U.S., NATO and Afghan Poppy Policies: Time for a Change

By Lindsay Kihnel, Transatlantic Security Analyst

The United States and NATO, with the help of the Afghan government, have long struggled to formulate effective policies aimed at countering the production of the opium poppy in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been torn by war and insurgency since 1979, when its economy started to become dependent on poppy cultivation. Today, it is the leading source of poppies and their derivatives – opium and heroin – that are used to fund the Taliban as well as regional drug cartels. In spite of efforts aimed at reducing supply and demand, poppy production has been increasing in the country. In 2013, current policies were so ineffective poppy cultivation reached a record high.


The central problem is that many farmers in the country are poor and dependent on the sale of poppies for their survival. Even if their crops are destroyed, these farmers, already struggling to get by, will still owe the money they borrowed from drug traffickers. Often, these illicit groups will take fathers hostage and demand that families either give them the borrowed money or one of their daughters. These girls are referred to as “opium brides” and are frequently sold into slavery or married off to their financial captors and never again see their families. These “opium bride” cases are occurring all over Afghanistan.


Additionally, the growing poppy problem is a major contributor to political corruption, even at the highest levels of the Afghan government. The results are clear: According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Afghanistan ranks 175th out of 177 countries. Moreover, Doris Buddenberg, the representative of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, contended in 2004 that eradication – a prominent tactic used to address the problem – “usually pushes the prices up. As we have seen from the Taliban period, the one-year ban on opium-poppy cultivation increased prices enormously the following year and it became extremely attractive for farmers to cultivate poppy.”


Overall, the inability of the U.S., NATO and the Afghan government to reduce poppy production undermines the larger goal of strengthening the Afghan state ahead of a partial withdrawal later this year. Ignoring the problem will not resolve it either, as was seen when the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) initially entered Afghanistan in October 2001. As the Atlantic Council’s Robbie Gramer noted: “[ISAF] elicited support from local Afghan warlords to combat insurgent groups with hundreds of millions of dollars. This flooded the Afghan money market, rapidly devaluing the already weak Afghan currency and prompting Afghans to put their money into the only safe and profitable investment in the Afghan economy: opium poppy farming.”


Addressing this problem requires a policy shift that places far more emphasis, and invests more resources, in livelihood alternatives like providing subsidies or compensation to farmers who produce rose oil, saffron, nuts, raisins, or various other fruits. Another suggestion is to revive the carpet industry. These, and other options, would provide Afghans with alternative means to making a living and would lure them away from the illicit cultivation of poppy. Additionally, NATO should increase its financial and political investment in the Counter Narcotics Training Program, despite Russia’s recent withdrawal, and countries in the region and beyond must bolster existing measures to reduce demand for the opium poppy and its derivatives. Together, these steps would improve Afghanistan and neighboring countries’ ability to investigate and prosecute the largest producers while reducing the price of, and incentive to produce, these illicit substances.

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