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Opium production in Afghanistan

Opium production in Afghanistan is controlled by local Afghan and regional mafia groups of Asia, more particularly of South and Central Asia. It has been a significant problem (or a significant business) for Afghanistan since the downfall of the Taliban in 2001. The CIA estimates that one-third of Afghanistan's GDP comes from opium export. The Asian Development Bank, however, indicates a lower figure: $2.5 billion, or about 12% of the GDP. At any rate, this is one of Kabul's most serious policy and law-enforcement challenges[1]. According to UNODC, in 2007 93% of the opiates on the world market originated in Afghanistan.[2]


Historical context (1979-present)

As the government began to lose control of provinces during the Soviet invasion of 1979-80, warlords flourished and with it opium production as regional commanders searched for ways to generate money to purchase weapons, according to the UN.[3] (At this time the US was pursuing an "arms-length" supporting strategy of the Afghan freedom-fighters or Mujahideen, the main purpose being to cripple the USSR slowly into withdrawal through attrition rather than effect a quick and decisive overthrow.)

When the Red Army was forced to withdraw in 1989, a power vacuum was created. Various Mujahideen factions started fighting against each other for power. With the discontinuation of Western support, they resorted ever more to poppy cultivation to finance their military existence.

Some local opium dealers, looking for a safe operational hub, joined forces with the more fanatic sections of the Mujahideen supported by Arab extremists like Osama bin Laden as well as the Pakistani secret intelligence service ISI to form the Taliban movement towards the end of 1994[4] — see also BBC report here [5].

According to the above UN source, Afghanistan saw a bumper opium crop of 4,600 million tonnes in 1999, which was the height of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.[citation needed][dubious] According to a Swiss security publication, 'SicherheitsForum' (April 2006, pp:56-57), this resulted in supply exceeding demand and a drop in the high-street price of heroin and morphine in the West, endangering the profitability of European drug smugglers. To stop this trend, Western international drug barons demanded a reduction in supply. The Pashtun mafia instructed the Taliban accordingly. It is alleged in the report that, obeying his financiers, Mullah Omar (the Taliban leader) issued a ban on poppy cultivation "on religious grounds", resulting in one of the lowest opium production levels in 2000. [6]

Following the US-led coalition war that led to the defeat of the Taliban in November 2001, essentially collapsing the economy, the scarcity of other sources of revenue forced many of the country's farmers to resort back to growing opium for export.(1,300 km² in 2004 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.) Afghanistan is presently the greatest illicit (in the Western World standards) opium producer in the world, before Burma (Myanmar), part of the so-called "Golden Triangle".

The main obstacle to getting rid of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is the reluctant collaboration between US forces and Afghan warlords in hunting drug traffickers. In the absence of Taliban, the warlords largely control the opium trade but are also highly useful to the US forces in scouting, providing local intelligence, keeping their own territories clean from Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents, and even taking part in military operations.

Opium trade in Afghanistan

Elizabeth Rubin wrote in an October 22, 2006, New York Times article titled In the land of the Taliban:

To find out how the opium trade works and how it's related to the Taliban's rise, I spent the afternoon with an Afghan who told me his name was Razzaq. He is a medium-level smuggler in his late 20's... He moved and spoke with the confident ease of a well-protected man. "The whole country is in our services", he told me, "all the way to Turkey." This wasn't bravado. From Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, he brings opium in the form of a gooey paste, packaged in bricks. From Badakhshan in the northeast, he brings crystal - a sugary substance made from heroin. And from Jalalabad, in the east on the road to Peshawar, he brings pure heroin. All of this goes through Baramcha, an unmanned border town in Helmand near Pakistan. Sometimes he pays off the national soldiers to use their vehicles, he said. Sometimes the national policemen. Or he hides it well, and if there is a tough checkpoint, he calls ahead and pays them off. "The soldiers get 2,000 afghanis a month, and I give them 100,000", he explained with an angelic smile. "So even if I had a human head in my car, they'd let me go." It's not hard to see why Razzaq is so successful. He has a certain charm and looks like the modest tailor he once was, not a man steeped in illegal business.
. . . . . .
Should he ever run into a problem in Afghanistan, he told me, "I simply make a phone call. And my voice is known to ministers, of course. They are in my network. Every network has a big man supporting them in the government." The Interior Ministry's director of counternarcotics in Kabul had told me the same thing. Anyway, if the smugglers have problems on the ground, they say, they just pay the Taliban to destroy the enemy commanders.

