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The War in Afghanistan: The Counterterrorism and Counternarcotics Connection

October 27, 2019
The longest war in United States history has dragged on for more than 17 years with no end in sight. As the Taliban only increases in strength in Afghanistan using funds from drug trafficking, U.S. counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts in the region still undermine one another and remain unsuccessful. Even with a peak of 100,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan and upwards of 2 trillion dollars spent including some future cost obligations since 2001, one of the world’s greatest superpowers has been continually defeated by a small flower - the opium poppy.[1]

The Taliban has recently become increasingly dangerous and aggressive. On November 11, 2018, a Taliban attack in the district of Jaghori nearly decimated a company of fifty of Afghanistan’s Special Forces soldiers trained by the U.S. military. Suddenly the Jaghori district, previously regarded as Afghanistan’s safest, is now at risk of being completely taken over by Taliban insurgents.[2] By no means an isolated occurrence, attacks such as this have allowed the Taliban to gain control, or become openly active, in 70% of the country, the most territory the organization has held since 2001.[3] How have the Taliban and other criminal gangs and terrorist groups been resurfacing stronger than ever just as the world thinks they are defeated? The answer lies with their largely uninterrupted financing from drug trafficking.[4]

Image: Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, 1994-2017. Source: UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey ...Image: Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, 1994-2017. Source: UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey 2017

The Taliban secures over $400 million per year from illicit drug profits alone, and Afghanistan’s drug trafficking network accounts for around 10-15% of its GDP.[5] Since 2016, opium poppy cultivation has reached a record high and has increased by 63%, fueled by insecurity as a result of Taliban resurgence, political instability, corruption, and poverty.[6] The United States has attempted to implement a variety of policies over the years to curb the cultivation of opium poppies that has been financing the Taliban since late 2002. Formulating policies that address both counterterrorism and counternarcotics is difficult and has been a contentious point in the U.S. policy community for years. While a focus on counternarcotics partially detracts from counterterrorism, evidence suggests that the two issues are intertwined, and must be solved jointly.[7]


Eradication is the most commonly raised solution to the cultivation of opium poppy and was the primary policy of the Bush administration.[8] It is still the preferred method of many provincial Afghan governors today, its frequency increasing 111% from 2016 to 2017.[9] Eradication involves the complete destruction of poppy fields, either manually or with aerial herbicide application.[10] While it sounds straightforward, the repercussions of this policy have been mixed, with eradication increasing prices and profiting those whose fields remain intact. Afghan farmers produce 90% of the world’s illicit opium, and after eradication raids, the Taliban benefits by using their sizeable stockpiles of opium and selling at increased prices to meet demand.[11]

It is also necessary to consider the dependence of Afghan farmers on poppy growing for their livelihoods. One Afghan woman, supported by her fellow farmers, declared, “If they come with tractors, they will have to roll over me and kill me before they can kill my poppy.”[12] Especially because farmers have very few viable alternatives to poppy growing for a sustainable livelihood, eradication of poppy fields engenders considerable political capital for the Taliban as they act as protectors for these poppy farmers. Ultimately, the costs of eradication campaigns fall upon the poor and the socially marginalized, who afterwards cannot sustain themselves or their families and are unable to afford food, medical treatment, or education.[13] Therefore, the policy of eradication simultaneously exacerbates the economic instability impeding reconstruction and recovery in Afghanistan and undermines counterterrorism policy by unintentionally encouraging people to turn to the Taliban for assistance and security.


In 2009, the Obama administration shifted the U.S. counternarcotics policy to focus on interdiction rather than eradication. Interdiction in regards to Afghanistan is the seizure of opium and opium poppies before they reach the user, as well as intercepting traffickers to hinder the Taliban and take illicit drugs out of circulation.[14] Although largely ineffective at combating the large-volume opium trade of Afghanistan, interdiction has the effect of disrupting Taliban supply chains. Therefore, though the primary goal of the policy has not worked as planned, the Taliban networks for trafficking materials for explosive devices have also been disrupted.[15] The amount of opium seized in the decade between 2008 and 2018, however, accounts for only around 5% of the opium produced in the country in 2017 alone.[16]

Selective interdiction of traffickers linked to the Taliban has been U.S. policy since 2009, but issues of basic governance are impeding the effort. Due to the political instability in Afghanistan, including the weak rule of law and judicial system, Afghan courts do not currently have the capability to try major narcotics cases.[17] In addition, this policy is meant to target high level Taliban traffickers, but the U.S. military often lacks sufficient or accurate intelligence, resulting in little distinction between high-value Taliban targets, middle-level operatives, and opium farmers.[18]

Image: Afghan Opium Produced and Seized (2008-2013). Source: UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2012...Image: Afghan Opium Produced and Seized (2008-2013). Source: UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2012.

