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Afghanistan: “Breaking Bad”

“If drugs go through the roof in the United Kingdom and Europe, all your leaders have been part of this,” Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani 

“If amphetamines reach the shores of the United States we should know that these are the consequences, and if these people commit crimes, there’s shared international responsibility.” Ashraf Ghani

“Rushed exit from Afghanistan will reward Taliban drug barons.” Andrew North

The escalating war in Afghanistan is directly linked to the multibillion-dollar global trade in illicit drugs, as the Taliban seeks to expand and consolidate control over the production and trafficking of narcotics and to diversify from heroin into methamphetamines, in what an Afghan counternarcotics officer called “a coming catastrophe for the world.”

I want to spend one more week taking a look at what we can expect in the coming months in the aftermath of the departure of U.S. and Allied forces from Afghanistan. What we will see from a front-row seat is the “Breaking Bad” of a nation.

I am writing this week’s More Than Meets the Eye at 40,000 feet on my return flight from spending time with refugees who are seeking asylum in Germany. They are still coming by the thousands from regions like Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Africa. They are searching for peace. It is a passion for them. They are trying to escape the lawless environments of radicalism that haunt their homelands. 

We will briefly look this week at the general environment of the drug industry in Afghanistan. We will see that it is not a new phenomenon, but one that has thrived in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan for years. We will then turn our attention to a few strategies that have been ongoing and some still in the implementation phase and see how effective they have been in countering the devastating effects of the drug trade on a society.

For some background information, you should review the More Than Meets the Eye edition on Narco-Terrorism. Essentially what exists in Afghanistan today is just that. It is narco-terrorism. It is a tale as old as time, a war where everybody loses.


Perhaps nowhere in the world has a country and the international community faced an illicit drug economy as strong as the one in Afghanistan. The Afghan drug trade poses an immediate and urgent threat to U.S. interests in Afghanistan and to the integrity of the Afghan state itself. Greater efforts must be made to stem the flow of money derived from the narcotics trade in order to significantly reduce Afghanistan’s narcotics production and curb corruption.

In February 2015, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John F. Sopko, submitted a written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations subcommittee highlighting the perils of the Afghan drug trade. In it, he states:

The expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs puts the entire U.S. and international investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. The narcotics trade, which not only supports the insurgency but also feeds organized crime and corruption, puts the gains the U.S. agencies and their international partners have achieved over the past 13 years in women’s issues, health, education, rule of law, and governance in jeopardy. 

The prominence of the drug trade in Afghanistan’s economy and the role of Afghan narcotics in the global drug market is hard to overstate. The World Bank has assessed that narcotics constitute the largest source of externally generated income for Afghans by a wide margin. Afghanistan now produces between 80 percent to 90 percent of the world’s opium and accounts for the bulk of global heroin manufacturing. In recent years, the country has also become one of the world’s two largest producers of cannabis.

Strategic initiatives to deal with the Expanding Drug trade in Afghanistan:

  1. The first strategy has been a systematic series of eradication operations. The United States alone has spent more than $8 billion in poppy eradication efforts but cultivation levels continue to rise. While the causes of the increase are complex, there is little question that eradication has not been a viable strategy for reducing opium production levels.
  2. The second strategy has been a robust interdiction program,…The International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001, has conducted a two-decades-long series of interdiction efforts seeking to reduce the flow of weapons, money, drugs, precursor agents, and improvised explosive device (IED) components to the Taliban, with the goal of degrading the Taliban’s finances and physical resources and dismantling its logistical networks. Although hundreds of interdiction raids were conducted, especially in southern Afghanistan, and large quantities of opium and IEDs were seized in these operations, the impact on the Taliban’s resource flows was never more than local and temporary.

The U.S.-Taliban Doha deal of February 2020 precludes the United States from mounting such aerial bombing of opium/ heroin and ephedra/ ephedrine depots, labs, and transportation trucks.

  1. The third strategic initiative for curbing Afghanistan’s drug market has been a long list of implementation programs advocating and funding alternative livelihoods programs. Views on how to eliminate opium production vary, but the considerable emphasis has been given to the development of alternative livelihoods for opium farmers. Under current conditions in Afghanistan, however, there are still strong incentives to cultivate opium poppy as it remains a low-risk crop in a high-risk environment for both farmers and traders. While most stand to gain something from its cultivation, it is the few and powerful that gain the most.

The elimination of opium production in Afghanistan is dependent on more than encouraging licit on-farm, off-farm, and non-farm income opportunities. Critical to the realization of counter-narcotics objectives is the achievement of broader development goals, including the establishment of institutions required for formal governance, promotion of a strong civil society, and strengthening of social protection mechanisms.

  1. Demand-reduction efforts. The most effective way of tackling the drug problem involves a comprehensive, balanced, and coordinated approach that addresses both supply control and demand reduction, which reinforce each other, together with the appropriate application of the principle of shared responsibility. Many people talk about demand reduction, but there has been little headway into actually reducing the demand for drugs like heroin, opium, and methamphetamines. 

Reducing the demand for illicit drugs and other substances of abuse means discouraging and preventing initial use of drugs, intervening early with occasional or non-dependent drug users, and treating the negative health and social consequences of dependency through treatment, rehabilitation, and aftercare programs.

It is necessary to keep in mind that demand reduction efforts cannot lead to success without substantially reducing the illicit drug supply. If drugs are readily available and easily accessible, new drug abusers will soon replace former ones. At the same time, there is evidence that elimination of a given drug from the market does not mean the elimination of the drug problem, but merely a shift towards other drugs or substances of abuse. Consequently, without efforts to reduce illicit drug demand, actions aimed at reducing illicit drug supply will lead to only temporary successes.

No supply-side suppression measures – whether eradication, interdiction or alternative livelihoods – have ever been effective and lasting anywhere in the world in the context of an ongoing war. Peace, security, and extensive government presence are inescapable preconditions for successful supply reduction measures.


The narcotics trade is closely linked with corruption wherever it occurs in the world. This is certainly the case in Afghanistan. The Afghan drug trade constitutes an entire parallel economy that runs on systemic and organized graft, from individual bribes paid to minor officials to massive self-enrichment by influential regional and national power brokers. To put the matter in perspective, consider that 224,000 hectares, or roughly 824 square miles, of Afghan territory, were used for poppy cultivation in 2014 despite the fact that growing poppies is illegal under Afghan law. Even accounting for territory effectively controlled by the Taliban, suggests a profound breakdown in the rule of law.

Drugs caused more deaths than firearms and alcohol in 2007. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38,371 people died of druginduced causes in 2007, the latest year for which data are available. This compares with 31,224 deaths from firearms injuries and 23,199 alcoholinduced deaths.

This subject is important to all of us because the implications are far greater than any of us can imagine. Inside the halls of the illicit drug trade, there is much more than meets the eye. There is so much money at stake that politicians, religious clerics, common criminals, thugs, and regular guys are all in this together. As long as there is a market for these drugs, there will be an existing or emergent supply.


There is probably little that each of us can do to impact the supply production, but we might all be surprised at how much of an impact we could have on the demand reduction. As long as we, our sons and daughters, our friends and colleagues‒are feeding the demand, there will be a continuous supply coming out of Afghanistan ready to supply that demand.

What can we do?

Be informed about the destructiveness of the illicit drug industry. Understand that it is more dangerous than the alcohol and gun industry in terms of taking the lives of people in our neighborhoods every year. It is not a victimless crime as many seem to propose. Historically, everywhere it has gone crime has gone through the roof.

The follow-up.


How Schoolchildren Became Pawns in Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis…

The feed-back.

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