Drugs and development in Afghanistan: National policy and actor analysis

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Adam Pain, Kaweh Kerami and Orzala Nemat

Executive summary

Afghanistan’s opium poppy economy presents a complex policy problem. It lies at an intersection between various seemingly discordant policy challenges: an emergency or a development issue; a law-and-order issue or a security threat; a peacebuilding opportunity or a conflict resource; and a health issue or a means of securing a living.

To some extent, the diverse strands of counter-narcotics speak to the multifaceted and interlinked policy challenges that an opium poppy economy has presented. But almost 20 years since the counter-narcotics was instated in Afghanistan in 2001, its policy ambitions to eliminate, or at least control, poppy production in the country, have clearly failed.

There has been an inexorable rise in the size of the cultivation area from some 70,000 ha. in 1994 to over 200,000 ha. in 2016 (UNODC, 2016). Since 2001, the US government alone has spent some US$7.28 billion (SIGAR, 2018) on counter-narcotics programming for scant return in relation to the goals of its policy. This failure of policy in terms of its explicit objectives requires explanation.

This report seeks to provide this explanation; it gives an overview and background understanding of the counter-narcotics laws, policies and programmes that have underpinned counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2001.

In so doing, it seeks to map the opportunities for the Drugs & (dis)order project to engage in relevant policy processes. It draws on earlier drafts based on a documentary review and key informant interviews, and has been further developed with a review of additional sources.

The report first gives the background to the context of policymaking in Afghanistan before providing an overall assessment of counter-narcotics legal and policy frameworks. These are then examined, focusing on the key policy areas actors and their narratives in relation to drugs and security, peace, health and livelihoods, concluding with a review of the data and evidence that have informed policymaking practices.

The report ends with a broader discussion of Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics policy challenges.

There have been diverse, contradictory and even conflictual approaches towards counternarcotics between the main policy actors, including the Afghan government. Moreover, there have been sharp divisions of interests within the US government.

The US government came to be the major actor in counter-narcotics by virtue of its level of funding. US efforts shifted from a focus on eradication and interdiction to one that focused more on the links between drugs and counter-insurgency, with alternative development playing a relatively minor role. An internal US government review concluded that the US had failed to implement an effective counter-narcotics strategy.

Indeed, it is the lack of coherence between the major actors in counter-narcotics policy that is its most striking feature. Different actors have had different strategic interests, and the Afghanistan government, divided as it has been, has not been in a position to lead and assert its interests. It is also clear that different actors defined Afghanistan’s policy problems in different ways, and thus there could be no agreement about possible solutions.

It is at the strategic level that the failure has been greatest: the ambition to simultaneously achieve security, peace, statebuilding and development, but through incommensurate means, has scuppered any attempts to constructively address the opium poppy economy.

The policy ‘trilemma’ (Rodrik, 2011; Goodhand et al., 2020) of incompatible goals combined with an inability to prioritise, sequence and manage the trade-offs between achieving security, statebuilding, reducing opium poppy cultivation, and development have meant that few of the goals of the reconstruction effort have been achieved.

For the Drugs & (dis)order project this makes finding possible avenues for effective policy engagement challenging. Greater opportunities may lie in seeking to contribute to a public debate on key counter-narcotics issues, and there may be room for more specific engagement around drugs and health, and alternative development, at the operational level.