The public policy debate on Afghan opium is filled with simple narratives (i.e., it is mostly opium that fuels the insurgency, poppy farmers are wealthy) justified by simple metrics and responded to with simple solutions. The problem with simplicity, of course, is that it crowds out complexity and propels us toward ineffective and even counterproductive policies.
Much of the counternarcotics debate in Afghanistan focuses obsessively on cultivation numbers produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) annual opium survey, with annual changes in cultivated area used as indicators of policy success or failure. Yet such changes are the result of a range of factors, including price shifts, household perceptions of future food insecurity and larger market forces. They are therefore transient, not necessarily indicative of fundamental changes in the rural economy.
For instance, last year’s 22 percent reduction in national opium acreage was largely attributed to the distribution of wheat seed and fertilizer in Helmand Province, which by itself produces around half of Afghanistan’s opium. But this reduction was less the result of policies and programs than farmers’ rational response to the changing relative prices of wheat and opium. Memories of high wheat prices and concerns over insecurity in central Helmand continue to shape planting decisions, highlighting the fact that farmers give greater priority to managing the risk of food insecurity than to maximizing profits. After all, one can’t eat opium poppy no matter what its price.
The addiction to annual cultivation numbers has similarly produced praise for the firm commitment and strong hand of the provincial governors in Balkh and Nangarhar, the two provinces most lauded for success in becoming "poppy free" in 2008 (in 2009, some poppy cultivation resumed in Nangarhar). Yet short-term reductions brought about by coercion may not be sustainable, and the side effects include migration to Pakistan (with attendant risk of radicalization), increasing enlistment in the Afghan National Security Forces under duress, sales of household assets and incurring of debt—as well as the potential undermining of support for the national government, which was seen as the driving force behind the coercion.
Fieldwork done in the areas hardest hit by the opium ban in these two provinces reveals a widespread perception that the economic impact on the general population has been too severe and that the social "contract" under which reductions have been made is breaking down. In fact, one could argue that coercive suppression of cultivation in areas where there are no other viable sources of income is leading to greater instability—and thereby establishing preconditions for increased cultivation. One needs only to look at recent insurgency penetration in a number of districts in Nangarhar to see what appears to be the failure of success.