As the international community begins to realign its military and financial investments in Afghanistan and to press the Afghan government to take a greater responsibility for the country’s future, the country’s leadership and its international partners will continue to face multiple challenges. After a decade of growth driven by war and aid spending, the country’s economic health will be of particular concern to Afghanistan’s future stability—especially its large illicit opium economy. The high cost of the Afghan drug trade for both Afghanistan and the broader international community means that U.S. and Afghan policymakers cannot afford to ignore this problem.
A report released by the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime this past month raises concerns that Afghanistan’s opium economy is growing and warns that cultivation is returning in northern and eastern Afghan provinces that were previously judged to be “poppy free.” The total value of the Afghan opiate economy is estimated at roughly $2.4 billion (in U.S. dollars), equivalent to 15 percent of the country’s licit GDP.
The illicit cultivation, production, and transportation of opium creates powerful economic and political interests on both local and national levels. Moreover, these interests present a fundamental challenge to the sustainability of any formal political settlement that excludes them. Profits from opium help fuel the Taliban-led insurgency and heighten Afghan instability as a result. Officials are increasingly concerned that the economic downturn associated with a reduction in international financial assistance may drive more Afghans into the opium economy.
But it is not just Afghans who need to pay attention to this growing crisis—Afghanistan’s widespread drug cultivation has vast global impacts as well. The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that there were between 12 million and 21 million opiate users worldwide in 2009, who generated an estimated $68 billion in revenue for traffickers—$60 billion of this total came from opiates grown in Afghanistan. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people die annually as a result of Afghan opium, causing more deaths than any other drug in the world.
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