In 2012, pictures emerged of US soldiers in the Helmand province guarding poppy fields. These fields are the sources of opium, which is used to make heroin. Afghanistan is currently the supplier for 90% of the world’s heroin. The United States should invest in destroying the poppy fields in Afghanistan for three reasons: to stop the rampant addiction in the region, to stop the illegal drug trade, and to help the Afghani government gain more control of the Taliban. In order to do this, the US should negotiate with the Afghani government to have the Drug Enforcement Agency Kabul Country Office take a greater lead on drug operations in Taliban controlled regions, address the the ways that heroin is leaving the country, and offer alternative occupation for those who currently work in poppy fields.
As of 2014, the US spent $8 billion in Afghanistan for counter narcotics. There is about 824 square miles (224,000 hectares) of land used for poppy cultivation in 2014. While clearly rampant throughout the country, growing poppies is illegal under Afghan law. This drug trade accounts for over a third of the Taliban’s income. The terrorist group profits from taxing poppy farmers and merchants, getting money from the truckers and opium labs, and selling to international narcotics cartels. The largest cultivation province is the Helmand province. Coincidentally, there are US troops still stationed in the Helmand province. The US may be avoiding eradication of the poppy fields in fear of potential consequences for local farmers under Taliban rule. However, allowing the illegal production to continue is not the answer to employment issues in the country.
By getting rid of the poppy fields, Afghanistan can better address the growing problem with drug addiction. The number of drug addicts in Afghanistan has gone from 1.6 million in 2012 to 3 million in 2015, accounting for 10% of the population. Furthermore, the drug that once was transported into the country is now supplied domestically, building upon the existing child addiction problem. Without the money to feed their children, parents have resorted to using puffs of heroin to help stave off hunger. This quick solution has terribly detrimental long-term effects on children. Repeated use of heroin changes the physical structure as well as the physiology of the brain. This creates an imbalance within the brain that is very difficult to fix. Long term use affects decision-making abilities, ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations. While there is no quick fix for opium addicts, decreasing the amount of heroin available is a start. Furthermore, addressing addiction will help ensure a stable Afghani government in the future.
From another angle, eliminating the Taliban’s drug source can effectively slow down the drug trade. The number heroin addicts in the US has been rising exponentially in the last decade. Decreasing the amount available generates a feedback effect that also lowers the number of addicts. With fewer addicts, less money will need to go into drug treatment–in turn helping the US government save money on future aid expenses. Similar trends would be seen in other countries considering that Afghanistan sources 90% of the drug.
Furthermore, removing heroin would cause the Taliban to lose a third of its budget and affect its capabilities to fight. While the US government has been working with the Afghani government to gain power back from the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement still maintains a strong grip in Afghanistan. Although a smaller budget may not destroy the group, it would slow down their ability to attack. With fewer attacks and the Taliban searching for other avenues of income, the Afghani government can have a better chance at dismantling the terrorist organization.
However, there are people that reside within the Taliban controlled regions. Although this accounts for only 6.4% of the population, many of these people that are working in the poppy fields rely on the drug trade. While this is already part of the strategy used by the United States, more funds should be dedicated to finding other avenues of income for local people.
Furthermore, eradicating the poppy seeds should only be one part of the solution. The US should negotiate with the Afghani government to have the DEA Kabul Country Office take a greater lead on drug operations in Taliban controlled regions. Within any unstable and weak government, corruption runs rampant; there has been much evidence indicating corruption in Afghanistan. Therefore, if the US is able to take greater control of the drug reduction operations, there may be better oversight to prevent corruption. Part of the DEA’s approach should involve addressing the different ways that heroin is leaving the country. This may require stricter airport security or border control. If the Taliban has less funds, less resources, and less ways of selling the heroin, it will be substantially weakened, which may ultimately allow the central government to reclaim control more easily.