image image image

iconKEY CHALLENGES Updated February 3 2010

Section Contents:  OPIUM TRADE  | Overview | Counter-Narcotics Strategies | Comprehensive solutions


Quick Figures

Hectares of opium poppy cultivated in Afghanistan:
2005: 104,000  2006: 165,000  2007: 193,000 2008: 157,000 2009: 123,000

Number of Afghans involved in the opium cultivation:
2005: 2.0 million  2006: 2.9 million  2007: 3.3 million  2008: 2.4 million 2009: 1.6 million

Percentage of global production of opium:
2008: Approximately 93%  2009: N/A

Estimated farm-gate value of opium production:
2007:US$ 1 billion  2008:US$ 732 million 2009:US$ 438 million

Hectares Eradicated:
2005: 5,000   2006: 15,300  2007: 19,047  2008: 5,480 2009: 5,351

* Source for above figures :  

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2006", "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007", "Afghanistan Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey 2008, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008." “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009”

Opium cultivation declined significantly in 2008, a decrease of 19% on 2007 figures.  Opium production also declined in 2008 by 6%.  According to UNODC, the decline can be attributed firstly to good local leadership by some governors, who discouraged farmers from planting opium and secondly, drought, which contributed to crop failure, particularly in the north and north-west.  In 2008 the number of poppy-free provinces increased and no opium is grown in more than half of the country's 34 provinces.  98% of Afghanistan's opium is now grown in seven provinces in south-west Afghanistan, underscoring the link between drugs and conflict. 

The 2009 UNODC report on opium in Afghan suggest that progress is being made in the fight against opium in Afghanistan. The key statistic in the report is that the potential gross export value of Afghan opium has reduced by 18%, from US$3.4 million in 2008 to US$2.8 million in 2009. This is a reduction of the value from one third of the country’s licit GDP to one quarter of the licit GDP.2009 have seen improvements on all points of measurement i.e. cultivation, production, work force, prices, revenues, exports and percentage of licit GDP. Also, the number of opium free provinces have also increased from 18 to 20.



Opium currently makes up 30% to 50% of Afghanistan’s economy, and Afghanistan supplies around ninety percent of the heroin found in Europe. Opium has been a traditional cash crop for many farmers in Afghanistan. Poppy farming is attractive to farmers because they can earn up to ten times more per hectare of poppies than for cereals. For many, it is the only way they can obtain credit, cash incomes, access to land, and access to water from wells.

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan (in hectares, 1994-2008)


Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008."

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, 2008 (by province)


Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008."


Opium has routinely been tied to conflict in Afghanistan. It was used as a source of income by the Mujaheddin in the 1980s and by the various warlords in the 1990s, including the Northern Alliance. The Taliban reaped the largest rewards from opium production after they took over 90% of the country in the late 1990s. According to testimony at a US Congressional Hearing by Asa Hutchison, then the Drug Enforcement Agency administrator, the Taliban used opium as a major source of income, supplying over 70% of the world's heroin in 2000. The opium trade was institutionalized to the point where taxes were collected and receipts provided, with Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian states serving as transit routes. Following a decree issued by Mullah Omar on 28 July 2000, the Taliban effectively enforced a ban on opium cultivation, cutting production from over 3,600 tons in 2000 to only seventy-four in 2001. However, Hutchison claimed that the Taliban used the cut in supply to raise the price of stockpiled opium, thereby appearing to respond to international pressure to crack down on opium while continuing to profit greatly from its sale.

Up to 80% of the profits from illegal drugs in Afghanistan go to drug smugglers and heroin processors, as opposed to the farmers that cultivate the poppies. In 2007, insurgents made more than $100 million from imposing taxes and providing protection to the country's opium trade. They collected a 10% tax on the earnings of opium poppy farmers and processors in Taliban-controlled areas. Furthermore, they made money by providing protection to laboratories and moving opium across the border into Pakistan and Iran. These growing links between the drugs trade and the insurgency in southern Afghanistan will provide longevity to the Taliban

Drug use in Afghanistan is hard to estimate because of societal taboos associated with opium use. While not on the level of Pakistan and Iran, it is estimated that in some northern areas up to 30% of people are addicted to opium. UNODC gave a figure of 60,000 addicts in Kabul alone. Returning refugees are a large proportion of Afghan addicts. A separate UNODC report estimated that the number of addicts in the country could be as high as 920,000. The Afghan government has established about 40 drug addiction clinics throughout the country, but experts believe that number needs to dramatically increase.

