This Weekend’s News: Afghan Poppy Production Could Be a Harbinger of Security Challenges

Afghan poppy production is on the rise in some areas and may indicate backsliding in crucial provinces that have seen security gains in recent years. According to a report from McClatchy on Saturday, Nangarhar province has been heralded by U.S. and Afghan officials as a success story in recent years due to the successful routing of Taliban insurgents and near-eradication of poppy crops that dominated the province. Nangarhar, a major financial and political hub, has carried strategic significance for U.S. and coalition forces, according to the McClatchy report: “The province controls the centuries-old trade – and invasion – corridor that runs from Pakistan’s port of Karachi through the fabled Khyber Pass to Kabul, and north to Central Asia.”

The successful counterinsurgency and poppy eradication efforts there provided U.S. and Afghan officials with a success story that they believed could also be used as a model for the other 33 Afghan provinces. However, the success in Nangarhar appears to be short lived.

The tide has since turned,” McClatchy reported on Saturday. “Poppy growing is rising, as is support for the insurgency, fueled in part by a harsh government poppy-eradication drive that’s sparked clashes and led some farmers to sow land mines. Many people fear that one of the most crucial provinces will only slip deeper into bloodshed and corruption as U.S. troops withdraw.”

The growth in poppy production also bodes poorly for other U.S. and international development projects that have sought to wean Afghan farmers off a dependence on poppy in lieu of food crops that could help feed famished Afghans. Poppy remains a valuable cash crop, even more so after a 2010 decline in opium production, largely resulting for a disease that attacked poppy crops. According to McClatchy, before 2010, opium sold for approximately US$165 per kilogram. Now it earns farmers as much as US$400 per kilogram.

Despite the rise in poppy production, there have been notable improvements in Afghan law enforcement regimes that provide some optimism that Afghanistan is developing the capacity to combat the opium trade. “Over 2,000 Afghan National Police officers have now been specially trained and a special counter narcotics police unit has been created,” The Telegraph reported on Sunday. “Every member of the force is polygraphed once a year and also undergoes regular urinalysis to test for drug abuse.”

Arguably the most serious challenge undermining Afghanistan’s counternarcotics efforts is the rise in drug addiction across the country. “Afghanistan never had a history of drug addiction 30 years ago,” Abdul Gayyum, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, told The Telegraph. “But today we have we [sic] one million addicts.” The Telegraph added:

The majority of Afghanistan’s addicts are unemployed men, often refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan. But, worryingly, the cases of addiction amongst women, young children and even babies are beginning to soar. Children, some less than a year old, are being given opium by their mothers in order to keep them calm and sleepy so the women can work uninterrupted in jobs such as carpet weaving and basket making. Some doctors are also adding to the addiction problem by prescribing opium for a wide range of minor illnesses such as back and head aches.

Drug addiction and opium production are challenges that are likely to shape Afghanistan’s security environment in the years ahead. As U.S. and coalition forces prepare to drawdown in 2014 – with the United States transitioning to a more limited presence through special operations forces – the onus will likely fall largely on the Afghan government to combat the rise of Afghanistan as a narco-state. Bolstering counter-narcotics capabilities before the 2014 transition may help improve the capacity of the Afghan government to address this challenge. However, the Karzai government and other leaders across Afghanistan will also need to demonstrate the political will to tackle this challenge head on.