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Opium A 'Low-Risk Product For A High-Risk Environment'

An Afghan policeman destroys a field of poppies in the southern Helmand Province, where insecurity continues to make opium growing widespread.
An Afghan policeman destroys a field of poppies in the southern Helmand Province, where insecurity continues to make opium growing widespread.
There is growing recognition that the battle against opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is failing, and has made no serious dent in the country's position as the world's main source of opium.

William Byrd, an adviser to the World Bank on fragile and conflict-affected countries, has spent many years since 2001 in Afghanistan researching the country's economy and the impact of illegal drug production. He spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique about Afghanistan's complex opium-eradication challenge.

RFE/RL: The Taliban are sometimes credited with ending poppy cultivation during the last year of their rule. Why then do we see this big poppy-cultivation and drug-trafficking problem in Afghanistan eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime?

William Byrd:
Well, I think poppy cultivation is the reflection of the deep poverty in the countryside and also insecurity and corruption. And it's not surprising that the Taliban ban could not be sustained because the Taliban ban in the year 2000 did not affect the underlying factors which were contributing to opium production. So therefore, it bounced back rather quickly.

And the other point I would like to make, the Taliban ban was only on production and not on the trade in opium. So in a way it was a rather limited ban.

RFE/RL: We know that the drug industry in Afghanistan depends on complex arrangements among small formers, drug traffickers, and transnational drug mafias. But what essentially fuels the industry within Afghanistan?

Well it is a very challenging problem. And there has been some progress in that the production of opium has now been increasingly limited to a few parts of the country. But still the amount of production remains large.

I think the lessons that have been learned from analysis of opium poppy and field work is that basically, this crop thrives in an insecure environment. The danger with the drug industry is not associated particularly with individual farmers growing the opium. It is with the large amounts of money and the risk of high-level corruption and insecurity that is associated with the drug industry.

Security, Development Needed

RFE/RL: Clearly the strategy of eradicating poppy cultivation has not worked, and is even seen as fueling the Taliban insurgency. What mix of policies do you think can help?

What's very important and this is in the [Afghan] government's national counternarcotic strategy, is that there need to be some kind of sustainable alternative livelihoods. And another pillar which is very important is what's called sometimes interdiction, which is law-enforcement efforts against the larger traders or the processing labs.

But in the long run, unless there is a shift to labor-intensive cash crops that achieve value, of which there are many in Afghanistan but they need to reach market. Whether its pomegranates or melons or grapes or almonds or even the livestock, which generates wool for carpets, there is a range of activities that needs to be developed. And the problem is that these activities are often harder to develop when there is insecurity. Whereas sometimes opium is called "a low-risk product for a high-risk environment."

RFE/RL: In some regions, such as the eastern Nangarhar Province, farmers voluntarily gave up poppy cultivation but promises of development assistance were never fully met. What incentives need to be on the table to dissuade Afghan formers from poppy cultivation?

My impression is that if farmers can have a safe and reasonable environment and a livelihood where they can sell their other products, farmers will quite willingly shift away from opium poppy. The problem is that when they try to sell tomatoes and potatoes and they carry them along the road and they have to pay a bribe at a checkpoint. This starts discouraging farmers from growing these crops.

Long-Term Process

RFE/RL: Afghanistan is essentially the supply side of the global drug problem, but unless you do something about the global drug demand, the problem will not be resolved. What's your take on this?

There are examples where individual countries have succeeded to phase out or eliminate opium or other illicit narcotics and that's irrespective of the world environment. So I can't comment on what would happen if, for example, Afghanistan was able to eliminate opium production. What would happen then to the opium industry if there are no changes on the world-demand side?

But I think the more important point is that it is possible but it takes time and it requires a smart strategy. Thailand was able to eliminate the problem but it took two decades. Pakistan made a lot of progress but again it took rather long time. I think there needs to be recognition in Afghanistan also that this is a long-term process of easing the country away from dependence on opium production.

RFE/RL: So when do you see an Afghanistan that's not the center of global opium production and trafficking?

It is hard to give an exact timeline. And we have to remember not to measure opium production or cultivation in any one year as an indicator. One needs to see what happens over three, five years.

As I said there is already significant progress in reducing the number of provinces that are cultivating opium and the remaining provinces that are cultivating are tending to be the most insecure provinces so these will actually be more difficult and probably take longer than some of the provinces like Nangarhar.

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