Afghanistan and the global failure of counternarcotics
N° 4, September 2008
The failure to address Afghanistan’s opium production is not surprising. About 60 years of Asian opium bans have demonstrated that drug supply reduction is very rarely effective and, in fact, is most often counterproductive. The Chinese “success story” is unique for it took only a full decade (1950s) to achieve and because it was made possible by the very specific nationalistic and ideological context of the Chinese Communist revolution.
All other Asian opium bans were carried hastily and with no or not enough economic alternatives. In Iran and in Turkey, the first opium bans failed and led to renewed productions authorized by both governments. It took a theocracy to suppress opium production in Iran, most likely at high human costs. Turkey eventually opted for licit opium poppy cultivation and is still a producer of concentrate of poppy straw for the pharmaceutical industry. In Afghanistan, the opium ban issued by the Taliban in 2000 basically failed out of success: the economic shock that it caused to the country and to the poorest of its farmers made the ban clearly counterproductive.
In Afghanistan, opium poppy cultivation has expanded from 82,000 hectares in 2000 to 193,000 hectares in 2007 when the country’s 8,200 tonnes of opium amounted to 93 per cent of global illicit opium production. According to UNODC, in the late 2000s Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle would be near disappearance as Thailand has all but suppressed cultivation (but still conducts annual eradication campaigns) and as Burma and Laos have largely diminished their respective productions. Yet, even UNODC frequently questions the sustainability of these “successful” opium bans as alternative development is either absent or at least largely insufficient to make up for the loss of income of some the poorest of Asian farmers.
Eradication is the forced destruction of standing crops, whether manually, mechanically, chemically, or even biologically. Eradication is even more destructive than it first appears as it basically targets the crops and the livelihoods of the most vulnerable segment of the drug industry: the farmers themselves and, among them, especially the resource-poor farmers. Worse, since opium production is a coping mechanism and a livelihood strategy that clearly proceeds from poverty and food insecurity (whether poverty is war-related or not), eradication is likely to be counterproductive as it threatens highly precarious livelihoods, increases poverty, and raises opium prices. As is the case with opium bans, a socio-economic issue is addressed from a legal point of view: opium production is targeted as a cause of further problems (illegality, corruption, addiction, etc.) rather than as a consequence of other problems (poverty and low availability of physical, financial and human assets). The causes of opium poppy cultivation are therefore ignored and even made more acute (Chouvy, 2005).
It is important to understand that opium poppy cultivation is closely connected with poverty because it explains why eradication is likely to fail and why it proves counterproductive in most cases. To be more precise, the close links that exist between poverty and opium production are to be acknowledged and understood if eradication is to be used as an effective deterrent, that is, only after legal, viable, and sustainable livelihoods have been established.
The first international development project that was really designed and implemented in order to reduce or suppress agricultural production of illicit drugs started in 1972 in Thailand. Until then, crop substitution had only be resorted to after opium bans had been imposed: either in order to make forced eradication possible (as in China) or as a way to make up for a brutal loss of income (as in Turkey).
But crop substitution quickly proved too simple, some would say simplistic, as development programmes then focused less on the causes of poppy cultivation than on poppy cultivation itself. In Thailand and in the rest of the world the crop substitution approach was replaced in the 1980s by integrated rural development: from then on “the issue was less to find substitute crops than to introduce alternative sources of income and improve living conditions” (GTZ, 1998: 10). But “the projects were so complex that they were management nightmares, impossible to evaluate. Their long-term impacts were uneven, with some interventions being more effective than others in particular circumstances” (UNODC, 2005: 23). Therefore, in the 1990s “alternative development” programmes replaced “integrated rural development” programmes. AD programmes differed from IRD programmes by their broader perspective.
Despite its overall disappointing results it must be said that AD cannot be dismissed altogether for having failed to address the illicit production of plant-based drugs. In fact, alternative development as a strategy has not failed because it was the wrong approach to drug supply reduction but because it has barely been tried and because drug supply reduction has constantly been considered distinctly from poverty reduction. While the links between poverty and agricultural drug production have been widely and convincingly demonstrated worldwide, drug supply reduction has mainly focused on interdiction and repressive measures such as crop bans and forced eradication. The vast majority of the funds and of the material and human means that have been invested during almost forty years of a global war on certain drugs have been used to design, implement, and reinforce repressive measures, that is, to increase poverty (the main cause of illicit agricultural drug production) rather than to alleviate it.
Yet, most recently, a new development approach has been considered in order to alleviate poverty in illicit drug producing countries: faced with renewed and unheeded opium bans, and with increasing but ineffective eradication campaigns, the “emergence of an ‘alternative livelihoods’ approach, which seeks to mainstream counter narcotics objectives into national development strategies and programmes, is an attempt to respond to the causes of opium poppy cultivation and to create links with the wider state-building agenda” (Mansfield, Pain, 2005: 1-2).
While real alternative livelihoods programmes are still to be implemented, on paper they clearly differ from AD programmes. Unlike AD programmes, alternative livelihoods programmes should not be conducted through a discrete area-based approach but should mainstream counternarcotics objectives into national development strategies and programming. Alternative livelihoods programmes should be designed to treat the causes rather than the symptoms of cultivation and should “address the factors that influence households’ drug crop cultivation” rather than attempt “to replace on-farm income generated by coca and opium poppy” (Mansfield, Pain, 2005: 4).
However, from a more political point of view, it is obvious that no development agenda can be reasonably set without first strengthening the state, civil society, and democracy. Obviously, economic development, whether in rural or in urban areas, can only occur in countries and regions where peace prevails and is sustainable. The problem is that this is far from being the case in Afghanistan.
CHOUVY P.-A., 2005, “The dangers of opium eradication in Asia”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Vol. 17 n° 1, January 2005: 26-27.
GTZ (DEUTSCHE GESELLSCHAFT FÜR TECHNISCHE ZUSAMMENARBEIT), 1998, Drugs and Development in Asia. A background and discussion paper, Drugs and Development Programme, Eschborn: GTZ.
UNODC, 2005, Thematic Evaluation of UNODC Alternative Development Initiatives, Independent Evaluation Unit (Dir. Allison Brown), Draft version, 4 September 2005.
MANSFIELD D., PAIN A., 2005, Alternative Livelihoods: Substance or Slogan?, AREU Briefing Paper, October 2005, Kabul.