The Opium Epidemic in Afghanistan

The word ‘Opium’ derives from the Greek ‘opin’ or ‘poppy juice’, signifying the herbaceous plant that gives rise to the drug. Opium is a powerful narcotic that, when processed properly, can breed heroin, morphine and a multitude of other synthetic opioids. Its use stretches back thousands of years. Referred to as the “joy plant” by the Sumerians, opium’s popularity emerged in the Mediterranean, quickly spreading to the Assyrians and Egyptians. It soon began to be traded across the Mediterranean, spreading across Asia with Alexander the Great. As knowledge of the plant grew, so did demand. The Portuguese were known to smoke it. Indians and Persians would eat and drink it for recreational use. Europeans would even attribute magical powers to the plant. During the Holy Inquisition, opium was seen as a product of the East, and thus linked to the Devil. Thanks to the vast and elaborate Silk Road network, the drug managed to find its way to China, where the addictive substance eventually proliferated. Local denizens would inhale the vaporized opium through a long pipe, until they lay sprawled on the floor of the many opium dens that dotted the Empire. “Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality”, wrote the Jiaqing Emperor, recognizing its pernicious effects on Chinese society. Two decades later, the drug proved a catalyst for sparking the devastating Opium Wars between China and Great Britain, the ramifications of which are arguably still felt today.

The world has changed a lot since the 19th century. When anyone speaks of opium, they are less inclined to think of China and more likely to consider another country that has dominated headlines for the past two decades. This country, tucked away in the heart of Asia, is the source of more than 90% of the world’s opium supply. I refer here to none other than Afghanistan. But although the country’s title as the number one global opium producer is new, the drug is one that Afghans have long been familiar with. Production methods relied upon by Afghan opium farmers have seldom changed since antiquity. A labour-intensive process, the farmers begin by scratching the young seed pods of the opium poppy plant by hand. This reveals a milky white fluid, which is carefully dried out into a sticky yellowish residue, later scraped off and dehydrated. The drug is then exported for further refinement.

Afghanistan lies amid the Golden Crescent; a name for one of two principal areas of illicit opium production in the world. Located at the crossroads of Central, South and Western Asia, the area encompasses the nations of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Historically, the Golden Crescent was subsidiary to the Golden Triangle – a region in Southeast Asia consisting of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – in terms of opium production. It was only around 1991 that Afghanistan overtook Myanmar as the world’s top opium producer. There are two reasons for this. First, Myanmar had suffered through years of unfavourable growing conditions and faced new government policies that forced the eradication of the plant. Second, during this same period, opium farming proliferated across Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s opium production first gained significant traction in the 1950s in order to provide the drug to neighbouring Iran, who had recently banned its cultivation. This increased in the 1970s as Myanmar and other countries in the Golden Triangle suffered from prolonged droughts, limiting their output of the drug. The Soviet invasion also drove resistance leaders to cultivate the plant in order to fund their operations. More recently, the 2001 U.S. invasion caused opium production in the country to skyrocket. War has a tendency to destabilize local economies, forcing individuals into precarious situations, doing anything they must to survive. The reality is that opium production is a lucrative cash crop and can earn farmers significantly more than other crops (for instance, 17 times more than wheat). Opium is also drought-resistant, easy to move around, and does not spoil. Additionally, for rural Afghans, the only livelihood alternative to poppy cultivation is often joining the Afghan security forces – a far riskier way to make a living. Although it is technically a crime to grow the drug, it provides tens of thousands of farmers with a livelihood. These farmers depend on opium cultivation to feed their families, and planting crops like saffron just don’t elicit enough money. Indeed, opium generates an estimated $600 million for Afghan farmers, and is often claimed to make 30% of the country’s economic output. Even the Taliban, who banned opium growth in 2000 and who vow they will do the same if in power again, also rely heavily on opium revenue.

In recent years, opium production has only continued to rise in Afghanistan thanks to auspicious weather and harvesting conditions, but above all because of the introduction of solar panel technology, which has proved a massive boon to the industry. Early signs of solar panel use were first noted in 2013. Since then, panels have sprouted up all across the country, with installations doubling every year (there are now nearly 67,000 solar panels in the Helmand valley alone). What explains the rapid assimilation of this new technology? For one, solar panels have proved transformative in terms of farm productivity. Traditionally, Afghans have relied on the Karez irrigation method, an ancient system involving tunnels and wells that transfers water over great distances to farmlands. Farmers are also typically forced to buy expensive diesel to power their ground water pumps. These pumps would often break down, resulting in costly repairs. But solar panels changed things. Farmers can now place an electric pump underground and connect it directly to the panels, allowing water to flow easily. The cost of upkeep vanishes.  If a farmer opts for solar panels –requiring an upfront payment of $5000 – they save a great deal of money in the long term. Opium farms can now get up to three harvests per year, and plants can grow in places which were previously thought to be hostile terrain for growth. Indeed, half a million people have migrated to the desert areas of Helmand province in the past five years due to the proliferation of solar panel farms. To truly grasp the enormous impact of the technology on farming, consider that Afghanistan produced 3,700 tonnes of opium in 2012 – right before the introduction of solar panels. Five years later, that number was 9,000 tonnes.

But as opium and heroin production swept across the country, so too did the number of addicts. Indeed, the United Nations reported an estimated 1.9 to 2.4 million Afghans addicted to the drug in 2015, up from 200,000 in 2005. Its ravaging effect on the lives, families and communities of Afghanistan is beyond measure. More recently, women and children have fallen prey to addiction, with nearly 10% of children being active users of the drug in 2015 – likely an underestimation. Drug use also spills into all sectors of society: from government officials, to farmers, to businessmen. The southern region of Helmand and Kandahar provinces are particularly notorious for areas of high drug production, transactions and addiction. 80% of Afghan opium comes from the southern region alone, meaning nearly two-thirds of the global supply.

