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Opium Trade Thrives In "New" Afghanistan

by David Beers

Opium Dealers Cheer Ban on Afghan Poppy Cultivation (Feb 2002)
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- Despite the establishment of a new government and the presence of a 4,800 strong international peacekeeping force in Kabul, the cultivation of opium is increasing in Afghanistan, a new UN study concludes.

The 222-page document raises difficult questions, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said last week.

"Why is the international presence in Afghanistan not able to bring under control a phenomenon connected to international terrorism and organised crime?" and "Why is the central government in Kabul not able to enforce a ban on opium cultivation as effectively as the former Taliban regime in 2000 2001?"

Costa says there are no simple answers to these questions. The "opium economy" in Afghanistan is an intensely complex phenomenon, intermingled with the country's history, political structure, civil society and economy.

"Spawned after decades of civil and military strife, it has chained a poor rural population -- farmers, landless labour, small traders, women and children -- to the mercy of domestic warlords and international crime syndicates that continue to dominate several areas in the south, north and east of Afghanistan," says the study.

Titled "The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: an International Problem", it points out that the country's opium production has increased more than 15 fold since 1979, the year of the Soviet intervention.

The opium trade was de facto legal in Afghanistan before and throughout the Taliban government. In 2000, the Taliban banned opium cultivation but not the trade.

By 2000, Afghanistan was the source of 70 percent of all the illicit opium produced in the world. Following a decline in 2001, production grew to high levels in 2002, making Afghanistan the world's largest producer of opium, followed by Myanmar and Laos, accounting for almost three quarters of global opium production.

In January 2002, the government of Hamid Karzai, which was installed by the U.S., banned the opium trade.

Despite the ban, the drug trade thrives. Revenue from opium rose from about $720 million in 2000 to over $2 billion in 2002.

Costa says that the establishment of a new government should have taken crucial steps towards solving the problem.

"Yet, other news has not been good," he says, adding that last year's opium poppy harvest was among the most bountiful in the country's history -- more than 3,400 tons.

Drug abuse domestically has increased greatly in the last few years due to prolonged human deprivation and suffering, the breakdown of traditional social controls, the return of refugees who developed addictions in camps, and the almost unlimited availability of narcotics within Afghanistan, the study says.

"Afghanistan's opium economy can be dismantled if the government, with the assistance of the international community, addresses the roots of the matter and not only its symptoms," Costa said.

Certain elements will be essential in any sustainable counter narcotic policy, Costa says.

"To help poor farmers decide in favour of licit crops; to replace narco usury with a proper credit system and micro lending; to provide jobs to women and to itinerant workers; to provide education to children, particularly girls; to turn opium bazaars into modern commodity markets; and to neutralise traffickers' and warlords' efforts to keep the evil trade alive."

According to the study, opiate trafficking profits in neighbouring countries amounted to some $4 billion in 2002, about 2 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), illustrating, said Costa, the problem's international nature.

The study also says that 80 to 90 percent of the heroin found in Eastern and Western Europe has traditionally been trafficked along the so called Balkan route (Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, the Balkan countries and Europe).

Those figures show that the solution will require an international commitment. "In other words," Costa said, "all countries that are part of the Afghan drug problem should be part of its solution".

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Albion Monitor February 7, 2003 (

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