The Afghan drug trade currently accounts for over 80% of the world’s heroin production. In terms of security, it represents an extremely dangerous threat on multiple levels. On a national level, the production of opium into heroin represents a gray-market economy that undermines the Afghan government, its institutions and the nation’s stability. Regionally, it causes a substantial threat to its neighbors as it crosses borders to transport heroin. Neighboring states like Iran, particularly in areas closest to the border with Afghanistan, face serious concerns due to high addiction rates to heroin. On a global level, the threat of terrorist movements based on funding from the drug trade remains a paramount concern, but this has not been adequately addressed in terms of a strategic response to the insurgency.
The international community has noted that the drug trade has been a major source of funding for the insurgency movement. It is no coincidence that the most insecure provinces, those along the southern and western regions, have the strongest insurgency presence, and also the greatest levels of heroin production. This funding opportunity for insurgency groups through narcotics occurs through a triangle of farmers, drug lords and insurgency groups. The guarantee of monetary compensation, along with threats of violence or retaliation by terrorist groups against farmers, is what precipitates this triangle.
Until now, efforts by the international community and Afghan government have only made limited progress in the efforts of combating drugs. These efforts have been primarily based on two approaches: economic, through alternative development crop programs for farmers, and judicial, by institutionalizing court structures for prosecution and increasing arrests.
2011 represents a particularly crucial year for counter-narcotics efforts, and ultimately counter-insurgency efforts. The 2010 UNODC Afghan Opium Survey indicated that 2011 could be a big year for the increase in heroin prices globally and thus an increase in demand. What this means is that Afghanistan and members of the international community now run the risk of farmers increasing poppy cultivation. Even more concerning for the international community is the risk of farmers going back to poppy production from alternative crops, as a response to greater demand and opportunity for greater revenue.
This moment is critical for the Afghan government and international community to meet this situation head on before negative ramifications are felt. Not addressing the situation runs the risk of an increase in global addiction rates, as well as other corresponding illegal activities associated with organized crime operations. It is important to note that Afghan drugs play a central distribution role for organized crime around the world, such as in southeast Europe where heroin is transported along the Balkan Route from Afghanistan into Western Europe. However, the greatest risk the international community faces is the risk of increasing funding for in the insurgency. Policymakers must now transform the realization that a link exists between the drug trade and terrorism, and turn it into an effective security strategy. So often, it seems that the global community only labels situations of paramount importance when terrorism is involved and do not feel as obligated to address other more general matters like drugs or organized crime. These matters, however, are what provide the largest source of funding for the largest threats around the globe.
Thus, the approach to counter-narcotics in Afghanistan in 2011 must become a strategic function as part of the fight against the insurgency. Security efforts combating the insurgency movement should no longer be seen as separate from counter-narcotics policies. Instead, a consolidated approach is needed that accommodates both short and long-term goals, and follows the mixed model of economic and judicial components already established in Afghanistan. Combining these efforts will make removing the sources of funding for the drug trade a top priority. As two separate strategies, adequate attention is only given to combating the security issues, not the sources of it, through the drug trade. Efforts used against the drug trade must become part of the central approach to the fight against the insurgency.
The greatest short-term emphasis must be economic-based and focused on increasing funding and education for farmers to establish alternative development strategies to their poppy production. Economic means are more feasible in the short-term as opposed to increasing requirements for arrests and prosecutions. This is because judicial institutions and legal remedies take a long time to work efficiently and to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Afghanistan has struggled in the last 10 years to set up its rule of law and governmental institutions. Even if the Afghan government made the reduction of the drug trades its number one priority to combat the insurgency, it could not support the timely arrests and prosecutions of all those involved in the narcotics trade because they lack the number of police, prosecutors and judges necessary. For long-term counter-narcotics strategies, these institutions will play a crucial role, but they do not represent a realistic or feasible strategy for short-term responses.
For now, the efforts must be targeted at farmers, the source of production. Many of the poppy producers in Afghanistan only do so for their own economic needs, not because they support insurgency groups. This is why the focus must be on targeting farmers to prevent them to go back to production of poppy or to continue to promote alternative crops in 2011 when farmers stand to gain the most. Efforts must be made to increase education programs for farmers, not only to increase the growth of alternative crops, but also in other sectors that they could possibly enter as their economy develops.
This is a crucial moment for the drug trade in Afghanistan, and if the international community does not pay more attention to countering the drug trade as a means of combating the insurgency, then negative setbacks could be faced this coming year, only reversing the slow progress of the last decade.
Amela Kraja is in her first year as a public diplomacy graduate student at Syracuse University. She will receive an M.A. in International Relations from Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs and an M.S. in Public Relations from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
This article was submitted for the atlantic-community.org's competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
You can read more submissions from the competition here.