What Is Going on in the Poppy Fields of Afghanistan?

by Joshua Foust on 7/22/2009 · 10 comments

The U.S. Air Force just declared a major victory in the war on drugs in Afghanistan because it bombed a big pile of bagel toppings.

The U.S. military bombed about 300 tons of poppy seeds in a dusty field in southern Afghanistan Tuesday in a dramatic show of force designed to break up the Taliban’s connection to heroin…

The military dropped a series of 1,000-pound bombs from planes on the mounds of poppy seeds and then followed with strikes from helicopters.

Tony Wayne, with the U.S. State Department, said the strikes on poppy seeds, that can be used to make opium and heroin, is part of a strategy shift for the military to stop the Taliban and other insurgents from profiting from drugs.

Well, that’s certainly true in a very indirect sense. But the seeds themselves are non-narcotic, and their only real danger is when they’re planted and sprout to form opium-producing poppies. Poppy seeds on their own are really just bagel topping.

Poppy downs!

In reality, you harvest opium by raking a small claw-like device over the poppy bulb, letting it “bleed” a bit, and then scraping up the paste that oozes out. They’re overselling the significance of this a BIT much, especially when it apparently took thousands of pounds of explosives and thousands of dollars of flight time to blow up a few piles of garnish. Luckily, the efforts to stamp out opium are not limited to attacking bagels:

The Obama administration is considering whether to pay off Afghan farmers to stop them from growing heroin poppies on contract for the Taliban, senior officials said Tuesday.

Paying farmers not to plant poppy would essentially supplant U.S. cash for the fees paid up front by the Taliban to its contract farmers. The idea seems to follow logically from the administration’s policy of protecting Afghan civilians and eroding support for the insurgency, but skeptics say it won’t work because farmers would take the money and plant poppies anyway.

Those stupid skeptics, what with their experience and first-hand experience. Still, the British tried this in 2007 to… absolutely no success at all. There are other considerations, too: many poppy farmers, especially in the south, are locked into rather severe debt cycles from planting. It is here we must look to some fairly recent history, in the 1980s.

Mujahidin Commander Nassim Akhundzada is probably the man most responsible for the concentration of poppy in the Helmand River Valley. In the 1980s, he intimidated farmers into planting so much opium he became known as “the King of Heroin.” What’s more, he set quotas for the farmers, so if they didn’t plant at least 50% of their land with opium to fund the jihad, they had to pay him the difference or face rather severe personal consequences. (Steve Coll, of Ghost Wars fame, wrote a story about this for the Washington Post in 1990, in the context of the U.S. declining to investigate Afghanistan’s opium trade.)

Akhundzada also innovated another system, called salaam. Structurally, salaam is like a share cropping arrangement, or maybe a feudal land tenant relationship that is denominated in opium, and not any form of currency. While it looks very much like an opium-based micro-credit system (which it is), salaam also has grievous penalties for non-payment and sky-high interest rates in the form of price fluctuations (the drug lords cleverly avoid an explicitly unIslamic interest, but basing a loan on a volatile commodity does the same thing). The effect is farmers trapped in a nearly impossible debt cycle. So, when the market price of opium spikes during a growing season, farmers who do not have stores of opium or other valuable assets that they could sell for cash have no choice but to repay their debt in opium the following season.*

It plays out tragically. Once a farmer has opium debt, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pay back that debt in a single growing season. As farmers have fallen deeper and deeper into debt in the last seven years of the counternarcotics campaigns (and sometimes even weather), many of them have taken more and more desperate measures to avoid defaulting on their salaam loans. Many have fled to Pakistan, while others sold their children into marriage to opium traffickers or their families. There are also reports that farmers “roll” credit over on the condition that they produce even more opium the next season. The penalty for outright default is reported to be slow, torturous execution.

So when we sit down and think about paying farmers not to plant opium, it’s important to remember that there is a lot more context to the transaction beyond the immediate issue of crop value that year. Opium-producing areas of the country tend to be wealthier overall than non-opium producing areas. When opium is literally the only source of credit in an area, offering temporary cash subsidies doesn’t really get at one of the economic drivers of opium cultivation.

