The ironies of Afghan opium production

The ironies of Afghan opium production

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Asia Times, September 17, 2003

Driven by war, poverty and chaos, Afghanistan’s opium production in the wake of the ouster of the Taliban regime is dramatically increasing and seems to be the only avenue by which many Afghans can make a living. Indeed, in a country already characterized by a tortured landscape and harsh climatic conditions, let alone generations of war, the commercial production of opium has been the only means of subsistence available for many peasants in eastern Afghanistan.

Consecutive years of drought have made matters worse. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently asserted that since 1978, when the country was on the verge of attaining food self-sufficiency, irrigated surfaces have been cut in half. Arable lands, which before the war corresponded to only 12 percent of the country’s total area, fell by another 37 percent during the 1990s. Furthermore, Afghanistan certainly holds an unfortunate record as the world’s most-mined country. The United Nations estimates that some 700 sq km are contaminated by various unexploded ordnances which, according to the World Bank, take a toll of some 500 victims a month, making any return to the agricultural fields particularly dangerous.

Continuing war has also contributed to the prolonged lack of water for agriculture, destroying traditional irrigation channels and displacing significant segments of the population. Afghanistan’s renowned orchards and the vineyards of the Shomali plain have virtually vanished.

As a result, of the food crops now produced in Afghanistan, wheat, the least water-demanding, is the most favored. But the FAO estimates that, in a country where food shortages are persistent and where the threat of famine is recurrent, wheat acreage has decreased by 10 percent since the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 in the face of profit from the opium poppy.

Under such conditions the World Bank estimates that 7 million people, a third of the population, suffered from hunger in 2001, partly because of the drought that prevailed in 2000 and 2001 and threatened the re-establishment of the cereal production that the Taliban regime brought back between 1996 and 1999. By 1998, cereal production had been restored to pre-war levels and livestock were increasing again. By the 2000-2001 drought, however, cereal production had declined by 50 percent and almost 60 percent of the cattle had disappeared.

However, in 2002, and owing to less difficult climatic conditions, Afghanistan produced some 3.6 million tonnes of wheat, 82 percent more than in 2001 but still 4 percent less than in 2000.

As for the opium harvest, it once again literally exploded, increasing by 1,400 percent between 2001 and 2002.

Recent price trends for Afghan opium

The July 2000 edict of Mullah Omar, the ousted supreme head of the Taliban and Commander of the Faithful, proscribed opium poppy cultivation and forced the 2001 harvest to 185 tonnes, an all-time low. That figure was all the more impressive since the country had broken a world record in 1999 when it produced 4,600 tonnes, followed by a huge 3,300 tonnes in 2000.

The farm-gate price before the edict averaged US$30 per kilogram of fresh Afghan opium (as opposed to dry opium, which is lighter). In March 2001, during the purchasing season for recently collected opium, the average farm-gate price suddenly reached US$700, reflecting the shortage engineered by the Taliban. After the Sept.11, 2001 attacks in the United States, traffickers and local traders, rightly fearing American reprisals against both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, accelerated the sale of the 2,900 tonnes of opium that the United Nations then estimated to be stored in the north of the country.

Right after Sept.11, one kilogram of Afghan opium brought only US$95 to US$120, far below the price caused by the Taliban-driven shortages. However, just before American military intervention materialized in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the price skyrocketed, reaching US$500 per kilogram. Following the Enduring Freedom operation and its air strikes, opium lost some 40 percent of its farm-gate value, an indication of the sensitivity of opium to market contingencies. Later, in 2002, and despite a new increase in Afghan production, with the harvest estimated at 3,400 tonnes, prices reached US$600 per kilogram, something that the United Nations, which estimates production and records price fluctuations, has been unable to explain.

