rural communities in a precarious economic situation, and, on the other, experiencing a sharp return to opium production like in the province of Nangahar in 2007.

Q: Is the present Afghan Government drug strategy sufficient?

The Afghan counter-narcotics strategy is trying to be too many things at once and this hampers its effectiveness. Moreover, counter-narcotics are based on political, if not ideological, premises rather than on evidence and pragmatism. A new approach could be to think in terms of cost-efficiency and risk.

A cost-efficient approach would be based on which counter-narcotics approach would deliver the best value for the tax payer’s money. For example, drug interdiction is proven to have a better return on investment than forced crop eradication. It also does not cause the collateral damage present with other methods, such as amplifying rural poverty and violence. Thinking of risk when devising policy would mean considering how much drug policy is going to help lower the risk of the local rural population’s dependence on the opium economy and increase the risk of trafficking.  

The suggestion that counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics policies should be merged is misguided. Counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics have different sequencing and timelines. Because of the political and social factors at play, successful counter-insurgency will need to be achieved within the next few years to ensure the continued support of domestic populations in the West as well as the support of the local Afghan population. Counter-narcotics, on the other hand, is a generational effort which may take around 25 years to successfully conclude – as we have seen in Thailand, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Latin America.

It is more advisable to have a two-pronged approach. One aspect of this would be to embed counter-narcotics planning within the broader comprehensive rural development strategy. The British government is currently trying to do this by supporting the integration of the work of the Afghan counter-narcotic ministry with other ministries in Afghanistan. This approach reflects the understanding that opium production is not simply about illicit crops, but that it is a part of a complex rural economic system.

The second element of this new approach would be to focus on interdiction in Afghanistan and the region as a whole. In the plan that was developed in the 1990s by the Colombian and U.S. governments, combating drug production in the fields was the most inefficient part of the effort, whilst combating drug routes stretching from inside Colombia to the Caribbean and extending to the U.S. market, was the most efficient dimension. This type of strategy offers a greater opportunity to think in terms of cost-efficiency, lowering the risk for the local population and making trafficking, and also corruption, a higher-risk enterprise.

Q: According to recent UN figures, the Taliban is creaming off about $100 million USD a year from the narcotics business in Afghanistan. How is that money taken and moved about?

$100 million USD a year is equivalent to about 40% of the alleged Taliban ‘war budget’. This is a statistical extrapolation of the income the Taliban could potentially generate by taxing up to 10% of the production in the areas where they exert relative control. The evidence to support this figure is weak, and there is very little documentation about the extent and type of relationship between the Taliban and the drug economy.

In Colombia, on the other hand, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) has direct control over the drug economy because it has direct control over the arable lands that are used to produce coca. In the case of Afghanistan, the control the Taliban exert is much more nuanced than direct territorial control. The relationship between the Taliban and the narcotic industry is opportunistic and ambiguous, rather than symbiotic. The Taliban banned opium in 2000/2001, demonstrating that they will either support or condemn opium producers depending upon their political purpose. Now, the Taliban is using poppy production as a political tool to gain leverage over the local population – by presenting themselves as ‘protectors’ of vulnerable poppy farmers -  and to engage in local power play by creating allies out of local powerholders who grow and trade opium. It is key that a sound counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan integrates the complex dimension of the local poppy politics. So for example, aggressive crop eradication might have worked in northern Thailand, but in the volatile, impoverished and uncontrolled context of southern Afghanistan it will only make things worse.

There is a need to think about how it may be possible to interdict the flow of money from drug producers to the Taliban. Certainly, the Afghan drug economy is less sophisticated than in Latin America, and is not as integrated in terms of cartels. However, the growth of the heroin industry means that more value is staying in Afghanistan, making Afghanistan not only a producer of opium, but a centre for processing opium into heroin. As such, some mafia groups have began to establish links with Afghan producers. In order to, at the very least, contain the problem, interdiction will need to become increasingly important over the coming years.

Overall, the idea that there is a link between the narcotics industry and the Taliban must not distract from the much more threatening systemic link between drugs and governance through corruption. The link between the narcotics industry and governance is threatening efforts to build stable and legitimate Afghan institutions. This is where the UK should focus its efforts.

Q: Could it be said that drugs have achieved a degree of tolerance by the Government and become a national source of income?

