Despite efforts by the Afghan government and the international community to reduce poppy cultivation, opium production in Afghanistan has once again reached record levels in 2007.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) annual survey estimates that 193,000 hectares is under poppy cultivation, a 17 per cent increase on the record levels of 2006, yielding a harvest of 8,200 mt (an increase of 34 per cent). The main policy instruments to bring down these figures - eradication of opium poppy fields and implementing alternative livelihoods projects - are missing their targets.
As a result pressure is growing to start aerial chemical spraying of poppy fields, and calls to involve foreign troops in interdiction efforts are getting louder. In this briefing TNI argues that, such overreactions will worsen an already deteriorating security situation. Policy responses should instead be based on a better understanding of local, national and global trends in the opium/heroin market and a more sophisticated analysis of the nature of the drugs-and-conflict connections in Afghanistan today.
None of the responses dominating the public and policy debates -stepping up eradication, a focus on interdiction, more funds for Alternative Livelihoods or a licensing of opium production- fully take into account the reality of an existing global demand for heroin.
The international community needs to face the reality that the entrenched illicit economy in war-torn Afghanistan will not dwindle easily, and that pursuing illusions of quick solutions will do more harm than good. As a recent report by UNODC and the World Bank warns: "While the drug industry itself constitutes a serious threat to the state-building agenda in Afghanistan, ill considered counter-narcotics actions can be counterproductive in terms of governance, possibly exacerbating an already difficult situation."
Conclusions and recommendations
• Aerial spraying will have severely negative social and security impacts and should not be considered.
• ‘Targeted’ eradication has so far been a myth. The critical adverse impact is on poor farmers, share croppers and rural wage labourers.
• Alternative Livelihoods alone will not turn around the opium economy. No major impact can be expected from pilot projects except as a laboratory to experiment with approaches of what might work.
• In the absence of a better understanding of trafficking networks and markets it would be unwise for ISAF to become involved in interdiction.
• More attention should be paid to market dynamics as a major factor determining policy outcomes. Illicit drug market analysis at the local, national and global levels should inform policy making.
• Conflict-sensitive drug policies need to be designed that take into account the full complexity of the links between drugs and conflict, instead of over-emphasising the single aspect of Taliban opium earnings.
• The focus should be on longer-term development, reconstruction and peace-building efforts, which could mean de-prioritising drug control for the short term.
• There is no alternative to a sustained long-term effort that fully takes into account the reality of existing global demand for heroin.