The U.S. has attempted, in vain, to decrease opium production in the country. After the yearlong ‘Iron Tempest’ campaign to end the Taliban’s lucrative drug trade (which makes up an estimated 65% of their income), the American government suspended their efforts at targeting drug labs and networks in 2018. The U.S. initially began launching targeted airstrikes on opium facilities in 2017, when production had soared in the country. They noted that over 500 drug labs were strewn across the country, pumping massive amounts of money towards the Taliban insurgency. Yet hundreds of airstrikes later, and barely a dent has been made on the opium industry. The U.S. has spent nearly $8.9 billion in counter-narcotic efforts since 2011. The result of America’s investments in smashing the drug enterprise has been abysmal: opium production has reached record highs in recent years, more than double what existed when the U.S. first invaded in 2001.

If aggressive counter-narcotic efforts have failed miserably to thwart the opium epidemic, then what other solutions are on the table? Some have argued that legalizing the drug could perhaps offer a way forward. After all, history teaches us that banning a substance does not make it go away (à la prohibition era America). Sometimes, quite the opposite – black markets and drug cartels multiply. With such lucrative profits to be made, it is understandable why banning a substance can lead to phenomena like the opium gangs of China in the early 20th century or the rise of cocaine kingpins like Pablo Escobar. In Afghanistan, the Taliban function largely like a cartel – siphoning hundreds of millions from the opium economy. On the other hand, when we examine countries like Switzerland that dealt with a heroin epidemic in the 1980s, we bear witness to a government that chose the path of harm reduction. Centers were opened to help addicts and widespread treatment was offered. The epidemic came to a halt.

But we must be cautious in citing this as an example that a nation like Afghanistan can emulate. The legalization and/or decriminalization of drugs has indeed proved fruitful in dealing with the problem across many Western nations. But this method can only blossom when there is a system in place to provide for harm reduction. Nations like Switzerland and Portugal have enough financial resources to provide pharmacies and treatment centers. The same cannot be said for Afghanistan, as the infrastructure is simply absent. Furthermore, putting taxes on the drug to fund government services could work in EU nations that are relatively corruption-free. But seldom can this be applied to the notoriously corrupt government of Afghanistan – which has itself engaged heavily in the opium business for years (President Karzai’s late brother famously being a key figure in the illegal drug trade). Likewise, even if Afghanistan were to legalize the drug, it would still remain illicit across other nations – meaning the Taliban would still reap a significant profit by buying locally and transferring the drug outside its borders. Indeed, demand for the drug stems largely from other countries in the first place and most of the trade revenue flows are outside of Afghanistan’s border. In this sense, the Taliban are not an international heroin cartel, as most heroin shipments are passed on to criminal organizations as soon as they leave Afghanistan. Nations like Pakistan and Turkey have a large reach when it comes to heroin trafficking in particular.

While on the subject of opium demand outside Afghanistan’s borders, it might prove helpful to examine the ruinous effect of the drug on a country that has suffered considerably at its hands – that of neighbouring Iran. Iran was one of the world’s top exporters of opium by the late 19th century – sending the drug as far as China and earning massive revenues from taxation. Naturally, in a country so saturated with opium, addiction grew to be a national problem. By the 1950s, it is said that 1.5 million Iranians were addicted to the drug (out of a population of 20 million!). At this point, the government began to crackdown on its production and use. The livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farmers were destroyed with little to show for it – as addiction rates remained high. It didn’t matter if production slowed in Iran – opium was simply smuggled in from Turkey and Afghanistan. Still today, Iran serves as a crucial transit country – where opium headed to Europe (a continent with an estimated two million heroin addicts) passes through. Because of this, Iran’s borders have become exceptionally dangerous territory. Violence is common between Iranian border guards and Afghan drug runners, with thousands of casualties being recorded over the years on both sides. Iran has seized and destroyed more opium and heroin from drug traffickers than all other countries in the world combined. It has spent countless millions more on monitoring its border with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, nearly 80% of executions in Iran are also related to drug trafficking. Many have compared the tragic situation with the Colombian war on drugs – only with Iran lacking the billions of dollars in funds from the U.S. Despite Iran’s efforts, cheap opium still manages to flood the country on a daily basis. The nation continues to struggle with the fact that it has the largest prevalence of opiate consumption as a population globally – with close to 450 metric tonnes being consumed each year.

The opium crisis in Afghanistan cannot be addressed solely as a drug issue. This myopic approach has only led to failure in dealing with the problem. Counter-narcotic policies and legalization cannot be the final answer – instead, the issue must be contextualized in a much broader picture. Opium cannot be contended with meaningfully unless the structures that give rise to the opium epidemic are dealt with. The Afghan government, the police, the farmers, and the Taliban all have something to gain from the industry – and all are involved in a deeply connected process that involves bribery and flouting the rule of law (by some estimates, government officials are involved in at least 70% of opium trafficking). Opium is therefore deeply entrenched in all facets of Afghan society. To deal with the problem would mean untangling the web of corruption and violence, engendered by decades of war and instability. That does not start with the drug itself, but with the entire system. Afghanistan’s opium crisis is a crisis born out of war and despair. To transform the opium epidemic means transforming Afghanistan. It means peace rather than war, freedom instead of poverty. Afghanistan has suffered immensely and shed both blood and tears. But the heart of Asia will keep beating, and in this we cannot lose hope.

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