Opium production and politico-territorial evolution

The Afghan geopolitical scene is highly complex, and even more so when it comes to illicit drugs. To grasp illicit production and trade, one has to take into consideration the role that the Taliban played in condoning the opium economy by taxing both harvest and trade. This taxation was actually severely denounced in the 1999 International Narcotics Control Board report. However, such taxation was in accordance with Islamic principles known as zakat and usher has indeed been acknowledged by the Taliban authorities themselves.

In 1997, the assistant director of the Pashtani Tjarati Bank, Taliban’s central bank in their Kandahari stronghold, was quoted as saying that “a landowner must pay 10 percent of whatever amount he makes on his crops.” Opium merchants also have to pay a 2.5 percent tax to the Taliban, as they, like any other producers, did to other rulers and regimes. These taxes are well known and are Islamic practices that predate the Taliban. Zakat, or purification, is the third pillar of Islam and, as a tax levied on most assets, concerns every Muslim. Once levied it is redistributed to the poor, the rulers, and the holy fighters of the jihad. Usher, or tithe, is the other Islamic tax that is collected on raw agricultural products. Half goes to the poor, with the other half split between the local mullahs and the rulers, at that time the Taliban.

Thus, by levying these taxes the Taliban were doing nothing more than profiting on an economic system of production established prior to their arrival on the Afghan political scene. It is easy to see how the Taliban, then the rulers of about 85 percent of the country and controlling up to 96 percent of its poppy fields, benefited from these taxes, which are inherent to the Islamic law, or sharia, that they enforced.

To better understand the political economy of the opium poppy in Afghanistan, it is also essential to mention the role in the opium economy that was then held by the United Front (or Northern Alliance) led by the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated on Sept 7, 2001 in his Panjsher Valley stronghold. It has been reported that the United Front was also levying taxes on opium, which would make sense considering that its own considerable war effort required significant funding.

The United Front outlawed poppy cultivation and heroin manufacture in June 1999, a year before the Taliban issued their own ban. However, the United Front clearly failed to enforce the ban in their areas, while the Taliban impressively and unexpectedly succeeded. Indeed, according to the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), up to 150 tonnes of opium were most likely collected in 2001 in the areas controlled by the United Front.

These areas, being close to Tajikistan, then served, and still do, as an extremely convenient springboard to export opiates to Central Asia and Russia. In fact, in the United Front-held Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan, poppy-sown surfaces were estimated to have multiplied by 2.5 times between 2000 and 2001, leading to the bountiful 2001 harvest.

That same year, only 35 tonnes of opium were estimated to have been collected in Taliban-held areas. In one year, Mullah Omar’s edict cut production spectacularly, from 3,300 tonnes in 2000. The Taliban nearly rooted out opium production in the areas under their control in contrast to the United Front-held areas.

But the determination shown by the Taliban in 2000 to drastically reduce opium production did not seem to last long since as of the beginning of September 2001 – and before the 9/11 attacks – the Taliban most likely authorized the Afghan peasants to sow opium poppies again. Or, at the very least, they were thought not to have reissued their prohibition, thus leaving the peasants one precious month to obtain the indispensable seeds before the October sowing season.

But, on November 13, 2001, the Taliban fled from the capital and Kabul finally awoke under the control of the United Front troops. The Taliban nevertheless held the southern town of Kandahar until they negotiated their surrender with the United States on December 6, 2001, one day after the Bonn agreements were signed and the creation of a transitory Afghan government was decided, empowering the royalist Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun of the Popalzai tribe.

On January 17, 2002, the Afghan transition government declared in turn that poppy cultivation as well as the sale and consumption of opium were altogether prohibited in Afghanistan, although the poppies sown in the late fall of 2001 were about to bloom and, according to the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) had the potential to produce 1,900 to 2,700 tonnes of opium.

This, of course, deeply upset those of the Afghan peasants who had traditionally borrowed important sums or benefited from advances against takings in order to be able to feed themselves and their families until the harvest season. In Afghanistan, this credit system is also frequently resorted to so as to obtain the required opium poppy seeds. It is in this sensitive context that, on April 3, 2002, the temporary government launched its eradication program and offered US$250 in compensation for each planted and eradicated jirib (US$1,250 per hectare).

