Drug War Fail: Afghanistan Edition


Beauchamp illustrates how little our opium eradication efforts have accomplished:

From 2008 to 2013, when the US anti-opium campaign hit its apex, the US only managed to eradicate 3.7 percent of the land devoted to poppy cultivation. The total amount of land devoted to poppy cultivation was a third higher in 2013 than in 2008 … Now, it’s true that the total amount of opium produced in Afghanistan has declined from its 2008 peak. But, according to the UN, that’s because of “plant diseases and bad weather” — not the war. There’s more land devoted to poppy cultivation, but it’s less productive because of natural conditions. Drug eradication doesn’t appear to have much to do with it.

Why has the campaign against opium failed so epically?

There are plenty of reasons, including widespread Afghan government corruption and the fact that 95 percent of poppy cultivation happens in the country’s insecure, Taliban-filled southwestern provinces. But the most important one is the most basic — Afghanistan runs on opium. Opium-related activities make up half of the country’s GDP; the legal economy depends on its proceeds to function. As Fabrice Pothier, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s European branch and an expert of the Afghan drug trade, explains in an absolutely staggering passage, opium is more than 50 times as important to Afghanistan as cocaine is to Colombia[.]

Dan Murphy concurs with Zack’s takeaway:

To be fair, trying to wipe out opium production in Afghanistan would have been a Sisyphean task no matter what strategy was deployed. It’s a lucrative business, and poppies are easily cultivated, generating far more money for poor farmers and corrupt middlemen than any feasible substitution crop. During the height of the American counterinsurgency effort, winning over the general population to the side of the government and foreign forces was a big focus. The US found that tearing up crops and impoverishing farmers wasn’t very popular.

The early eradication strategy was largely abandoned in favor of going after big opium dealers and encouragng farmers to grow other crops. But that really hasn’t worked, either. The country’s opium and heroin trade is a top earner, and with the military effort winding down, the business opportunities associated with aid and foreign military spending are set to decline.