Clearly the drugs industry poses a threat to Afghan institutions as well as to its economy by creating a parallel economy corrupting every level of national institutions. But we should be realistic about the possibilities of eliminating the corruption linked to the narcotic economy within the Afghan government. It is important to think about incremental steps to reduce the level of corruption. Although it is hard to determine precisely, there is a functional, which is not to say acceptable, level of corruption within a government and the national economy.
In a 2004 report, the World Bank coined the term, "poppy shock.” The term suggests that if the illicit poppy economy is suddenly eradicated, the result may end up creating a shock to the national economy as a whole. The drugs trade not only amounts to the equivalent of 30% of the GDP, but is feeding the rest of the legal economy: the building sector, importation of goods, and the financial sector. One has to apply a very smart, well-targeted strategy to progressively contain and, hopefully, shrink the opium economy without causing a contraction in the legal economy.

Political will is the real missing dimension from the Afghan national counter-narcotics strategy. This is partly due to complex Afghan political reasons, but also because of the West's own strategy towards the drugs problem. There are as many strategies as actors in Afghanistan. The U.S. has followed its own five-pillar strategy, whilst the UK has taken charge as G8 partner nation of the international counter-narcotic efforts in Afghanistan. The EU has a comprehensive, rapid development strategy. Last October, NATO became involved in the interdiction of drug facilities and facilitators, which, although well-intentioned, has reduced the opportunity for Afghanistan to build its own interdiction capacity on the medium-term. An Afghan capacity that can independently keep pressure on the traffickers needs to be developed. Overall, we need to accept that the best exit strategy from the opium problem, is to build an effective Afghan capacity.

Q: What should a comprehensive single counter-narcotics policy look like?

A smart policy would adapt to the local circumstances and, again, would be based on considerations of cost-efficiency and risk. A policy of eradication in remote regions with poor access to markets and only basic rural resources is counter-productive and inefficient. On the other hand, this strategy may have the chance of success in regions with better develop economic centres. Any policy should keep the long term aim of building Afghan capacity to execute the policy with limited international support. Not only do donor states have limited resources, but the main aim of any strategy in Afghanistan should be to create a functioning, independent and legitimate state.

Q: What are your thoughts on offering farmers cash payouts to stop growing poppies?

There have been previous attempts (including by the British Government in 2002-3) to buy off farmers from cultivating opium.. These attempts have proved counter-productive due to the basic lack of capacity to deliver the cash to the right people in an equitable way.  More importantly, the complex opium market system means that it is impossible to simply pay your way out of the drug problem. In Thailand, for instance, there was success in wiping out opium cultivation, but synthetic drugs or so-called YaBa have replaced poppies and, in fact, they use the same criminal system that existed before. There needs to be a policy that can progressively dismantle the criminal market economy, rather than narrowly aim to eradicate the crop production.

Q: Is targeting the availability of precursor chemicals a viable alternative to the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan that NATO has pursued?

It is not an alternative; it is a very important complement. An increasingly high quantity of precursor chemicals are being imported into Afghanistan, which indicates that the drug market is consolidating, increasing in value, and therefore becoming even more dangerous. According to UNODC, 70% of the Afghan opium is now processed in heroin in Afghanistan itself. Implementing a complementary regional strategy to combat the production and import of precursor chemicals would be an important and effective way to quell the dangerous rise in the value of Afghan opium production, and the consolidating effect this is having on the narcotics industry.

Q: What prospect is there for effective regional co-operation to dismantle the drug industry in Afghanistan and contain the outward flow of drugs to neighbor states?

Regional cooperation is a central issue that has been given too little attention in the past. In this instance, the states that matter are Iran, Pakistan, Russia and, increasingly, the Central Asian republics. Some 2.8% of Iran's population has a dependency on hard drugs. Afghanistan’s drug use stands at 1.4% just behind Iran. Iran has tried to take an innovative approach to the problem by implementing progressive health initiatives, such as clean needle exchange programmes in Tehran. However, the potential for regional cooperation might be restricted somewhat by the political context in neighboring states; the government of Iran, for instance, is highly unpredictable, and there have been frequent reversals of policy.

A regional approach involving Russia, Iran and the Central Asian countries, as well as Pakistan, is needed when thinking about comprehensive strategies that link supply with demand. Unless a strategy for curbing demand is pursued simultaneously to curbing supply, success in Afghanistan will have the effect of moving the market to another location – such as Tajikistan for example. The fundamental trafficking problem will still exist because the demand will continue to drive the market.

The UK could make a very positive contribution with regards to the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan by providing policy and technical support to a more comprehensive regional counter-narcotics strategy, including an approach utilizing . This could mean for example offering support to the national governments of the regions on how to develop comprehensive and progressive approaches to the problem of domestic narcotics abuse.