Addicted to Numbers

Addicted to Numbers

Misleading narratives about the Afghan opium trade have led to counterproductive eradication strategies.


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.

Some of the narratives analysts use to justify an aggressive approach to opium poppy reduction, including the “nuclear option” of aerial chemical spraying, are built on “faith-based” policy and questionable data. Several years ago, for instance, a US military commander mentioned that the percentage of the insurgency funded by the opium trade was likely between 20 and 40 percent, although an “international expert” had said that the percentage could reach 60 percent; within weeks, much of the media had discarded the caveats so that 60 percent became the number of record. In some counterinsurgency circles, the belief that only 10 percent of the population is directly engaged in cultivation legitimates coercive measures on the grounds that even the harshest approach will not alienate the majority of the population. Yet the figure is based on a flawed methodology, and it ignores both the multiplier effect of the created wealth as well as bonds of solidarity, by which communities will band together to resist outside threats to life and livelihoods.

Such arguments also tend to shift from year to year. In 2007, UNODC proclaimed that “opium cultivation is no longer associated with poverty—quite the opposite.” But by 2009 it was saying that “opium remains a major source of income in one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries. Farmers may grow it to stave off poverty…. Eradicate poverty, not just poppies.”

The past two years have brought a welcome respite from the eradication debate, in part because of the Obama administration’s focus on the interdiction of traffickers rather than the destruction of crops, and in part because the military has sensibly recognized that obliterating Afghan rural livelihoods does not win hearts and minds. Still, there are forces that remain committed to a more aggressive eradication strategy, and they may be revived if the number of hectares heads upward in key provinces. If this year’s opium figures show an increase in cultivation, brace yourself for lurid headlines, Congressional delegations and calls to abandon a failed policy.

Rather than constantly alternating between back-slapping and hand-wringing, in the discussion over counternarcotics we should keep in mind that the transition away from opium is a long-term process and that the annual ups and downs are somewhat irrelevant. We must recognize that one size will not fit all areas, and that we can’t simply view drugs as a “bad” to be stomped out while ignoring the role they play at all levels of the political economy. Ironically, aspects of the opium economy have contributed to stability and development by generating financial flows that have, in turn, been used to fund other licit economic activities, while counternarcotics policies have destabilized areas by forcing households deeper into poverty and by undermining political arrangements.

Above all else, acknowledging that drugs are a part of the rural economy and social structure in the distressed environment of a country wracked by decades of war and violence will allow us to focus on governance, security and economic growth—which will facilitate a slow but steady transition out of opium rather than spending on stovepiped, single-season interventions.


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