The Ironies of Afghan
Asia Times, Hong Kong
September 17, 2003
Driven by war, poverty and chaos, Afghanistan's opium production
in the wake of the ouster of the Taliban regime at the end of
2001 is increasing dramatically, and seems to be the only avenue
by which many Afghanis 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 land, 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
square kilometers are contaminated by various unexploded ordnance
which, according to the World Bank, take a toll of some 500 victims
a month, making any return to the agricultural fields particularly
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 Plan have virtually
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 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 $700, reflecting
the shortage engineered by the Taliban. After September 11, 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 UN then estimated to
be stored in the north of the country.
Right after September 11, a kilogram of Afghan opium brought
only $95 to $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 $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 $600
per kilogram, something that the UN, 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 which have indeed been acknowledged by the Taliban authorities
In 1997, the assistant director of the Pashtani Tjarati Bank,
the Taliban's central bank in their Kandahar stronghold, was quoted
as saying that "a landowner must pay 10 percent of whatever
amount he makes on his crops". Opium merchants also had 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 another 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 Masoud, assassinated on September
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
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 UN 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 September 11
attacks - the Taliban most likely authorized 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 US 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 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 $250 in compensation for each planted and eradicated
jirib ($1,250 per hectare).
However, the poppy growers declared that they could obtain from
$1,700 to $3,500 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 eight 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,
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 $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
for this increase since the last sowing had taken place before
its empowerment and in the context of the Taliban's fall, a rather
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 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 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 UN 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 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.
Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, PhD, is a geographer and research fellow
at CNRS in Paris. He produces www.geopium.org.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online.