Poppy eradication: The issues, the players and the strategies

The international community and the Afghan government are committed to seeing poppy cultivation eradicated from Afghanistan. As the largest producer of opiates, accounting for at least 75 percent of global production, Afghanistan is a major concern for those seeking to eradicate heroin supply. With forecasts suggesting the 2004 harvests will show record levels of opium production, the government and international donors are redoubling their efforts to curb this illicit, but lucrative, economy.

Minimal risk perception

In the 2000/2001 cultivating period, the Taliban used violent reprisals and severe punishment to cause opium production to plummet from 3,276 mt in 2000 to only 185 mt in 2001 - a fall of a staggering 94 percent. In areas under its control, the Taliban was uncompromisingly tough, allowing it to complete, according to the London-based Independent newspaper "one of the quickest and most successful drug elimination programmes in history".

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai and his government, working within the bounds of a new national constitution and seeking to implement the rule of law with respect for human rights, are obliged to use different methods to reduce poppy cultivation: methods that appear to have had little success to date, with today's production levels twenty times higher than those of 2001.

"Eradication of poppy has to reach a threshold of credibility in order to work," insisted Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), when describing to IRIN the limitations of current eradication programmes in Afghanistan. He likened the current lack of credibility to someone facing a three to four percent chance of being caught for robbing a bank. With such a low risk of punishment "wouldn't you rob a bank?" he asks. A recent study by the UNODC repeats this finding, saying that "eradication levels have not yet reached the deterrence threshold".

Calling for 'Jihad'

At the Berlin conference on Afghanistan in April 2004, President Karzai called on the Afghan farmers to fight opium production with the same commitment as they would a 'jihad'- a holy war. But the subsistence farmers of Afghanistan, struggling to survive, are the primary beneficiaries of this lucrative cash crop and are unlikely to heed Karzai's call willingly. Already, violent protests and demonstrations have been recorded in different provinces against the government-led eradication programme as it is implemented by local officials. Karzai has promised the international community to eradicate 25 percent of the crop in 2004, but experts and observers consider this an optimistic aspiration when the limitations of the national eradication strategy are considered.

State instruments and other counter-narcotics agencies

In Afghanistan, the Ministry of the Interior (MoI), reporting to the president, is responsible for the national eradication programme. The Central Eradication Planning Cell (CEPC), within the MoI, has a number of elements implementing the counter-narcotics strategy. These include the following:

The Central Poppy Eradication Force

Supported by the US State Department through personnel, equipment and finance, aims to have four teams of 150 eradicators throughout the country. It is responsible for the physical eradication of poppies in selected areas. These teams are protected by a team of 75 private (international) security personnel, also funded by the US.

Counter-Narcotics police

This specialised branch of the police conduct investigations and stop and search interdiction in Kabul at present, but expect to expand to other areas. They have vaults of confiscated narcotics, which they publicly burn from time to time.


Stop & Search interdiction teams checking cars leaving Kabul
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

Specialised units
Task Force 333 is said to be a more covert squad of crack agents who aim to eliminate processing laboratories, target known drug lords and trafficking vehicles. Little information is available concerning this task force, although those interviewed suggested special forces from the UK and US were involved in the training. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, "In January 2003 British military forces, with US air support, destroyed 30 heroin factories in Nangarhar province". It is not known to what extent Afghan units were involved in these strikes.

Governor-led programmes

The president and the CEPC have, through dialogue and private meetings, involved the provincial governors in their current eradication plans. The British government has assisted with funding. The responsibility of each governor is to oversee and organize the physical eradication of a designated percentage of poppies estimated to be growing in their province, and in areas identified geographically on provincial maps. They are given funds, in installments, to cover the costs of implementing the eradication. Final payments are meant to be made following verification by the Counter-Narcotics Directorate.

The Counter-Narcotics Directorate (CND)

This is separate from the MoI and is placed instead under the auspices of the National Security Council. The CND is meant to support all the line ministries and governors in relation to eradication, monitor the CEPC, while also assisting the UNODC with its survey work. It is not entirely clear what the extent of CND's responsibilities are at this stage, or what authority it would have to conduct the monitoring of the work of the CEPC.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

The UNODC has an advisory presence in Kabul but is also active in implementing annual opium surveys and various other studies. These annual surveys, including the Farmers' Intentions Survey, provide unique data, which at present is essential for analysis of the opium crisis. (Many of the UNODC reports are featured in the IRIN Web Special; see also the Links and References section.) UNODC not only advises and offers institutional support on opium production issues, but also on demand-reduction treatment centres, law enforcement capacity building and work with the Ministry of Justice concerning the legislative and crime portfolio.

The UNODC brings with it international experience in tackling narcotics and organised crime. Based in the Austrian capital, Vienna, it has 21 field offices throughout the world, including all the major narcotics producing countries. Experience in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Thailand show that eradication of a thriving opium economy takes decades of sustained commitment. Political and institutional conditions in Afghanistan at present differ considerably from its neighbours when their counter-narcotic wars were being fought, suggesting it may be much harder in Afghanistan to succeed.

Towards a national counter-narcotics strategy

The National Drug Control Strategy 2002-2007 was developed by the Counter-Narcotics Directorate with assistance from the UK government as well as the UNODC and is discussed in more detail below. According to the National Security Council's National Drug Control Strategy of May 2003, the Afghan five-year eradication policy has five core elements.

