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Counter-narcotics strategies for Afghanistan’s opiate economy: Are we on track?
Charlotte Dufour, Domitille Kauffmann and François Grünewald

Nearly ten years after the international community’s intervention in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban, the question of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is increasingly a priority for all stakeholders, particularly the international community. There has nevertheless been a whole succession of different policies and programmes over the last decade, all aiming to reduce opium poppy cultivation, by eradicating it, law enforcement and criminal justice, or putting in place alternative activities (agricultural, or generally encouraging rural development). What have been the results of these different activities? What lessons can be learnt from them?

This article presents the main findings and recommendations of a study commissioned by the French Development Agency (AFD), in early 2010. The objective of this research was to conduct a comprehensive analysis of ten years’ activities within the framework of the National Drug Control Strategy (NDCS), focusing on its strengths and weaknesses, and constraints in implementation. Strategic and operational recommendations have been made in order to contribute to developing policy and making programming decisions.

 I - Opium in Afghanistan

Prior to the Soviet invasion opium poppy cultivation was a marginal activity. It developed chiefly as a survival strategy in the war economy of the 1990’s, and then became an increasingly important cash crop, especially since 2001. Opium poppy production is now decreasing slightly, since its peak in 2007, though production levels still remain very high: 6,900 tons were harvested in 2009, over a cultivated area of 123,000 hectares. The cultivation zones have changed considerably since 2004 (when production was spread out across the country), and are now concentrated mostly in the southern provinces, and in the western province of Badghis. Some provinces (20 in 2009, up from 13 in 2007) have obtained the ‘poppy-free’ label a number of times (though not necessarily over consecutive years), awarded by UNODC to provinces that have less than 100 ha of opium poppy cultivation.


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As the surface area covered by poppy fields has increased, the opium industry as a whole has also grown considerably over the last decade. 60% of Afghanistan’s drug production – both morphine and heroine – is now processed directly in laboratories in the main provinces that grow opium poppy (Helmand, Nangarhar and Badakhshan).

However, it is not yet possible to detect whether current trends (reduced production in a number of provinces since 2007) will continue in the future, as various factors affect opium production: agro-ecological factors (climate, irrigation), socio-economic factors (food security and poverty, access to loans, to land and to agricultural services, economic dependence on poppy cultivation), political and security-related factors, as well as factors linked to production, processing, and marketing opium (know-how, wheat/poppy terms of trade, poppy production in other countries, access to chemical precursors, proximity to laboratories and trafficking networks). Furthermore, Afghanistan produces opium faster than the world consumes it, so there are large stockpiles of opium in-country. The current drop in production may actually be part of a strategy to control prices on the world market.

The fact that poppy production is highly concentrated in the south of the country shows a generally high correlation with other illicit activities – cannabis production has also significantly risen in recent years in this area – as well as with high levels of insecurity.


opium afgha uk 2


The reasons behind current drops in production vary from province to province. In Nangarhar and Balkh, it is clear that the policies of the provincial governors there have played a central role. In other provinces, economic and agro-climatic factors (such as changes in the wheat/poppy terms of trade, or poor poppy yields) meant that farmers have chosen to give priority to their food security, thereby deciding to plant wheat instead.

In order to reduce opium poppy cultivation, trafficking and consumption in the long-term, the Afghan Government has defined a counter-narcotics strategy, composed of four main areas of activity; prohibition and law enforcement, developing alternative activities, treating drug addiction, and institutional capacity development at both national and local level. Eight pillars of action have also been identified. Alongside the government, there are also a wide range of different actors involved in counter-narcotics, particularly the American and British Governments, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the ISAF armed forces. NGOs are also highly involved as implementing partners, particularly for programmes working on treating drug addiction.