Opium and Afghanistan

The continuing inability for Afghans to stabilize their state is caused by three major factors: security, economic stagnation, and lack of proper education (outside of extremist run and/or funded madrassas). Of these three, however, economic stagnation is the key element, as proper economic growth would contribute to ostracization of extremist groups such as the Taliban and the Wilayah Khorasan (referred to here as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP)). Individuals continue to be drawn to the shadow economy of Afghanistan, one revolving around the opium trade. If the Afghan National Unity Government, or NUG, can manage to turn the drug trade into a legal and profitable trade, they can not only deny the Taliban monetary support but also generate funds for the Afghan NUG. The Afghan rural population is condemned to a Sisyphean cycle. Locked into seemingly meaningless tasks, the Afghan farmers are drawn into a cycle within which their lives are marked only by a tiny sliver of profits off opium, before the cycle begins anew.

Some, of course, may argue that the overwhelming presence of opium in Afghanistan harms the security situation there, and indeed this is the case. That being said, opium cultivation provides for “40–50 percent” of the overall Afghan Economy, and narcotic trafficking remains a “major source of revenue” (Hamid, 2008, p. 107). Unfortunately, most of the profits from this illegal drug trade goes to “drug producers and sellers and not the farmers who cultivate” the opium (Hamid, 2008, p. 107). This being said, the drug trade is not entirely bad news. Despite calls from the west for the extinguishing of the Afghan opium crop, these same voices neglect to recognize that “in more than 150 countries… only a tiny minority of the patients in need of morphine… receive this morphine” (Hamid, 2008, p. 108). Therefore, it becomes necessary for not only the Afghan economy but rather the entirety of the global medical market that Afghanistan turns the opium trade into a licit good (such as morphine or codeine) that it can export.

Table 1. Afghan Exports (Source: Observatory of Economic Complexity; UNODC)

Because investigations have found that of the $104 billion of aid given to Afghanistan since 2001, a large portion has been “found in widespread corruption, waste and fraud among US Agencies and private contractors”, it becomes the initiative of the United States Government to cut out the middleman and start applying funding to long term economic improvement packages that focus on the little man and promote a “trickle-up”, or Keynesian style of economic development (Lutz & Desai, 2015). It is key that this aid be repurposed to attempt to cut back on misuse and overall corruption within the government.

In addition, as the United States begins to stand down military forces in the region, it is necessary that the US government continues to pump funding into the Afghan NUG at levels similar to those seen prior to the military drawdown. However, this aid should be repurposed from security to low level investments in farming infrastructure and long-term education initiatives that first focus on the farm and industrial sectors in order to encourage economic growth. The infrastructure initiatives are undoubtedly key to the entirety of agriculture development in Afghanistan. These projects must focus on development of road and irrigation systems that will incentivize a legal opium economy within Afghanistan. While it is more dangerous and/or costly to legally produce and traffic opium and other narcotics in Afghanistan, the Afghans will continue do so illegally.

However, it must be recognized that the pulling of foreign aid to the Afghan government itself is incredibly dangerous. The danger is twofold: for one, if too much is pulled and security funding takes a serious hit before licit opium profits can arrive, Afghanistan could face a huge security problem (bigger than the one they already see), likely resulting in a collapse of the government not dissimilar from that of the PDPA in 1992. Secondly, the pulling of aid could be “seen as a slight to the Afghan government,” though President Ashraf Ghani is significantly less traditional than President Karzai was (E. Melick & E. Ackroyd, personal communication, 23 March 2017). Therefore, it becomes necessary for the United States to either commit more troops or commit more funding, though in a best case scenario, both are needed.

These long term education initiatives should not focus on the building of schools, because without a faculty, a school is nothing. Rather, the United States and NATO should focus in on training teachers for these schools, with the hope that the schools will come later. There must be a monetary incentive for Afghans to undergo teacher education, and the education must come from other Sunni Muslims (or Shia in the case of the Hazara) from the Muslim central Asian states. States such as Kazakhstan, with an overall literacy rate of 99.85% between ages 15 and 24 could be a key location to pull from for possible teacher-trainers (UNICEF, 2013). Originally, the initiative of this Teacher-Trainer program should focus on giving Afghans the ability to learn how to do basic arithmetic, read, and write, but only to use these as building blocks for agricultural, industrial, and religious studies, since these new teachers will be primary pulled from rural Afghanistan. Any other studies would be seen as a waste by the Afghans, and be largely ignored. Furthermore, there is no need for secular education in Afghanistan, and in fact, secular education programs would likely result in ready-made Taliban propaganda.

Due to the near forty years of armed conflict, occupation, and warlordism in Afghanistan, Afghan infrastructure (what little of it there once was) remains in shambles. As previously mentioned, in order for the Afghans to see profit in a licit opium economy, massive infrastructure overhauls must be undertaken; unfortunately, these improvements will come largely at the expense of the American/Western taxpayer. As of 1983, of a total stock of “5.3 million irrigable hectares of land… only 2.5 million hectares are irrigated to some extent, from which 1.4 million hectares actually receive sufficient water” (Noorzoy, 1983, p. 30–31). It can be easily extrapolated from this data that this number has only fallen since 1983, as the Afghan Civil War resulted in the disintegration in many Afghan constructs across the board, and infrastructure is no different. Therefore, irrigation should be the first infrastructure priority. As the irrigation allows the Afghan GDP to climb due to larger agriculture exports, this is when roads should begin to be put into place, starting with the refurbishing of the Ring Road (connecting Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, and Mazar-i-Sharif) and branching outwards. All public workers must be salaried to encourage timely work, as hourly workers will waste time to get paid more.

Not only does opium provide for great agricultural profits in Afghanistan, it also could provide for the creation of a fledgling Afghan pharmaceutical industry. Afghanistan has the potential to be a major supplier of morphine and other opium-derived pharmaceuticals. Afghanistan is thought to be able to “supply about 690 tons of morphine” an amount that would triple the global supply of morphine. Currently, in developing countries, there is a huge inadequacy of morphine supply. For example, Nigeria, a country of 130 million, has an annual International Narcotics Control Board Quota of 10kg of morphine. Belgium (population: 10.5 million) has a supply of 5200kg of morphine (Attaran & Boozary, 2011, p. 397)

However, for such a pharmaceutical industry to succeed and create jobs across Afghanistan, the World Trade Organization (which Afghanistan joined 29 July 2016) must begin to rollback unfair and arguably illegal trade rules that favor Indian and Turkish morphine and codeine manufacturers. A key barrier to Afghan entry that must be struck down is the “‘80:20’ rule under which India and Turkey claim the right to supply 80% of the world’s licit opium exports” (Attaran & Boozary, 2011, p. 397). One could argue that using “sources of production from countries like Turkey…” is tried and tested, but one should recognize that claims that the Turkish government continues to give safe harbor to ISIL remain “undeniable”(Malloch-Brown, 2008, p. 972) (Bertrand, 2015). Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Turkish democracy is slowly faltering (it holds a Freedom House Democracy rating of 38, NATO average is 90.7). Turkey has also dropped the most of any country in the world as far as democratic rating at -15 (now 38, down from 53) from 2016 to 2017 (Freedom House, 2017). For comparison, Afghanistan holds a rating of 24 and Iraq a rating of 27, both within 15 points of the Turkish rating, and both of these nations continue to be victimized by a terrible insurgency (Freedom House, 2017). Considering NATO’s own website notes that “NATO promotes democratic values and encourages cooperation”, it becomes quickly evident Turkey has no place in NATO and deserves no trade protection from the member states (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). If, and only if, these rules are struck down, Afghanistan can enter the world pharmaceutical industry which will create jobs and pull Afghans away from the Taliban’s shadow economy of illicit narcotics manufacture and trafficking. In addition to the striking down of trade rules, NATO “aid and military tactics ought to shift away… from poppy eradication… and towards… pilot projects for cultivation” of licit opium (Attaran & Boozary, 2011, p. 397).

One way to create a viable licit opium harvest and manufacturing scheme is to rely on the traditional Afghan practice of balancing the central government against traditional local leadership councils, or Shuras (Attaran & Boozary, 2011, p. 397). By using a licensing system similar to India, the US and NATO military forces can begin, alongside ANA allies, to protect legal opium strongholds and use word of mouth to bring new Shuras and local groups into the program, further ostracizing the Taliban and taking away their cash flow. As these local groups come into the program, they should be further incentivized by the creation of strong road systems and irrigation networks connecting their lands to both intra- and international markets that will allow them to grow not only opium on a large scale, but also traditional Afghan farm goods such as nuts, berries, and cotton. It may also be wise to roll the illegal cannabis markets into a legal program such as the above opium program.

Afghanistan is plagued by a host of issues, but opium undoubtedly factors into nearly all of them. With the continued attempts to eradicate the opium crop in Afghanistan, the people — specifically opium farmers — will be drawn into a Sisyphean cycle in which they plant their crop, export it (seeing little of the profits), and remain victim to crossfire between anti-government insurgencies as well as coalition forces. Their people will die, and the economy will remain stagnant. However, if Coalition and Afghan NUG forces turn to policies guided by the above concepts, the Afghans stand to gain not only economic sustainability but also security, ergo breaking this aforementioned cycle.


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