Intersection with the War on Terror

A small number of Guantanamo detainees in the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp claim that they were not terrorists and were in Afghanistan because they were involved in the drug trade. However, almost none of the Afghans in Guantanamo acknowledge growing opium.

isn Name Nationality Notes
555 Abdul Majid Muhammed Iran
  • Captured by the Northern Alliance on his first trip to Afghanistan because he looked like a foreigner.[7][8]
  • Had been a street level drug dealer, and drug addict, in Iran.
  • The only Christian held in Guantanamo
586 Karam Khamis Sayd Khamsan Yemen
  • Served as a hostage for a Yemeni drug dealer.[9] He was to be set free when his boss had sold the drugs and given the Afghan drug cartel their cut.
664 Rashid Awad Rashid Al Uwaydah Saudi Arabia
  • Testified that the purpose of his travel to Afghanistan was to export illicit drugs.[10]
  • Responded to the allegation that he had stayed in terrorist safehouses and that his name was found on various computer media found in al Qaeda safe houses by testifying that none of the places in which he stayed were terrorist safe houses. Every house he stayed in was operated by his contacts in the illicit drug trade and none of them used computers.
703 Ahmed Bin Kadr Labed Algeria
  • Claims he traveled to Afghanistan to smuggle heroin.[11]
798 Sahib Rohullah Wakil Afghanistan
  • A senior tribal leader, who had fought against the Taliban, both before September 11, 2001, and after, who had worked with British and American officials to destroy the poppy crop.[12]
831 Khandan Kadir Afghanistan
  • The head of the Khost branch of the anti-narcotics branch of the new Afghan Intelligence Service, denounced by a renegade warlords Pasha Khan Zadran and Jan Baz Khan.[13][14]
919 Faizullah Afghanistan
  • Believes he was falsely denounced to the Americans as a terrorist after he complained to local officials that the growers of illegal opium were using all the water legal farmers needed to irrigate their crops.[15]
1094 Saifullah Paracha Pakistan
  • A Pakistani business-man who testified he invested $1 million in a project to provide alternate jobs for those employed in the poppy industry.[16]

Medical production

The Senlis Council has proposed legalizing opium production for medical purposes. Opium can be manufactured into codeine and morphine, both legal pain-killers. They reason that this will not only solve the problem of illicit opium production in Afghanistan, but that it will also lower the price of prescription drugs worldwide, making healthcare more affordable for those requiring morphine or codeine.

Others have argued that legalizing opium production would neither solve the problem nor would it be workable in practice. They argue that illegal diversion of the crop could only be minimised if the Afghans had the necessary resources, institutional capacity and control mechanisms in place to ensure that they were the sole purchaser of opiate raw materials. For them, there is currently no infrastructure in place to set up and administer such a scheme. They reason that in the absence of an effective control system, traffickers would be free to continue to exploit the market and there would be a high risk that licit cultivation would be used for illegal purposes and that the Afghan government would be in direct competition with the traffickers, thereby driving up the price of opium, and attracting more farmers to cultivate. The Afghan government has ruled out licit cultivation as a means of tackling the illegal drug trade: however in Turkey in the 1970s, legalising opium production, with US support brought illicit trafficking under control within four years. Afghan villages have strong local control systems based around the village shura, which with the support of the Afghan government and its international allies, could provide the basis for an effective control system. This idea is developed in the recent Senlis Council report "Poppy for Medicine" [1] which proposes a technical model for the implementation of poppy licensing and the legal control of cultivation and production of Afghan morphine.

Some believe that there is also little evidence to show that Afghan opium would be economically competitive in a global market place. Australia, France, India, Spain, and Turkey currently dominate the export market for licit opiates. Due to the high cost of production in countries where cultivation is undertaken on small landholdings, such as India and Turkey, licit production requires market support (the production costs for the equivalent of 1 kg of morphine in 1999 was US$56 in Australia, US$159.77 in India and US$250 in Turkey). The current cost of production of one kilogramme of morphine equivalent in Afghanistan is approximately US$450. However, a poppy for medicine project in Afghanistan could provide a cheap pain relief option for pain sufferers who find morphine prices extremely elevated

The price of illicit opium far exceeds that of licit, (in India, in 2000, the price for licit opium was US$13-29 per kilo, but for illicit US$155-206). Although there are many complex reasons behind the decision to grow poppy, one of them is the current economic dependence of poppy farmers on the illicit trade. Whilst traffickers continue to be free to exploit the illicit market, legalisation would not change this. Demand for illicit opiates would not disappear even if Afghan opium were used for licit purposes and a vacuum would open that traffickers could exploit. However, currently 100% of Afghan opium is diverted to the illegal opium trade and funds in some cases terrorist activities. Despite eradication efforts since the international intervention in 2001, poppy cultivation and illict opium production has increased, as UNODC figures show. A licensing system would bring farmers and villages into a supportive relationship with the Afghan government, instead of alienating the population by destroying their livelihood, and provide the economic diversification that could help cultivators break ties with the illicit opium trade.

