Afghanistan’s “Forever” Drug War Has No End in Sight

October 6, 2021

It is time to end the forever war,” declared President Joe Biden. After 20 long, bloody years came the chaotic international pullout and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. But there is another war, another US export, that has been going on even longer. For decades, Afghanistan has been caught in the crosshairs of the “forever” drug war, and there is no end in sight.

The Afghan economy is powered by two plants: poppy and cannabis. The country is the world’s number one opium producer, accounting for approximately 90 percent of global supply, and the world’s second largest producer of cannabis resin. Afghan farmers are diversifying, and in recent years have begun to supply the methamphetamine market with crops of ephedra, a plant that can be used to produce precursor chemicals of meth.

Policing poppy and the rest will now fall to the Taliban government. What approach will they take? Apparently, more of the same.

“We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community, we will not produce any narcotics…” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told a Kabul news conference in August. “Nobody can be involved in drug smuggling. From now on, Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country but it needs international assistance. The international community should help us so that we can have alternative crops … Then, very soon, we can bring it to an end.”

If the Taliban attempt to create a “narcotics-free country,” it would require a violent war on the communities that grow poppy and plunge an already-devastated economy into the abyss.

The statement was a mockery. The country cannot stop growing and processing poppy because it’s essential to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Afghans who work throughout the supply chain. The United Nations estimates the opium trade to be worth between 6 and 11 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.

An integrated drug-production ecosystem, built up over decades of war and occupation, is deeply embedded in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Nimruz. But the profits from the trade are spread throughout the country, laundered through hawala, the informal banking system. No alternative crop can compete with the established infrastructure of the opium trade, where traffickers often pay growers up to 40 percent of the cost of cultivating their crops in advance. If the Taliban attempt to create a “narcotics-free country,” it would require a violent war on the communities that grow poppy and plunge an already-devastated economy into the abyss.

Dr. Julia Buxton, an expert on international drug policy and British Academy Global Professor at the University of Manchester believes the Taliban are between a rock and a hard place. “While the Taliban administration may seek to reassure international opinion by talking up its hostility to the opium economy, the most important cultivation zones are in areas of Taliban support,” she told Filter. She therefore thinks that they “will not want to alienate their support base with a harsh anti-opium drive.”

The failure of drug prohibition in Afghanistan can be summed up in one number: $8.97 billion. The US spent that staggering sum of American tax dollars on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2017. The military and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) deployed the usual tactics of crop eradication, interdiction at borders, and arrests, prosecutions and incarceration of people who use, sell and traffic drugs. Using B-52 bombers and F-22 fighters, the US military even blew up suspected drug labs. But billions and bombs didn’t make a dent in the illicit drug economy. Afghan heroin continues to dominate drug markets in Europe and the Russian Federation, and the purity is good.

Ironically, the Afghan economy’s dependence on poppy is a result of the international drug war. When Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region cracked down on opium production in the 1980s and ’90s, it crossed the borders into Afghanistan, in a classic example of the “balloon effect.”

Although it may be unlikely that the Taliban will truly go all-out, doing so would activate the balloon effect once again, with negative global consequences.

Drug traffickers understand what the drug warriors won’t: that illicit drugs can never be eliminated while millions of people around the world want to buy them. The enormous profits that people at the top of the chain rake in—unlike the thousands of low-paid workers and farmers at the bottom—make it worth the risk.

Although it may be unlikely that the Taliban will truly go all-out to end Afghanistan’s opium trade, doing so would activate the balloon effect once again, with negative global consequences. “If Afghanistan and the Taliban go for a ban, they could rapidly find themselves without a market in places like Europe,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Other countries could easily switch to synthetic opioids from China and India.” That will only raise risks for consumers, as we’ve seen starkly illustrated with the replacement of heroin by fentanyl and its analogues in many parts of North America.