If, instead of a shallow (and already-failed) attempt to pay off farmers not to plant or harvest opium, the State Department instead decided to spearhead the development of a rural farm-focused microcredit bank, then we could begin talking about permanent ways of weaning Helmand off its poppy. But, especially given the surge of DEA agents into Afghanistan, is it even worth looking at a non-militaristic solution to the opium problem? The U.S. government has its eyes set on a deeply failed policy of coercion, when we know that other methods stand at the very least an equal chance of success without all the baggage of failure. But that won’t change things—if the current surge in Helmand continues to focus so much on opium, expect an extremely bloody summer.

* An excellent source on the local economics of opium cultivation in Afghanistan can be found in Wanda Felbab-Brown, “Kicking the Opium Habit? Afghanistan’s Drug Economy and Politics Since the 1980s,” Conflict, Security & Development, 6:2, 129.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Positroll July 22, 2009 at 10:44 am

Combine your proposition (microcredit bank) with my old one
( http://www.registan.net/index.php/2008/10/06/should-we-kill-all-poppies/ ), allow USAID to help plant wheat and corn (in order to overcome the problems discussed here http://www.registan.net/index.php/2008/10/08/hitch-on-heroin-and-other-perspectives/ ), and you might get a compromise acceptable to everyone (but the drug dealers) …

Esp, it would give you 2 years during which to create the banking structure …

Dafydd July 22, 2009 at 10:57 am

thoughtful and well argued, but at the end of the day prohibition in Afghanistan is no different from prohibition elsewhere. It will fail.

We should be buying the opium for medical heroin and to treat western addicts with.

Nick July 22, 2009 at 1:12 pm

bombing poppy seeds? *eyes roll* anyone who has studied the First World War could have informed the geniuses responsible for this particular stunt what a futile exercise it would be. Poppy seeds are incredibly resilient and it was the proliferation of the poppy on the battlefields of Flanders that led to it being adopted as the symbol of the Haig Fund. Also, what a waste of munitions!

AJK July 22, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Re: positroll

I admittedly have a remedial grasp on resource economics, but isn’t one of the major reasons poppy became big in Afghanistan is that the land doesn’t support corn or wheat very well? In short, without fertilizers and irrigation (the shipping in of which would be a logistical nightmare), “our” cash crops simply won’t grow there?

Not to mention, it’ll be fun convincing Monsanto or whomever you’re contracting to sell the corn/wheat to sell “dumb” seeds that actually, you know, reproduce, and not the crazy concoctions which just create another debt cycle for the Afghanistani farmers, one that the US will foot the bill for.

One of the keys to a successful micro-credit bank is to contextualize the loans; trying to figure out what will succeed in the local context. This is pretty much the landscape for anthropologists, ethnographer, historians to work alongside, and not just in PRTs. I’d be interested to see that given a shot.

JTapp July 22, 2009 at 1:15 pm

New administration, new State Dept. leadership and yet tried-and-failed policies being resurrected? Are the policies being crafted by 20 year old interns, like much of congressional policy?

I know you choose optimism, but your posts make me even more pessimistic.

Positroll July 23, 2009 at 6:03 am

AJK: I am by no means an expert, but I’d think that (dumb) wheat is a workable choice in the Helmand river valley, which produces a big part of all poppies. Other solutions (e.g. rose oil, safran, etc, as discussed in the second thread linked to) will be needed in other places. However, getting the Helmand valley poppy free would be a huge blow to the Talian already.

gringo lost July 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Our new Admiral Mullen believes that the same model of Plan Colombia can be applied to Afghanistan with success.


The funny thing is, Plan Colombia did little to reduce Colombia’s cocaine production it just put the trade more under the radar.

June August 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Poppy fields are not immune to fire and I believe that if we put our heads together we could get the farmers and their families to safe grounds and fire bomb these fields. The land would recover and other crops could be considered. The farmers would get the counselling and protection they need till it is time for them to return home. Is this not possible?

Previous post:

Next post: