Afghan Drug Trade Closely Linked to Taliban Insurgency

By Vince Crawley
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The drug trade in southern Afghanistan is related closely to the Taliban insurgency, and the Afghan government needs increasing support from NATO and international troops to help fight opium and heroin trafficking, U.S. and British counternarcotics officials say.

Afghanistan supplies 90 percent to 95 percent of the world’s opium. But the majority of poppy cultivation takes place in two provinces – Helmand and Kandahar – and many farmers grow the crops not for financial gain but because of death threats from warlords and the Taliban, the officials said.

“The drug trade and the Taliban insurgency are connected intrinsically, and they share a common interest in resisting Afghan government authority and international forces,” Kim Howells, minister of state for the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said June 26 at the Foreign Press Center in Washington. Howells was accompanied by John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. With U.S. support, the United Kingdom has played a leadership role in helping to coordinate international efforts to fight Afghanistan’s drug trade.

“In the south, we need to tackle drugs and the Taliban together,” Howells told reporters. “We need to make sure that counternarcotics is part of the comprehensive approach. In practical terms, that means NATO doing more to help the Afghan government tackle the drug trade, and I’m glad to say things are moving in that direction.”

Nonetheless, the fact that Afghanistan is the world’s leading supplier of opium means that it almost certainly will take decades for the Afghan government to defeat the drug trade, Howells said.

“We must be clear that ridding Afghanistan of this curse will take a generation, perhaps more,” Howells said.

Walters said poppy crops have been reduced significantly or eliminated in much of northern and eastern Afghanistan, where governors and local leaders, often coordinating with the Afghan government, have worked hard to rid their areas of the drug trade. By contrast, regions without effective law enforcement or strong government and economic institutions have been targeted by drug dealers to finance Taliban operations or other groups seeking power.

There is also a large misconception that farmers willingly are planting poppy crops to make higher profits to feed their destitute families, Walters said.

“Many of those people do not decide what they grow,” Walters said of Afghan farmers in the southern provinces. “They’re told as sharecroppers what to grow, sometimes by corrupt landowners, sometimes by corrupt warlords and tribal leaders, sometimes by people like the Taliban at the point of a gun … [saying] ‘You start growing it, or we will kill you and your family.’ … We have to remove the threat of the people with guns from preying on the people with the families.”

Finding an alternative crop that will enable them to earn as much as through poppy cultivation is not the issue, Walters said. In most cases, such crops do not exist. And in any event, it is not the farmers who are reaping wealth from the Afghan drug trade, he said.

“This is not a windfall to any farmers or any people who are living at the low end of the economic sale in Afghanistan. … Who’s gotten wealthy are the warlords and traffickers and corrupt individuals,” Walters said.

“That’s why you see movement away from opium poppies in a lot of areas,” he said. “When people are given a choice, they’d rather not be governed by drug mafias and warlords. They’d rather have control over their own lives and their own communities, and they’d rather have a future that they don’t have under the opium economy.”

Howells said Afghanistan not always has been intrinsically linked to the opium trade. In the late 1950s, he said, Helmand province was the site of a major U.S.-funded irrigation project that allowed the region to become a major agricultural exporter. For example, he said, he can remember when Afghan-grown grapes were common on the shelves of European grocery stores.

“It is not for NATO to take direct action against the trade,” Howells said. “But we want to see the military and the provincial reconstruction teams playing a bigger supporting role.”

For more information on U.S. policies, see Rebuilding Afghanistan.