The International Narcotics Control Board states that an over production in licit opiates since 2000 has led to stockpiles in producing countries 'that could cover demand for two years'. Thus, some say Afghan opium would contribute to an already oversupplied market and would potentially cause the supply and demand imbalance that the UN control system was designed. However, the World Health Organisation points out that there is an acute global shortage of poppy-based medicines such as morphine and codeine. This is largely due to chronic underprescription (especially in countries where morphine is extremely highly priced). The International Narcotics Control Board which regulates opium supply throughout the world enforces the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs: this law provides that countries can only demand the raw poppy materials corresponding to the use of opium-based medicines over the last two years and thus limits countries who have low levels of prescription in terms of the amounts they can demand. As such, 77% of the world's opium supplies are being used by only six countries, leaving the rest of the world lacking in essential medicines such as morphine and codeine (See Fischer, B J. Rehm, and T Culbert, “Opium based medicines: a mapping of global supply, demand and needs” in Spivack D. (ed.) Feasibility Study on Opium Licensing in Afghanistan, Kabul, 2005. p.85-86. [2]). A second-tier supply system, that complements the current UN control system by supplying opium-based medicines to countries currently not receiving the poppy-based pain relief medicines needed, would maintain the balance estalished by the UN system and provide a market to Afghan-made poppy-based medicines.

Counter-narcotics policy

Given the fact that a third of the combined legal and illegal Afghan economy is based on the illegal opium industry, counter-narcotics policy is currently one of the most important elements of domestic politics. Despite law enforcement measures with a dominant focus on crop eradication programmes, Afghan opium production has doubled in just two years. This has shown that currently there is no correlation between poppy crop eradication and the level of poppy cultivation or opium production. The reason for this is the underlying economic nature of the opium problem. Poverty and structural employment are the main reason for 3.3 million Afghans' full dependence on poppies.

Poppy crop eradication could even have damaging side-effects for Afghanistan´s process of stabilization and reconstruction. Director of policy research for the Senlis Council, Jorrit Kamminga, says:

the poppy eradication campaign has been ineffective, counterproductive and could well give the Taliban the decisive advantage in their struggle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

He is referring to US-inspired aerial fumigation campaigns, planned for spring 2008. So far, crop eradication is done manually or mechanically from the ground. Chemical spraying could further destabilize rural areas and risk losing support for NATO's stabilization mission.

See also

  • Golden Crescent
  • Illegal drug trade
  • Opium
  • Senlis Council
  • Pashtun Mafia


  1. ^ CIA - The World Factbook - Rank Order - GDP (purchasing power parity)
  2. ^ Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007
  3. ^ UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs website - Bitter-Sweet Harvest: Afghanistan's New War
  4. ^ Rashid, Ahmed (2000) "Taliban - Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia", Yale University Press
  5. ^ BBC News - Afghanistan's turbulent history October 8, 2004
  6. ^
  7. ^ Summarized transcripts (.pdf), from Abdul Majid Muhammed's Combatant Status Review Tribunal - pages 107-121
  8. ^ Summarized transcript (.pdf), from Abdul Majid Muhammed's Administrative Review Board hearing - pages 90-97
  9. ^ Summarized transcripts (.pdf), from Karam Khamis Sayd Khamsan's Combatant Status Review Tribunal - - mirror - pages 12-18
  10. ^ Summarized transcript (.pdf), from Rashid Awad Rashid Al Uwaydah's Administrative Review Board hearing - pages 46-60
  11. ^ Summarized transcripts (.pdf), from Ahmed Bin Kadr Labed's Combatant Status Review Tribunal - pages 1-12
  12. ^ Summarized transcripts (.pdf), from Sahib Rohullah Wakil's Combatant Status Review Tribunal - pages 16-25
  13. ^ Summarized transcripts (.pdf), from Khandan Kadir's Combatant Status Review Tribunal - pages 9-31
  14. ^ Summarized transcript (.pdf), from Khandan Kadir's Administrative Review Board hearing - pages 1-21
  15. ^ Summarized transcripts (.pdf), from Faiz Ullah's Combatant Status Review Tribunal - pages 28-37
  16. ^ documents (.pdf) from Saifullah Paracha's Combatant Status Review Tribunal - - mirror pages 1-19
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Opium_production_in_Afghanistan". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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