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Resolving the contradiction

By John Hickman - posted Friday, 4 January 2008

That opium growing comprises between one-third and one-half of the GDP of Afghanistan is an embarrassment for the US and its NATO allies, because their international aid distributions represent much of the remainder. Afghanistan’s runaway success in international criminal activity is hard to square with rhetoric describing it as an “emerging democracy”.

Resolving the contradiction inherent in simultaneously eradicating opium growing and distributing international aid is probably impossible, but that has not stopped Washington from pursuing both policies. Joel Hafvenstein’s Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier, which recounts the author’s November 2004 to May 2005 stint as the Helmand province manager for Chemonics International, a private USAID contractor, is a vehicle used to expose the policy perversity fundamental to the American effort.

Hafvenstein describes the $2.7 million aid program that he managed as a last minute make-work project to reduce the economic harm to farmers from opium eradication. Unless they were paid wages for pick and shovel work, the loss of income from the Afghan government’s destruction of some of their opium fields would make farmers available for recruitment by the resurgent Taliban.


Afghanistan’s post-2002 emergence as the Saudi Arabia of opium is inextricably linked with the Bush administration’s tragic failure to finish off the Taliban after driving them out of Kabul in 2002. By 2004, soaring opium production was such a scandal that some attempt at opium eradication was required as a public relations measure. That public relations gesture then necessitated efforts to relieve the resulting economic hardship on Afghan farmers.

The basic political problem is that drug eradication programs alienate almost everyone. As Bob Kramer, one of Hafvenstein’s veteran colleagues, comments:

I’ve worked with all four of the big USAID counter-narcotics programs now - Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, here - and I hate it. First we force the host governments to accept a program they don’t believe in. Did you ever hear about the Peruvian Congress declaring coca their national plant and planting coca bushes in the atrium of the Congress building? That happened while I was there … Once the eradication starts, you lose the communities as well. You can get them interested in whatever alternative you’re touting, until the government starts taking out their crops. Then nothing works (p.92).

Attitudes about drug use vary across cultures. As the author notes, the people of southern Afghanistan view hashish and opium smoking as minor and common peccadilloes but see drinking alcohol as immoral and dangerous (p.125). Western hypocrisy further undermines whatever local support might exist for opium eradication.

Although Hafvenstein does not discuss economic rent seeking from the opium trade or international aid, as such, he does discuss their economic and political consequences.

Both opium and international aid generate economic rents or “windfall” income for some in Afghanistan. Like elites in countries with exploitable oil and gas deposits or important sites of religious pilgrimage, Afghan elites need do comparatively little to realise economic benefits from international aid and the opium trade.


International aid is distributed in Afghanistan both to alleviate the mass poverty caused by decades of war and to support a client government installed by the United States and its NATO allies. Opium is profitable because the criminal justice systems of foreign countries attempt to enforce drug prohibition. Neither accepting international aid nor growing opium requires making the capital investment and accepting the comparatively low returns involved in producing food crops, manufacturing or mining. Economic rents are addictive.

Corruption is the most obvious consequence. Government officials not directly involved in the production and smuggling of heroin produced from opium may look the other way because of bribery and fear of violent retribution. Barely trained and recruited because of their ethnic, family and personal ties, Hafvenstein describes Afghanistan’s Ministry of the Interior as, “a warren of bribe-taking and ethnic nepotism” (p.246) and its national police as a, “balkanised, tribal, predatory mess” (p.190).

Corrupt provincial governors, many of them warlords with their own militias, blame the Taliban for the violence caused by their anarchic struggle for profits from opium trade. Corruption attributable to opium is ubiquitous. Hafvenstein even discovered that his own project operated under the protection of Helmand’s provincial governor, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, a warlord opium trafficker whose police force was recruited from his militiamen (p.111-112).

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Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier, by Joel Hafvenstein 2007. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press. By John Hickman.

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About the Author

John Hickman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Berry College, USA. He may be reached at

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