The first element is a "vigorous enforcement action against drug traffickers". With an unforgiving geographical environment and porous borders into six adjacent countries, enforcement against traffickers is virtually impossible at present. In addition to an absence of trained and well-resourced enforcement officers, Afghan police and border guards are poorly paid and easily bribed. The small interdiction teams in Kabul conduct stop and search patrols along the main roads into the capital, but their seizures are limited. Trafficking routes generally do not pass through Kabul and smuggling is well organised by wealthy armed networks which at present continue virtually unimpeded.

The second element of the strategy is to provide "development assistance to opium poppy growing areas in the framework of national development programmes". The multi-sector reconstruction and development needs of Afghanistan are huge and it will take decades to achieve widespread results. Providing rural areas with infrastructure, health, clean water, education and alternative employment to such a level that poppy cultivation is less attractive is not a short-term possibility. Government initiatives and non-governmental organisation programmes seeking to reduce poppy through development intervention testify to the difficulties in this regard. According to the US State Department, experience from other countries shows that crop-substitution programmes and alternative livelihood schemes only become effective when anti-narcotic laws are enforced.


Confiscated opium paste being destroyed
Credit: UNODC

The third proposed strategy is "treatment and rehabilitation for drug users" within Afghanistan. Collecting data on addiction in Afghanistan is problematic, but estimates of the number of opium addicts in Kabul alone range from 30,000-60,000 individuals. The large numbers of returning refugees from Iran and Pakistan, where addiction rates are high, have contributed to the problem. The independent Nejat Centre for drug rehabilitation is the main agency offering treatment but has space, according to its chief medical representative, for only 10 addicts at any one time. A very limited number of centres in other cities offer forms of treatment, but overall facilities are completely unable to meet the needs. In some cases the treatment takes place in prisons, where those convicted of drug crimes live alongside those put into prison for detoxification.

The fourth element of the Afghan counter-narcotics strategy is to "involve social organisations and individuals... in prevention and rehabilitation programmes". In the rural areas at present there are low levels of social stigmatisation associated with poppy cultivation or opium trading. However, due mainly to government messages by radio, most people are aware of the opium ban. In a recent UNODC survey, more than 95 percent of farmers interviewed admitted they were aware that poppy was now illegal in the country. In such an ultra-traditional Islamic country, where the production of opium is considered 'haram' (forbidden), only 17 percent of farmers who were not planning to grow poppy in 2004 cited this as the reason. Other farmers told IRIN that despite their Islamic principles the economic imperative forced them to cultivate poppy.

The final element listed in the Afghan five-year strategy is regarded by most donors and drug experts as the most important, namely "Increasing the role of local and provincial governments and their public administration to promote and implement drug control activities, particularly opium poppy eradication and law enforcement activities". At present there are limitations in implementing effective rule of law. In many cases local and provincial government are implicated in the opium economy according to a recent speech from the Minister of the Interior, Ali Ahmad Jalali.

According to those who spoke to IRIN in Kabul, many governors, local authorities, police and the military are allegedly implicated in the continued production of opium and cannot be relied upon to implement a meaningful eradication and law enforcement policy. The head of the Counter-Narcotics Directorate, Mirwais Yasini, told IRIN: "As long as you don't have a clean law enforcement capacity you can never expect to eradicate the drug". As with most sectors in Afghanistan, the issue of corruption pervades and undermines the government's well-intentioned objectives.

Donors slow to prioritise poppy eradication

The international community was initially slow to react to the corrosive impact of poppy cultivation, which threatens to undermine its support for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. According to Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UNODC, the opium trade in Afghanistan "...is a very major threat. Perhaps the major threat [facing Afghanistan]". Since 2002 the amounts of investment in poppy eradication and law enforcement have been small in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars donated for reconstruction and the political process.

But donors, along with the Afghan government, are now starting to develop a more strategic approach to eradication. Apart from increased funding for eradication programmes and interdiction initiatives, some specialised advisors and personnel have been sent to Afghanistan to assist the government. However, the resources to implement their strategies are limited and the challenge they face is formidable. The Economist Intelligence Unit on 15 May 2004 reported that last year's opium harvest was valued at US $2.3 billion, or more than 50 percent of Afghanistan's legal gross domestic product (GDP). Few human resources, in particular, have been targeted to combat the crop's expansion through interdiction and law enforcement. The low level of interdiction activity is allowing a space for warlords, regional commanders, drug traffickers and farmers to spread poppy cultivation throughout Afghanistan rapidly and with impunity. UNODC surveys illustrate that this rapid expansion is continuing.

Among the international donors the British have taken a lead in working with the Afghan government in its effort to cripple the spectre of opium, but the US is also heavily committed to the task. Unlike the US, who have had officers of the US Drug Enforcement Administration active in the area for years, the British are relatively new players and are primarily motivated by the UK government's commitment to reducing drug-related crime in the UK, where 95 percent of the heroin consumed originates in Afghanistan.

For both the UK and US governments, who both cited the Taliban's involvement in the drugs trade as one of the justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the dramatic expansion of poppy cultivation following the downfall of the regime, is a source of criticism.
(For a discussion of the approaches of both the UK and US governments, see the separate report Donor-supported Approaches to Eradication in the IRIN Web Special.)