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Afghanistan's Opium Trade: Why Britain Should Not Kick the Drug Habit after 2014

Commentary, 12 July 2013
Europe, Central and South Asia
As British troops depart Afghanistan, increasing production of opium and heroin in the country remains a cause for concern. There is a clear need for the British government to continue funding counter-narcotics programmes, and work with regional partners, including Iran.

As British troops depart Afghanistan, increasing production of opium and heroin in the country remains a cause for concern. There is a clear need for the British government to continue funding counter-narcotics programmes, and work with regional partners, including Iran.

Opium poppy growers

Afghanistan produces roughly 90 per cent of the world's illicit opium.[1] According to a recent UNODC report, three times as much opium was produced in Helmand in 2012 than in 2006. The 2013 Opium Risk Assessment for the southern, eastern, western and central regions of Afghanistan highlights further concerns. Poppy cultivation is expected to expand into new areas where poppy cultivation was disrupted. This is particularly the case in less developed areas, where farmers are planting poppy seeds in the wake of the departing coalition forces. Areas that have been poppy-free for years risk resuming poppy cultivation.

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has stated that the drugs trade was one of the factors in his decision to intervene in Afghanistan in 2001, as it was part of the Taliban regime that 'we should seek to destroy'. Twelve years on, the drugs trade continues to undermine the security of the country and wider region. While figures remain difficult to verify, it is estimated that the Taliban amasses a small fortune from the trade each year - with estimates of up to $150 million per annum. This money fuels the insurgency, sustains corruption within national and local government and creates the necessary conditions across Afghanistan for terrorists and insurgents to operate. The situation is now so bad in some areas of the country that American soldiers are now advised not to step foot in poppy fields or damage them in any way. Nor can they discourage poppy farmers, from growing their illicit crop, which is hardier and commands a higher price than alternatives such as wheat. Something has clearly gone badly wrong.

Fragile Gains

The truth is that the counter-narcotics campaign was always going to be a complex challenge for coalition forces. Politicians, military commanders and media commentators in the region are rightly concerned with what the increase in opium means for the drug trade and Afghanistan's security in the future. The role of the US and its counter-narcotics strategy will also shape the UK's response. Since 2009 the Obama Administration has scaled back on eradication efforts focusing instead on targeting Taliban-linked traffickers and alternative livelihoods efforts. Like the UK, the US has concentrated on implementing these programmes but with limited success. Should the current governance structures deteriorate post-2014 and corruption increase further, security will remain extremely fragile.

The challenge is not limited to Afghanistan. The impact of the drugs trade on Pakistan in particular is cause for concern. For the British government, Pakistan's stability is likely to be a greater priority than Afghanistan in the future. As such, counter-narcotics work in the country - in particular supporting law enforcement activity may become a key priority for the government going forwards. 

For the British government there is another equally pressing issue as the 2014 deadline draws closer: what does this all mean for UK national security?  The fear, expressed by some analysts, is that 2014 will mark the point where the UK and other coalition governments quietly cut counter narcotic programmes, reduce resources and shrink their footprint in the country.

This would be a strategic error. While only 5 per cent of the total opium market in Afghanistan reaches UK shores (the rest is consumed in the region, with Iran netting eight times more opium and three times more heroin than all the other countries in the world combined), 95 per cent of the heroin in the UK comes from opium produced in Afghanistan. This adds up to approximately 20 tonnes of heroin being imported into the UK per annum.

As the drawdown in Afghanistan builds up, so the UK's vulnerability to the drugs trade from the country and region will likely increase, though it is not necessarily inevitable. There are numerous factors that must be accounted for - such as the decline in the number of heroin users in the UK over the past decade, which now stands at 298,752 .The drugs trade comes with serious social and economic costs to the UK - some of which are hard to quantify though some organisations suggest that drug treatment programmes have prevented an estimated five million drug-related crimes a year, such as burglary, shoplifting and robbery.

Investing in the Future

Any plan to reduce the impact of the drug trade in the UK from Afghanistan will have to consider three mutually reinforcing strands of work. Support to the government of Afghanistan even if counter-narcotics becomes less of a priority for them; a renewed focus on disrupting and dismantling the supply chain which will require working with neighbouring governments; and continuing efforts at home.

In 2012, the government of Afghanistan launched the National Drug Demand Reduction Policy for the period 2012-2016. The policy addresses drug abuse prevention and the treatment and rehabilitation of drug-affected persons. It recommends the establishment of regional drug treatment centres and an increase in drug prevention and treatment capacity by up to forty per cent over the next five years.[2]

In February 2012, the Afghan government launched the National Alternative Livelihood Policy, which aims to tackle the root causes and drivers of dependency on illicit crops. It also published an Anti-Drug Trafficking Policy which concentrates on law enforcement resources on high-value drug traffickers and their organisations. The policy's objectives include increasing the drug seizure rate from the current 0.5-1.5 per cent to a minimum of 12 per cent and increasing the precursors seizure rate to between 30 and 50 per cent within five years.

While the government of Afghanistan focuses on counter-narcotics in country - efforts will also have to continue to disrupt and dismantle the supply chain. Much of the heroin in the UK comes via a circuitous route through Baluchistan and the Makran Coast to South Africa (where it is then sent by numerous means to the UK and Europe).  Heroin traffickers rely on organised crime groups to assist them in trafficking the drugs so work must focus on the supply chain as well. Key to these efforts is supporting local law enforcement and rule of law capacity across the region especially in Iran, Turkey and the Balkans. Any work must build on the UNODC programmes in Iran on illicit trafficking and border management and crime, justice and corruption.

While there are genuine concerns that the drawdown in Afghanistan could lead to an increase in both heroin to the UK as well as an increase in purity levels too, it is worth reflecting on the actual impact this is having in the UK. Some experts argue that more poppy production in Afghanistan is likely to have a direct effect on the heroin trade in Britain's streets while others are not so sure such 'a cut-and-dry, supply-and-demand explanation is valid.' There are also indications that heroin use is in decline. Successful seizures - increasingly upstream, at source, has reduced the supply and had an effect on the wholesale prices for heroin. According to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, in 2009/10, 1kg heroin cost around £15-17,000 at wholesale, while in 2011 organised crime groups were trading high quality heroin for around £40,000. An aging user population has also had an impact as people are more likely to seek treatment than in the past. However, data from England and Wales show that drug misuse is responsible for 10 per cent of deaths from all causes for those aged 20-39 in 2011 and heroin and morphine accounted for most of the deaths.[3]

A Future Priority?

As British troops depart Afghanistan and the related security and intelligence infrastructure is reconfigured for the future it is likely that counter-narcotics will become a lower priority for the Afghan government and the coalition community. It would be a disaster if past gains were squandered by incoherent planning for the future. Continued support to Afghan institutions including the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan, Task Force 333, and other interagency centres must remain a priority.  

Given the complexity of this task, clear leadership within the British government is needed. There will be many competing demands for funding programmes in Afghanistan post-2014. The case for continuing counter-narcotics work must be made loud and clear.  The government may not have succeeded in destroying the drugs trade as Blair may have hoped but it should seek to control its impact on the UK. As the draw down from Afghanistan continues apace the British government's strategy for counter-narcotics in the country matters more than ever before. 


1. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

2. Report of the International Narcotics Control Board,

3. World Drug Report 2013,

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