Narco-Terrorism in Afghanistan: Counternarcotics and Counterinsurgency

Since the 2001 invasion and the lifting of the Taliban opium ban, opium production in Afghanistan has increased from 70 percent of the overall global illicit opium production to 92 percent today. This increase has occurred in tandem with the declining security situation precipitated by the 2001 coalition invasion of the country. The loose relationship between terrorist organizations, violence, decentralized governance, and poverty that existed prior to the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in Afghanistan, has coalesced into a truly narco-terrorism-driven system. The implications of this are severe to both Afghanistan’s and America’s long-term goals. Corruption, lawlessness, instability, violence, and human suffering all contribute to, and result from, the precipitous increase in opium cultivation and narcotics production and trafficking. Thus, in attempting to subdue the Taliban- and al-Qaeda-led insurgencies, and to forge a stable and effective government in Afghanistan, there must also be effective and socially conscious measures undertaken to eliminate the pervasive narco-economy. As President Karzai has stated, “The question of drugs . . . is one that will determine Afghanistan’s future. . . . [I]f we fail, we will fail as a state eventually, and we will fall back in the hands of terrorism.”


The relationship between Afghanistan and the opium poppy has existed for thousands of years. However, it is only in the last three decades that the country has become responsible for cultivating an overwhelming majority of the world’s opium. The catalysts behind this marked increase in both Afghanistan’s overall production, and in the country’s percentage of total world production are three-fold: (1) ongoing warfare and civil strife; (2) the historical absence of a legitimate centralized government; and (3) effective contemporary interdiction campaigns elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, in the wake of the coalition invasion in 2001, the first two elements have worsened, and a fourth element, a “marriage of convenience” between insurgency forces and the opium industry, has come to exist.

The advent of war in Afghanistan predates Western civilization. Having historically served as a strategic entry point into India, and more recently as an arena for the ideological wars against both communism and terrorism, Afghanistan is a country with a culture and society that have been significantly shaped by war. It was only in recent times, however, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, that warfare and opium began to form a symbiotic relationship. The need for capital to purchase weaponry that would be effective against Soviet gunships and troops prompted the mujahidin insurgency to resort to opium cultivation and trafficking. Many of the mujahidin leaders and warlords, the future political actors of a post-Soviet Afghanistan, thus became narco-leaders.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, civil war between the various mujahidin groups erupted, causing widespread destabilization. In 1998, the “hard-line, Islamic-based, Pakistani sponsored” Taliban gained control of the country. Despite having an ideological abhorrence towards drug use, the Taliban allowed, and even encouraged, continued opium cultivation as a means of financially propping up their regime until imposing an opium ban in 2000 using a strict religious rhetoric. As a result, opium cultivation steadily increased from 1995 to 2000.

Afghanistan: A Failed State?

Throughout its history, Afghanistan has struggled to establish stable and centralized governance. Afghanistan, founded in 1847, was placed under the rule of the British Empire from 1826 until the end of World War I. Following this period of foreign control, Afghanistan was ruled by various autocrats with power frequently changing hands, generally through military coups, the last of which installed a communist regime under the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the enduring state of violence brought on by the Soviet invasion dashed any chances of a strong Afghan state coming to fruition. Over two decades, domination by insurgency, civil strife, and draconian autocracy, has had a severe and deleterious effect upon the nation’s ability to provide for security, infrastructure, and general economic well-being. During this period of time, Afghanistan’s overall status has alternated between collapsed and failed statehood. Warlords, militias, drug lords and corrupt provincial administrators were able to lay claim to huge swaths of Afghanistan’s periphery. Consequently, Afghanistan became the perfect environment for the establishment and maintenance of a robust illicit economy based on the cultivation of opium.

Violence and the lack of a stable self governance has led to virtual anarchy in Afghanistan, making opium cultivation, production and trafficking a way of life for many people. Even though poppy has existed in Afghanistan, since the time of Alexander the great, Afghanistan’s narco-economy is a modern day phenomenon. The success of the war on drugs in the golden triangle has been a major contributing factor in this phenomenon. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the rise of opium cultivation in Afghanistan has occurred parallel to an 87 percent decline in poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia’s “golden triangle” (Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand) over the last decade. Similar successes in eliminating cultivation also occurred within neighboring Iran and Pakistan beginning in the 1970s. The result follows a basic market principle: a decline in overall supply relative to a stable or increasing demand leads to either price increases or the market finding a new means of supply. Thus, given the preexisting conditions of widespread violence and the lack of a stable, centralized government, Afghanistan was the perfect candidate to fill the void in the global opium production market.

Effects and Implications of the Drug Trade Since 2001

Since the 2001 coalition invasion of Afghanistan, opium cultivation has increased precipitously, reaching record levels (193,000 hectacres) in 2007. According to the UNODC 2007 Afghanistan Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey, this trend is expected to continue through 2008. The deteriorating security situation brought on by NATO and the United States deposing the Taliban regime and thus placing them at the vanguard of the insurgency has served to reinvigorate the opium economy in the wake of the 2000 Taliban opium ban. Furthermore, the creation of a common enemy the Karzai government and Western military forces has led to a marriage of convenience between the drug lords and the insurgency leaders. Nevertheless, in working with the Afghani government, NATO and the United States are continuing to fight two separate wars: the war on drugs, and the war on terror. While NATO fights the insurgency (but lacks any mandate to directly aid in interdiction), and the Afghan, British, and U.S. governments work to implement a multifaceted counternarcotics policy, the insurgents and drug lords are working together to undermine the Karzai government and fund their respective operations through the opium trade.

The current strategic conceptualization of two wars in Afghanistan belies the fact that the country is steadily becoming a “narco-terrorist” state. The linkage between the insurgency and the opium industry is widely evidenced. Over 62 percent of coalition fatalities have occurred in the southern Helmand province, which is also the primary opium producing province in Afghanistan. Further, the Taliban receives nearly 70 percent of its income from protection money and the sale of opium (much of this income comes from “taxes imposed upon opium farmers). Additionally, the Taliban is receiving arms and money from traffickers and drug lords in return for protection. Also contributing to the insurgency is a disproportionate reliance upon crop eradication policies, which has created an increasingly large recruitment pool of disaffected farmers and other peasants. For example, the Taliban have begun to offer men $200 a month to join their ranks, a staggering amount when compared to the $70 a month earned by the average Afghan police officer.

In the same way that the failings of the state economically have served to legitimize the drug industry, the failings of the state politically and in terms of providing security (exacerbated by the drug industry), have served to legitimize the insurgency. Both in the political and security realms the drug lords and insurgents are entirely reliant upon a steady supply of able Afghanis. As noted earlier, the drug interdiction and eradication policies that have ignored the elements political, economic, historical, and societal that drive farmers to produce opium, are serving to drive them towards the insurgency for support and protection. Further, many farmers have little choice regarding what to grow, as groups such as the Taliban directly coerce farmers to plant, saying “You start growing it, or we will kill you and your family.” Therefore, it is apparent that, given the striking degree to which the insurgency and the drug industry have come to benefit from each other, any policy which aims to combat one element must also consider the other.

Afghanistan's Narco-Economy

Afghanis are primarily responsible for opium within Afghanistan, cultivating and processing it into low-grade heroin, and trafficking it to the borders of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries (Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc) Given the lack of global contacts and the overall lack of organization of the Afghanistan narco-industry, the opium is then handed off to the respective ethnic nationals of each country (Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc.) for further trafficking into Russia, Iran, Europe, and Asia. The most common route, according to the UNODC, is through Tajikistan, with over 96 percent of all seizures taking place within the country. The effects of Afghanistan’s narco-economy are far-reaching: it is the producer of over 90 percent of Europe’s heroin; it perpetuates addiction and HIV/AIDS endemics in Pakistan and Iran. Iran by itself has over 4 million drug users.

The World Bank reports that the estimated opium GDP of Afghanistan is between $2.6 and $2.7 billion, which amounts to 27 percent of the country’s total GDP (both licit and illicit). De-spite these staggering statistics, opium is a minor crop in terms of relative cultivation levels, with only 3 percent of natural agricultural land used towards its cultivation. Nearly half of the 364 districts in Afghanistan report no opium poppy cultivation. Nevertheless, the districts that do report high levels of opium production are responsible for an increase overall in both Afghan and global production levels (100 percent and 50 percent over the last decade, respectively).

Poverty is widespread in Afghanistan, and many farmers are driven to the illicit economy in order to survive. With an 80 per-cent poverty rate, and a per capita income of only $800, Afghanistan was ranked 173rd out of 177 countries by the UN Development Project in terms of its effectiveness in meeting Millennium goals. While only 12 percent of Afghanistan’s land is arable, agriculture is the primary means of existence for over 70 percent of the citizenry. Thus, given that opium is valued at over $4,500 per hectare, as opposed to only $266 for wheat; many farmers have little choice when it comes to being able to feed their families. Furthermore, given the potential profits that organizations, warlords, and landowners can gain from opium cultivation, many farmers are pressured or forced into the illicit economy.

Although opium is a high value cash crop, which can be grown and transported easily, and used in lieu of actual currency, there are still many farmers who choose not to grow opium. Perhaps the most surprisingly effective reasons are the social and religious norms that stigmatize those who produce the drug. Drug use, and by extension its production, is prohibited in the Quran, and this prohibition serves as one of the most common reasons given by those who choose to not cultivate opium. In addition, the widespread exploitation of opium farmers, the labor-intensiveness of, and expertise required in cultivation, and the fear of eradication are other effective deterrents. However, as noted previously, despite the desire to abstain from cultivating opium, many farmers are coerced, either through exploitative sharecropping agreements, or by insurgent organizations under threat of violence.

The economic situation is much better for those higher up on the criminal food chain. Despite the fact that the bulk of the 2.9 million Afghanis who are involved in the drug trade are farmers, they receive less than 20 percent of the revenue. The rest of the proceeds go to land owners, warlords, traffickers, public officials, and terrorist organizations such as the Taliban. Furthermore, these actors commonly levy harsh taxes and impose exploitative sharecropping and land tenure agreements upon the impoverished opium farmers. Further inequities are created through the credit system that has formed around opium cultivation, which allows farmers to borrow money from landholders using their expected crop yields as collateral; farmers become trapped in an endless cycle of debt and repayment in the wake of a drought or a lower-than-expected crop yield.

Policy Options in Afghanistan

Current Counternarcotics Strategy

Counternarcotics operations are currently being conducted in Afghanistan through a cooperative effort between Afghan, U.K., and U.S. agencies. President Karzai, upon taking office, declared a “jihad against poppy,” citing that growing poppy was both illegal under Islam and harmful to the very future of the state. This sentiment was then underlined by the establishment of a strict “zero-tolerance” counternarcotics law, “making it illegal to traffic in any quantity of opium and by introducing the Afghan National Drug Control Strategy (NDCS).” Within the Afghan strategy are four key elements: (1) disrupting the drug trade; (2) strengthening and diversifying legal rural livelihoods; (3) reducing demand and providing treatment to problem drug users; and (4) developing state institutions at the central and provincial level to combat drug trafficking. The Ministry of Counternarcotics, which works under the guidance of the U.K., and the Ministry of Interior are in charge of the counternarcotics effort. Within the Ministry of Interior, the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan (CNPA) and the Afghan Special Narcotics Force (ASNF) have been created to implement counternarcotics policies, but are nevertheless strongly reliant upon U.S. and U.K. training and funding to function.

Developed in parallel to the Afghan government’s NDCS, the U.S. counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan is outlined by five pillars: (1) alternative livelihoods; (2) elimination/eradication; (3) interdiction; (4) law enforcement/justice reform; and (5) public information. The agencies assisting Afghanistan in pursuit of these goals are: the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Department of Justice (DoJ). The DEA and USAID provide direct enforcement, public diplomacy, and education efforts, while State, DoD, and DoJ provide support to U.S. agents and Afghan agencies. In 2005, the United States spent a total of $782 million to support U.S. counternarcotics programs and projects in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. General Accountability Office, the largest portion of those funds, $258 million, went towards eradication policies, which were administered through the DoD and the DEA. However, despite UNODC reported eradication of 15,300 hectares, or nearly 10 percent of the opium poppy crop, and heroin seizures of over 100 metric tons, overall levels of opium poppy cultivation, opium production, and heroin processing still markedly increased in 2006.

Counterterrorism and Counternarcotics

As a result of the rapidly declining security situation in Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion, approximately 55,000 foreign troops still occupy the war-torn and fragmented nation. Of these troops, 43,250 belong to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), while the remaining 12,000 are U.S. troops, primarily special operations and Marines, who operate independently. NATO and the U.S. military have both resisted taking an active role in counternarcotics operations within Afghanistan. Reasons that have been cited in defense of this sentiment mirror the comments of former NATO Commander U.S. General James Jones that counternarcotics enforcement is “not a military mission,” stating that “having NATO troops out there burning crops, for example, is not going to significantly contribute to the war on drugs.” Further, many military and government officials fear that, were NATO to take direct action in the drug war, its ability to acquire reliable human intelligence would become compromised. Nevertheless, NATO intervention is necessary to help defeat the drug trade in Afghanistan through offering security, law and order, and, when necessary, a powerful offensive capability against traffickers.

Currently, the ISAF acts only in a support capacity to the foreign and domestic organizations directly involved in counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan. In this respect, its primary role in the war on drugs is to engage in active intelligence sharing. While direct military action in counternarcotics enforcement operations is precluded under the NATO agreement creating the ISAF, the ISAF can, if necessary, provide defensive support to eradication and interdiction actions undertaken by agencies such as the DEA. At present, the dual campaigns to assuage the endemic narco-industry and the insurgencies are suffering from insufficient resources and inefficient mandates.

Problems with Current Counternarcotics Strategy

With violence and lawlessness associated with the narco-industry threatening to destroy the country, it is clear that current policies with respect to counternarcotics and counterterrorism are failing. In contrast to the strategy governing current NATO and U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, UNODC Director Antonio Maria Costa, following the announcement of record poppy cultivation and opium production in 2005-2006, has called for direct NATO military involvement in counternarcotics enforcement operations in Afghanistan. To date, coun-ternarcotics policies in Afghanistan have failed for three main reasons: (1) a fundamental lack of security (2) pervasive and crippling corruption; and (3) the pursuit of unbalanced and mis-directed “five-pillar” strategy which is overly focused on eradi-cation. These three elements serve to emphasize both the synergy between politically motivated warfare and economic logic, as well as to point out the need for a reassessment and integration of counternarcotics and counter-insurgency strategies.

Security and Counternarcotics Strategy. Widespread insecurity throughout many of Afghanistan’s provinces seriously impedes agents as they attempt to engage in effective counternarcotics operations. The UNODC reports that, “there is a strong link between security conditions and opium poppy cultivation in the southern and western provinces.” As of early 2007, over 60 percent of villages existing within provinces described as experiencing “very poor” security were observed to have cultivated opium. In contrast only 26 percent of provinces experiencing “good security,” and 10 percent of provinces experiencing “very good” security, were found to be cultivating opium. Moreover, the security situation has been steadily deteriorating, with the total number of direct attacks by insurgents on NATO and U.S. troops nearly tripling from 2005 to 2006. Coalition military responses have only served to escalate the violence, with over 2,000 air strikes conducted over the last six months of 2006 by U.S forces alone.

The significant increase in violence following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, coupled with the meteoric rise of the narco-economy, has sent the state spiraling towards failure and eventual collapse. The U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) argues that the illicit drug economy has served to undermine “efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, establish the rule of law, and restore a functioning and licit economy.” John A. Glaze, a lieu-tenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, states that, “the Taliban have helped fill the security void left by the weak central government by providing Afghan citizens an alternative source of security.” Further, eradication initiatives and kinetic attacks conducted by counternarcotics agents and ISAF forces, respectively, have exacerbated the security problem by forcing Afghans to rely upon the Taliban to provide for their security needs.

Corruption and Lawlessness. Exacerbating the rapid degradation of the Afghan state is the endemic corruption evident throughout the country. The World Bank states that,

The opium economy by all accounts is a massive source of corruption and undermines public institutions especially in (but not limited to) the security and justice sectors. There are worrying signs of infiltration by the drug industry into higher levels of government and into the emergent politics of the country. Thus the opium trade is widely considered to be one of the greatest threats to state-building, reconstruction, and development in Afghanistan.

Transparency International ranks Afghanistan at 172 out of 179 countries on its Corruption Perception Index. It is estimated that, of 249 new parliamentarians, 17 are believed to be drug smugglers and another 64 are believed to have links to “mafia-type” armed groups. The Strategic Studies Institute reports that, overall, “Afghan government officials are now believed to be involved in at least 70 percent of opium trafficking.”

The implications of such persistent corruption throughout the country are severe with respect to conducting successful counternarcotics operations. Corruption in the “implementation of enforcement,” on the part of Afghan agencies greatly detracts from the moral legitimacy of the fight against drugs. Also, eradication serves to exacerbate corruption where provincial administrators or enforcement agents receive payment in return for overlooking a particular opium production operation. The result is an eradication policy that is class-discriminating in its implementation, as those hurt the most are the impoverished far-mers.

Problems with the “Five-Pillar” Strategy. As discussed previously, the primary problem with the current counternarcotics strategy, exemplified by the U.S. “five-pillar” plan, is the over-emphasis on eradication. Eradication has thus far proved ineffective at deterring cultivation, but instead contributes to insecurity, corruption, and poverty in Afghanistan.

The UNODC Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey reported that, “the experience of eradication in 2007 was not a strong factor in influencing the decision at the village level whether or not to grow opium poppy in 2008.” Therefore, the other four pillars need to be adequately funded and brought to the forefront of counternarcotics strategy. Currently, Afghanistan lacks the infrastructure, resources, and market mechanisms it needs to support a licit economy. Eradication and other methods of deterrence presuppose the existence of these elements, and without them, they serve only to cause more harm than good.

Policy Recommendations: Combating Narco-Terrorism

The dire security situation in Afghanistan, which has destabilized the nation and hindered U.S. and NATO initiatives to establish a legitimate state, is funded and exacerbated by the narco-economy. Combating terrorism and narcotics as individual and isolated problems has only served to strengthen the resolves and legitimacy of the insurgents and drug producers. Therefore, I would offer three policy recommendations. Instead of fighting two “wars” in Afghanistan, counternarcotics and counterterrorism strategies should be fused in such a way as to simultaneously (1) provide a sense of security and law; (2) delegitimize both the opium trade and insurgency; and (3) provide the foundations for a viable licit economy to be created.

In order to provide for the securitization that is necessary for successful counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations, NATO member nations must increase their troop contributions, eliminate operational limitations, and widen the ISAF mandate to include some counternarcotics capabilities. NATO should exceed or, at the very least, match the proposed U.S. troop deployment of over 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan. At the root of the failure to establish centralized governance, eliminate the drug trade, and to improve the economy in Afghanistan is the ruinous insecurity that plagues the country. In order to provide the security needed in order to stabilize the nation, both troop levels and mandates need to be adjusted, as suggested by the following comment from the International Crisis Group.

NATO-led ISAF has about 90 percent of its stated needs, but many of the missing pieces are vital, such as mobile and re-serve components. . . . [S]ince the needs assessment has always been done with an eye more on availability than true requirements, it would be a “minimalist force” even fully resourced, with limited capacity to intervene effectively.

Furthermore, member nations should be pushed to eliminate individual operational limitations on how and where their troops can be deployed. The United States should press upon NATO the direness of the situation in Afghanistan, and, if need be, threaten military-aid and other economic consequences for nations who refuse to carry their weight. Such limitations hinder the ability of the ISAF to properly deal with the current security situation. A unified and adequately manned effort is necessary in order to unseat the Taliban and insurgent forces from their bases of power in the southern, opium-rich regions such as Helmand Province. Further, such apprehensive mentalities as those exhibited by certain member nations, “feed perceptions of weakening international resolve, and thus influence the dynamics of the insurgency.” Correspondingly, failure in Afghanistan as the result of disproportionate involvement on behalf of individual member nations could have drastic, long-term effects endangering the continuance of NATO.

Finally, ISAF’s overall mandate should be widened to include involvement in counternarcotics operations. NATO forces should engage in collaborative and coordinated efforts with both domestic and foreign counternarcotics agencies beyond that of mere intelligence sharing. As the looting in Baghdad following the Iraqi invasion evidenced, law and order is vital to successful counterinsurgency. While crop eradication poses potential threats to sources of human intelligence, other elements of counter-narcotics can work to serve military goals. ISAF forces can work with drug enforcement agencies to deter and interdict the traffickers, drug lords, and warlords who perpetuate the drug trade. They can also serve to pressure and apprehend those government officials who tacitly or explicitly perpetuate the drug trade in Afghanistan. This will serve to reduce the environmental pressures that impede farmers and peasants from engaging in licit enterprises.

Attacking Centers of Legitimacy

Counternarcotics and counterinsurgency forces should take ad-vantage of the fact that ostensibly ultra-religious groups such as the Taliban are “treading a fine theological line” in using the drug industry to finance the insurgency. Historically, opium cultivation has been rationalized as being a useful tool for waging jihad against the west. The idea being that heroin poisons the populations of the west and thus it is acceptable to cultivate and profit from the drug. However, this line of reasoning fails when appropriately scrutinized, given that 30 percent of Afghanistan’s heroin enters into Iran, a fellow Islamic state. Furthermore, heroin addiction has taken hold in Afghanistan to a startling degree, where 3 percent of the crop is retained and used domestically and over 200,000 Afghans have turned to opium-derived drugs in order to escape from the war-torn environment around them. The millions addicted to heroin and the pervasive spread of HIV/AIDS in Muslim countries exists in stark contrast to insurgent propaganda. Consequently, many farmers who do abstain from cultivation site social and religious stigmas as a primary reason for their decision. Thus, public diplomacy should be employed to reinforce these stigmas and to point out the blatant hypocrisies of insurgent groups such as the Islamist Taliban.

In order to be most effective, the anti-opium public diplomacy campaign needs and Afghan face. The Afghan government, along with Islamic leaders within the country, should be given the resources necessary to make such a campaign successful and pervasive. As the Terrorism Monitor suggests, “for every leaflet and exhortation from the insurgents justifying opium, the Afghan government should be there to highlight the Taliban’s hypocrisy and advertise the damage done to other Muslims.” Demonizing opium cultivation will serve both counternarcotics and counterterrorist ends: farmers will be even less inclined to grow than they are currently and the Taliban’s overall legitimacy and support base will be diminished.

Less Eradication, More Securitization and Education. Eradication has so far proved to be resource intensive, yet ineffective as a deterrent. Further, it has served as a means by which insurgent groups have been able to increase their legitimacy at the expense of the state and bolster their ranks by absorbing poor and disaffected farmers. Therefore, the emphasis that current counternarcotics strategy places upon eradication should be shifted towards the other four pillars of the U.S. plan. The 2007 UNODC Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey suggests that in provinces where security is perceived to be “good” or “very good” there exists significantly less opium cultivation. Given this fact, providing a clear sense of security to the average citizen should be a primary objective within both counternarcotics and counterinsurgency strategy.

Additionally, the UNODC reports that narcotics awareness programs have proved successful in certain cases, but they are limited in effectiveness relative to perceived levels of security. Specifically, “[R]egional results indicate that the awareness campaign has had some impact in the central and northern regions and mixed success in the western region. . . . [I]n the south, the campaign has had little impact: 80 percent of villages cultivated poppy in spite of the campaign.” This suggests that farmers, when faced with the existential pressures and economic limitations of insecurity, have had little choice but to plant opium. However, public diplomacy campaigns combined with visible securitization efforts have the potential to significantly deter opium cultivation.

Provide a Viable, Long-Term Plan for Sustainable Development

Providing deterrents for opium cultivation, such as increased police presence and public diplomacy, do little good unless they are implemented in parallel with effective alternative livelihood programs. With respect to such programs there exist no short-term solutions or easy fixes. A number of policy groups including the Senlis Council have proposed the option of legalizing opium cultivation for sale in the licit market. Unfortunately, the lack of a suitable Afghan administrative infrastructure, the wide price disparity between licit and illicit opium, and the ongoing demand for illicit opium would most likely render such schemes impotent to counter the multibillion dollar narco-industry. Accordingly, policy think-tanks need to invest their resources towards the formation of long-term sustainable development campaigns, and world governments need to shift fund allocations towards providing increased financial aid to bolster alternate livelihood policies.

A viable alternative livelihood plan should take a form similar to that proposed by the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University. This report suggested that sustainable development can only be achieved through the simultaneous establishment of the resources and facilities required for the cultivation, processing, storage, and international market exportation of alternative licit crops. This includes improving irrigation and access to water, educating farmers on how to plant licit crops, developing large-scale processing and warehouse facilities, and establishing a network linking farmers and producers to buyers throughout the international market. Furthermore, this should take place parallel to international and public works campaigns designed to improve Afghanistan’s infrastructure. A lopsided program risks condemning farmers back to illegal subsistence, which is also why any such program well-funded, well planned, and implemented with the long term in mind.


According to U.S. intelligence estimates, the Karzai government controls only about 30 percent of Afghanistan, the Taliban about 10 percent, while various tribes and warlords control the rest. The deterioration of the Afghan state following the 2001 invasion stems directly from the particularly effective way in which the narco-terrorist regime has been able to profit from the insecurity that it creates. Consequently, in order to effectively combat this lethal synergy, counterinsurgency and counternarcotics strategies must work cooperatively. The “center of gravity” within both the war on drugs and the war on terror in Afghanistan lies with the nation’s impoverished citizens. In order for NATO and the United States to help forge a viable and cohesive central government, these individuals must view the Karzai government as legitimate, and they first need to feel economically and personally secure. Short of this, the narco-terrorist regime, which has become the default distributor of political goods, will continue to exploit Afghan farmers and lawlessness and violence will continue to plague the country.

Matthew Lacouture is a MA candidate in international security studies at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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