The Afghan government established a Counter-Narcotics Directorate in 2002. In 2005, the government announced a drug control strategy that aimed for the total eradication of opium cultivation. The current strategy involves alternative livelihood development, the extension of drug law enforcement, the implementation of drug legislation, the establishment of effective institutions, and treatment for drug addicts.

Afghan narco-cartels

Despite the positive figures from the 2009 UNODC survey, tougher counter-narcotics and improved intelligence has produced evidence of antigovernment elements transforming into narco-cartels. This is not a new phenomenon as the Columbian example of FARC and ELN have demonstrated. Initially, drug production starts of as a means to fuel an ideological movement. However, as has been demonstrated the world over, drug money trumps ideology and becomes as addictive as the drugs itself. The UNODC report warns that Afghanistan is reaching this point. The collusion among criminal gangs, corrupt government official and insurgents has created a symbiotic relationship. This has allowed some insurgents to become further involved in the drug production rather than just taxing it. The UNODC calls for greater attention to be paid to this problem.

Counter-Narcotics Strategies

Dealing with the opium issue in one way or the other is seen as essential to securing peace in Afghanistan. Discussions tend to focus on the promotion of alternative livelihoods and law enforcement measures.

Alternative Livelihoods

Efforts to switch farmers to alternative livelihoods have been unsuccessful. Some NGOs that were supposed to implement the programs even returned the money given by the US, claiming alternative livelihood schemes were unworkable at the time. Southern Afghanistan, where most of the opium poppy is grown, has suffered from a drought for several years. Poppy is a notably drought-resistant crop. Farmers would need expensive irrigation systems to switch to other crops. Research has continually reaffirmed that most Afghan farmers, esp. poorer ones, are constrained by a variety of factors (e.g. credit, water, roads, corruption) and cannot simply shift to alternative crops or types of livelihoods.

Furthermore, experts argue that poppy cultivation is not a choice of crop that requires another crop to substitute for lost income. It is a component of complex livelihood strategies of extended families (incl. labor migration, education, seeking wage labor, and serving in armed groups). Consequently, rural families do not need just another "crop"; they need access to opportunities and assets that enable them to support themselves without poppy cultivation.

Law Enforcement

In December 2005, a new Counter-Narcotics Law was passed by the Afghan parliament, creating criminal and procedural provisions for investigation, prosecution, and trial. In addition, the Afghanistan Compact outlined a drug control strategy that focuses on providing alternative livelihoods for farmers, institution-building at local levels, drug-use reduction, and combating drug trafficking. While these steps helped create a normative framework for counter-narcotics efforts, the debate on what elements should be prioritized continues.

There is a general consensus that licensing the sale of poppy for medical purposes will not help reduce the demand for illegal opium. In fact, some argue that it would just create a new cash crop for farmers, meaning that even more opium would be grown. Current experience suggests that Afghan police would be hard-pressed to stop drug traffickers from forcing farmers to divert part or all of their crop for heroin. Furthermore, it is worth keeping in mind that the price of legal opiates on the world market is $35 to $40 a kilogram while illegal opiates are sold for approx. $100 a kilogram. Exorbitant subsidies would be needed to bridge the gap between legal and illegal prices.

The US government favors a more aggressive approach. In July 2007, the U.S. State Department unveiled an update to its Afghanistan counter-narcotics strategy. The new program has three main elements 1) increasing development assistance to encourage licit development, 2) improving coordination of counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency planning and operations, and 3) encouraging consistent political will among the Afghan government, allies and international organizations. The new initiatives, based on input by an interagency group of experts, are targeted to supplement the existing "Five Pillar" approach (eradication, alternative livelihoods, interdiction/law enforcement, justice reform, and public information).