Such an outcome would merely accelerate the existing trend under global prohibition. The future of opioids is stronger synthetic drugs mixed in clandestine labs, not farmers out in fields harvesting opium gum with a neshtar. This switch from plant to chemical is “a combination of economics and pharmacology as well as globalization,” according to Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at RAND Corporation. The bottom line, as the Iron Law of Prohibition dictates, is that it’s cheaper, easier, faster and more profitable to manufacture more potent synthetic opioids.

What, then, is a solution that avoids the worst harms, both for Afghan poppy cultivating communities and for drug users in the country and around the world? For Buxton, one option is allowing Afghanistan to join other countries in growing poppies legally. “The ideal scenario would be for the formalization of opium cultivation for legal, medical markets. But this will require massive investments in irrigation, land consolidation and security….”

That sounds like a tall order. For decades, the poorly funded Afghan health care system has experienced a shortage of basic medications, including opioids for pain control. “The country is not self-sufficient in terms of production and provision of medicines,” Attaullah Ahmadi, director of research for Asia at Global Health Focus in Afghanistan, told Filter. “It depends on the importation of medicines from other countries and some are of low quality.”

Converting currently illegal opium into legal pain medicine could mitigate several problems at once. An Afghan pharmaceutical industry could help patients who need analgesia and create much needed employment.

The future for drug users and drug treatment in Afghanistan is uncertain. The impoverished country is stocked with cheap opiates and hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, (there are no reliable estimates) smoke opium and inject heroin. There has always been a serious shortage of drug treatment and most programs are dependent on NGOs, many of which have fled the country, and international aid, which has been halted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “These foreign donors help treat drug users as well as train staff of these centers,” explained Ahmadi. “However, despite their efforts and investments in this area, the number of drug users are on the rise in the country.”

In a country where the vast majority of drug users are dependent on opioids, the evidence-based and lifesaving medications methadone and buprenorphine are in short supply or not available at all. Moreover, there is a pervasive stigma associated with using medications to treat addiction. There is only one methadone program in Kabul, which serves just 70 patients.

These are human rights abuses, not drug treatment.

Most programs are abstinence-based; patients are detoxed and the Narcotics Anonymous 12-Step approach is used. Decades of studies show “drug-free” treatment doesn’t work. The simplest, most effective option would be to maintain people on the opium or heroin that are already widely available and inexpensive. “Heroin-assisted treatment” programs exist in many countries in Europe and Canada, with high success rates.

Many of Afghanistan’s abstinence-based programs have been exposed for using punishment, coercion and humiliation. A program in Uruzgan for men forcibly shaves their heads and shackles their ankles so they can’t leave. At Mother’s Trust, a drug treatment program in Kabul run by Laila Haidari, it’s all about “tough love.” Heads are also shaved and the men wear purple uniforms to discourage them from absconding. “If they relapse and come here a second time, I shave their eyebrows off too … If they break the rules, I’ll beat them,” she said. These are human rights abuses, not drug treatment.

There are few harm reduction-based programs in the country; most are located in Kabul, and are dependent on international funding. Bridge Better Hope Health Organization, which Michelle Tolson, who spent years in Kabul, has reported on for Filter, was founded by a former heroin user in 2015. Peer workers travel to drug hot spots and offer education on harm reduction strategies, overdose management, wound care, first aid services and naloxone (when available) to drug users.

In Kabul several years ago, making a documentary about methadone, I interviewed some of the people involved in this program. I traveled with them to do outreach at the banks of the Kabul River, where there is a massive outdoor drug scene. I will never forget their compassion, courage and conviction in helping the most vulnerable, desperate people get into methadone treatment. With the Taliban in power, there are concerns for this vital program and its workers.

Despite all the drug-war propaganda, poppy production in Afghanistan has never been the problem. What is a problem is the prohibition on growing and using this plant to alleviate human suffering, in a country that has suffered far too much. It’s way past time to end this “forever” war, too.



Photographs of people served by the Bridge Better Hope Health Organization by Helen Redmond

Attaullah Ahmadi is a recipient of a Tobacco Harm Reduction Scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change. The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has also received scholarships and donations from KAC.

Helen Redmond

Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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