Alternative Livelihood Development

The U.S. has also implemented alternative livelihood development policies, though similarly to interdiction, with limited success. Alternative development provides and subsidizes licit alternatives to poppy farming to reduce poppy cultivation and induce rural economic development.[19] USAID says that perennial crops from vineyards and orchards or off-season vegetables are the only viable and profitable alternatives to poppy cultivation.[20] These alternative crops require time and long-term investment that the vast majority of Afghan farmers are unwilling to commit. If they switch to these new crops, farmers are also risking Taliban retribution for no longer growing poppy.[21] Additionally, unlike any alternative crop, opium has no expiration date, which is an important consideration in the underdeveloped districts of Afghanistan.[22] As it is, poppy is simply a more profitable and safer investment than any other crop.


The dependence of Afghans on the system of hawala as well as government corruption presents complications to each policy and prevents the reduction of Taliban drug financing. Hawala is money transfer without any money movement and is used in some Muslim countries or for international remittances, based solely on trust.[23] A hawaladar acts as an intermediary who facilitates the transfer of funds and informally logs them with minimal identifiers. With over 90% of transactions going through the hawala network in Afghanistan, terrorist organizations like the Taliban are easily able to merge illegally acquired funds into the legal market.[24] In addition, many Afghan government officials are connected to the drug trade, meaning as U.S. counternarcotics policy harms the Taliban, it also weakens the Afghan government and leads to a detrimental cycle that cripples counterterrorism policies.[25]

Image: US Counternarcotics Funding Allocations by Strand, 2002-2017 ($ millions). Source: Special...Image: US Counternarcotics Funding Allocations by Strand, 2002-2017 ($ millions). Source:
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

A Combination of Policies

Not only have counternarcotics policies hobbled counterterrorism efforts, they have also placed a financial burden on the U.S. with little success to show for it. The U.S. has spent over $8.62 billion on counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan, yet only about 1% of total opium production per year has been destroyed or confiscated.[26] One solution may be to invest a greater portion of the $2 trillion of military funding in Afghanistan in economic alternatives, state-building, or irrigation systems and infrastructure to stimulate the Afghan economy and rebuild the diverse agricultural economy it had before the war.[27] With much room for the economy to grow and expand outside of agriculture, other possibilities such as the development of the lithium mining industry should be considered, as Afghanistan has rich deposits of the metal and Goldman Sachs predicts the lithium market will triple by 2025.[28]

It seems clear, however, that even with a combination of improved counternarcotics policies, the complex situation in Afghanistan will remain difficult to resolve. Without more accurate intelligence and a stable political system in Afghanistan, even more specific, targeted interdiction and policies focused on sustained rural and human capital development are likely to have a limited impact.

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  [1] https://money.cnn.com/2017/08/21/news/economy/war-costs-afghanistan/index.html

  [2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/12/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-attack-jaghori-district.html

  [3] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42863116

  [4] https://www.brookings.edu/articles/high-and-low-politics-in-afghanistan-the-terrorism-drugs-nexus-and-what-can-be-done-about-it/#five

  [5] Ibid.

  [6] https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/Afghan_opium_survey_2017_cult_prod_web.pdf, p. 5

  [7] http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2013/pdf/bg2845.pdf, p. 14

  [8] https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/Afghan_opium_survey_2017_cult_prod_web.pdf, p. 3

  [9] https://www.brookings.edu/articles/high-and-low-politics-in-afghanistan-the-terrorism-drugs-nexus-and-what-can-be-done-about-it/#five

  [10] https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/Afghan_opium_survey_2017_cult_prod_web.pdf, p. 35

  [11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/anderscorr/2017/03/26/to-defeat-terrorism-in-afghanistan-start-with-opium-crops-in-nangarhar-province/#48a5ad4d57d3

  [12] https://www.commondreams.org/views/2010/03/31/opium-wars-afghanistan

  [13] http://afghanstudiescenter.org/2018/01/10/us-uk-failure-in-afghanistan-vis-a-vis-heroin-trade/

  [14] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/FelbabBrown-Afghanistan-final.pdf, p. 6

  [15] Ibid., p. 9

  [16] https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/Afghan_opium_survey_2017_cult_prod_web.pdf, p. 13

  [17] https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-18-52-LL.pdf, p. 68

  [18] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/FelbabBrown-Afghanistan-final.pdf, p. 9

  [19] https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-18-52-LL.pdf, p. 23

  [20] Ibid., p. 114

  [21] Ibid.

  [22] Ibid.

  [23] http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2013/pdf/bg2845.pdf, p. 4

  [24] Ibid., p. 5

  [25] Ibid., p. 5

  [26] https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-18-52-LL.pdf, p. 1

  [27] https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/09/how-the-heroin-trade-explains-the-us-uk-failure-in-afghanistan

  [28] https://nationalinterest.org/feature/afghanistan-has-only-one-hope-lithium-18372


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