However, the poppy growers declared that they could obtain from US$1,700 to US$3,500 USD per jirib if they collected their opium and sold it at market prices. The dispute between the government and the peasants caused some disorder and even led to armed confrontations. In April 2002, one such clash killed 8 peasants and wounded 35 others in the Kajaki district of Helmand province.

Despite these incidents, and others including the destruction of tractors used for eradication by mines in Helmand province, the UNDCP then estimated that 16,500 hectares of poppies, a third of the total surface planted in 2001-2002, had been destroyed within the framework of the eradication program engaged by the transitory government (mainly in the provinces of Helmand, Oruzgan, of Nangarhar, and Kunar).

The Afghan government also estimated that its eradication campaign had affected more than one third of the cultivated areas, even though many observers argued that, for various reasons, only 10 percent had really been eradicated. In fact it seemed that in many cases, financial compensation was pocketed by local commanders and governors without ever reaching the peasants. In other instances, peasants were compensated after having only partially eradicated their opium poppy fields.

Peasants or their local governors reportedly resorted to various other subterfuges to profit from both governmental compensation and the sale of opium on the market. That is actually all the more plausible when one considers that the UNDCP then forecast that the Afghan peasants engaged in the opium poppy economy would fetch approximately US$1.2 billion at the farm-gate price for their forthcoming 2002 harvest, a huge sum not easily turned down in a country as poor as Afghanistan.

The final UNDCP estimates came in October 2002. Although the majority of observers including the UNDCP expected production of 2,500 tonnes, Afghanistan produced far more, perhaps as much as 3,400 tonnes. A. M. Costa, general manager of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC, of which the UNDCP is part), defends the UN actions, saying the 2002 harvest was lower than that in 1999, which was carried out under the Taliban. The transition government of Hamid Karzai could thus not be held responsible of this increase since the last sowing had taken place before its empowerment and in the context of the Taliban’s fall, a rather chaotic period.

However, even if the yields suddenly increased from 24 kg/ha to 46 kg/ha (partly because the poppy growers further resorted to irrigated fields) and explained part of the total augmentation, these 3,400 tonnes were far higher than the 185 tonnes of 2001 when the last harvest was made under the Taliban.

In fact, 2002’s 3,400 tonnes nearly match the 3,300 tonnes of 2000, when the Taliban first successfully aimed to reduce opium production following the all-time record of 4,600 tonnes of 1999.

It is now up to Hamid Karzai’s transition government to try to progressively cut Afghanistan’s opium harvests. Matching what the Taliban did in 2001 – with 185 tonnes of which only 35 were produced in the zones under their control – seems unreachable to say the least. Preliminary estimates by the United Nations for the 2003 harvest show that while clear efforts were made to eradicate part of the culture in the main areas of production – Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, Nangarhar but not in Badakhshan – opium poppy was also planted for the first time in other districts.

There is no doubt whatsoever that, in 2003, Afghanistan will top the world’s production of opium ahead of Myanmar, whose production dropped to 800 tonnes in 2002.

To a certain extent, the future harvests will testify to Hamid Karzai’s political and territorial control on his country, population, and factions. They will also make it possible to evaluate and judge the success of Western intervention and assistance. It is advisable however to keep in mind that in the current context of insecurity and lack of rebuilding and development, no drastic eradication should be implemented as many Afghan peasants have largely invested in this economic activity and depend on it for their very survival.

To overcome opium production in Afghanistan, the government and the international community must not impose eradication without implementing a broad program of alternative and integrated development both in the regions of opium production and in the rest of the country. Such programs must be implemented in a progressive way and, most importantly, in stable political and territorial conditions. Long-lasting peace combined with political as well as economic development must be achieved if Afghanistan is to be successfully rid of its illicit drugs economy and war economy nexus.

About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).