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Ignoring opium economy may cost US war in Afghanistan

It still appears that the US government is less concerned about the growing cultivation and production of opium in Afghanistan, reflecting a pernicious underestimation of the impact of opium cultivation, production and its management of the dynamics of the conflict, writes Gaurav Dixit for South Asia Monitor

Jan 8, 2018
By Gaurav Dixit
 
While unveiling his strategy for South Asia in August 2017, US President Donald Trump not only reiterated the American stand to stay longer in Afghanistan and take the fight to its logical conclusion, his National Security Strategy talks about renewed US commitment that will eventually set the conditions to end the war and finally bring peace to Afghanistan.
 
Dealing specifically with Afghanistan during his carefully crafted South Asia Policy speech, Trump touched on almost all issues critical for the stability of Afghanistan except one; the opium economy. The issue of opium cultivation and production remained unaddressed in his address.
 
It still appears that the US government is less concerned about the growing cultivation and production of opium in Afghanistan, reflecting a pernicious underestimation of the impact of opium cultivation, production and its management of the dynamics of the conflict.
 
After the US-led international forces’ invasion in 2001, and despite the cultivation of opium fluctuating in the initial years, it has been soaring since 2009, except in 2015. 2017, till November, has been a year of record opium production.
 
The total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 328,000 hectares in 2017, a 63% increase or 127,000 hectares more compared to 2016. The increase in cultivation was seen in some of Afghanistan’s most unstable provinces. The province of Helmand, stronghold of the Taliban saw an increase by 63,745 hectares (+79%) which accounted for about half of the total national increase. Large increases were also observed in Balkh, Kandahar, Nimroz and Uruzgan provinces.
 
According to the Taliban, it controls or contests nearly all of the districts in the southern provinces of Helmand, Nimroz, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Ghazni, and half of Kandahar.  These are the areas which have seen a consistent and major rise in the cultivation of opium.
 
Similarly, the increase in cultivation has led to an increase in the yield and production of opium. In 2017, the estimated potential opium production in Afghanistan was around 9,000 tons, an increase of 87% from its 2016 level (4,800 tons). All this happened despite the US-led efforts to eradicate illegal poppy cultivation in the rural areas of Afghanistan.
 
Traditionally, Afghanistan has never been an opium cultivating region, but the decades of incessant wars have devastated almost all farming infrastructures, leaving farmers without access to credit, irrigation facilities, value chains that connect farmers, processors, wholesale markets that could have helped them to sustain their traditional farming.
 
The lack of cultivation, production and management of food grains induced perennial decline in the basic economic security of farmers. The decline in basic economic security and the lucrative income value of opium cultivation further forced the Afghans to shift to an agricultural economy that has high market value. The rapid spread of the poppy crop over the last 15 years reflects its attractiveness to farmers.
 
From cultivation to production, there is interplay of other powerful factors to keep the menace of the opium economy growing rapidly. The World Bank’s paper “Afghanistan’s Opium Drug Economy,” records factors like the high demand for opium derivatives as well poor security among many other factors as major causes that have led to increase in production.
 
According to the UN report, Afghanistan is the world’s leading opium supplier, responsible for 90 percent of the global supply, suggesting a consistent upward shift in supply to the world market and growing demand of opium and its derivatives like Heroin. The poor security condition has been an obvious factor, especially in rural areas, which accounts for larger shares of opium production. The breakdown of many government institutions in these rural areas is only adding to the already poor security condition.
 
Other issues of corruption, local warlords, lack of administrative accountability and the failing law and order situation in Afghanistan have contributed to the rising production of opium.
 
In 2009, the former US government headed by Barack Obama started the process to free Afghanistan of opium with good intent; however, he had to scale back the centrally sponsored eradication programmes to eliminate the counterproductive impact it had on the poor farmers.
 
Since then, subsequent governments have failed to come up with either a new concrete policy on countering the opium production menace or providing alternative livelihood options to farmers in the rural areas.
 
Other lasting issues of poor security and growing demands for Afghan opium requires multilayered engagement of various stakeholders in the region and in Afghanistan. This requires a comprehensive framework of engagement, which has remained elusive so far. The kind of upward swing opium cultivation and production has seen is likely to lead to further deterioration in the region’s security situation, hiking the human and financial costs of the US war in Afghanistan. 
 
(The author is Associate Fellow, United Services Institute (USI), New Delhi. He can be contacted at gauravdixit04@gmail.com)

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