Afghan poppy production for the world. Dynamics and entanglements


Hermann Kreutzmann


Global opium production has peaked in 2017 at more than 10,000 tons out of which ninety percent originate from Afghanistan; never before the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime has recorded a higher production.[i] Afghanistan has become the world-market leader in opium production in recent times that historically only the British Empire had surpassed as China’s prime supplier prior to the mid-19th-century Opium Wars.[ii] Major differences exist between both situations: Then the dominant superpower engaged in major drug-dealings; nowadays a poor country such as Afghanistan has gained a dominant position in production but not in profit-making. Nearly half a century after Richard Nixon’s declaration of a ‘war on drugs’ we find a global constellation where Asian players such as Afghanistan and Myanmar supply the world with more opium than the combined demand that existed many decades ago. Both countries gained the reputation of having the lowest seizure rates for contraband and rarely claim trafficking interceptions. The spending of 611 billion US dollars on US-led military activities in Afghanistan since 9/11 has this country made the prime focus of alert for containing insurgencies and fighting Taliban-style terrorism; more than two fifths of all US spending for security issues was allocated in Afghanistan. The US administration allocated 64 billion US dollars for civilian projects of reconstruction and infrastructure development in Afghanistan after defeating the Taliban government in October 2001.[iii] Despite all these efforts Afghanistan has grown to become the leading supplier of opiates to the end-user markets only after 9/11; an environment where the interests of various players can meet must have emerged and produced most favorable conditions for poppy cultivation, its processing into opium and heroin, and trafficking with high profits.[iv] International organizations have invested in eradication programs and attempted to replace poppy cultivation for other crops in order to break the nexus of drugs and war. Pacification strategies have been directed towards food security or licit cash crop production. Despite spending nearly nine billion US dollars for counternarcotics programs between 2002 and 2017, the general trend of expansive drug production and ample supply to the world market could not be stopped.[v] As Afghanistan had reached an all-time climax in poppy cultivation in 2017, the same year recorded only an eradication of 750 hectares, less than a fifth of a percent compared to the area where poppy is grown. Different actors and factors seem to shape relations in a complex triangle of producers, processors and traffickers in one corner, power brokers, warlords, arms and drug dealers in another, both confronted and connected with representatives of international organizations, border regimes and the world market. How could Afghanistan emerge from oblivion to gain such a prime standing in cultivating and processing poppy (Papaver somniferum) and its derivates like morphine and heroin? How could illicit poppy cultivation become such a persistent and dominant cash crop in Afghanistan across all changes of governance and international relations? What factors allow expanding and sustaining the value chain of opiates from Asian to global markets?

[i] United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, World Drug Report 2018. Booklet 2: Global overview of drug demand and supply. Latest trends, cross-cutting issues, (Vienna: UNODC 2018a), 28,

[ii] Carl A. Trocki, Opium, empire and the global political economy. A study of the Asian opium trade 1750-1950. (London, New York: Routledge, 1999).

[iii] Congressional Budget Office. Budget and Economic Outlook 2015-2025: Report to the Senate & House (Washington DC, 2015), 81;

[iv] UNODC, World Drug Report 2010 (New York: United Nations Publications 2010), 38

[v] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Counternarcotics: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan (Arlington: SIGAR 2018),

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