Critics of this approach argue that the new Counter Narcotics Strategy overemphasizes eradication. In fact, the US government has invested a disproportionate amount of resources in eradication of poppy crops, which contributes only 20 percent of the value of the opiate industry in Afghanistan. According to Rubin, the result of failed eradication programs has been the migration of cultivation, its concentration in insecure areas, an increase in the value of the opium economy, and closer links among farmers, traffickers, corrupt officials and the Taliban. The most controversial element of US eradication plans is the idea of spraying of poppy crops. Those advocating spraying claim that, largely due to corruption among government officials, all else has failed, and that a strong message must be sent to farmers. Yet, critics believe that an aggressive eradication-led approach will exacerbate insecurity and play into the hands of insurgents trying to incite the population against the Afghan government and its international backers. In the past, Karzai’s government has repeatedly declared its opposition to spraying the poppy fields, whether by air or by eradication teams on the ground. But Afghan officials indicated in early October 2007 that the Afghan administration is now re-evaluating that stance. While some proponents within the government are pushing a trial program of ground spraying that could begin before the harvest next spring, Karzai is seeking the formation of an international scientific committee to review the safety of chemical herbicides.

In general, one of the greatest problems with regard to law enforcement measures as part of a counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan is the lack of rule of law. Especially in southern Afghanistan, government institutions are virtually non-existent a few kilometers away from the center of provinces and districts. Provincial governors rely on powerful warlords and drug lords for their own protection, and in exchange close their eyes on their illicit activities. Corruption has become an accepted norm and seeking personal wealth the ultimate goal for elite politicians.

In this context, it is important to mention that both the drug problem as well as deficits regarding the rule of law are regional phenomena that are not limited to Afghanistan alone. Only a fraction of Afghanistan's opiates is being seized worldwide (24% against 48% of the Colombian cocaine seized). In Central Asia the interdiction rate is less than 4%, mostly in Tajikistan. Since 2005, new heroin routes have emerged via Pakistan and via Central Asia to China and India. To help address these transnational challenges, UNODC has promoted the establishment of a Central Asia Regional Information Centre and has brokered a Trilateral Initiative to improve counter-narcotics cooperation among Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. In June 2008, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1817, which calls on member states to increase international and regional cooperation in monitoring international trade in chemical precursors, notably acetic anhydride, and prevent their diversion from licit international trade.

The international community’s efforts to tackle the opium cultivation in Afghanistan suffered another blow in a recent report by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).  The INCB's Annual Report 2008 criticised the international community for it poor progress in dealing with drug cultivation. Also, cannabis is rivalling poppy in the drug cultivation industry in Afghanistan. As cannabis is proving to be more lucrative many farmers are switching from growing poppies to growing cannabis. The INCB also pointed out that the lack of security is severely hampering any effort to control the drug industry.


Comprehensive solutions

Experts suggest that Afghanistan needs a greater active commitment to all of the elements of its National Drug Control Strategy, which is a combination of interdiction, public information, prosecution of known drug dealers, and development of the legal economy. As Barnett Rubin writes, poppy does not give access only to income, but to credit, land, water, food security, extension service, and insurance. The opium industry privatized the provision of essential support services to the agricultural sector, as its rate of profit and global size made it the only industry with the resources and incentives to supply such public goods. In light of this trend, counter-narcotics in Afghanistan requires a macroeconomic and political strategy over a period of decades, not a quick-fix based on accelerated eradication before that development policy is even formulated.

Lastly, it may also help to look at the demand side of the equation. In Afghanistan, profitability has soared in the production of opium as an internationally illegal good. If heroin was legalized in Europe and North America, the production of opium would be much less profitable. The key is that meaningful reforms regarding the drug industry do not begin in Afghanistan, but in the rich world that is the main consumer of its products.


image image image image image