Unintended Consequences: How Failures in Afghanistan Feed the US Heroin Epidemic

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Dustin J. Howell patrols through a poppy field during a patrol in Marjah, Afghanistan, April 26, 2012.  U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. David A. Perez.


A heroin epidemic is sweeping the US, with overdose fatalities having more than tripled in the past few years. Numbers for per capita addiction are also rising for all opiates, licit or not. The abuse of opiates in the US has become a matter of serious concern with rates well above the world average for the past decade. But the recent numbers stem from a faraway corner of the world. Western attempts to rebuild Afghanistan while simultaneously reducing the importance of opium cultivation for local farmers have utterly failed. The current influx into North America of cheaper illicit opiates is simply an unfortunate long-term result of such failures.

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2015”, pg. 46 [online] Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr2015/World_Drug_Report_2015.pdf (May 2015).

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2015”, pg. 46 (May 2015).

Development efforts in Afghanistan have seen marked improvements in terms of education, healthcare and civil society. Yet the death toll in Kabul has returned to 2001 levels. Predictably and perhaps justifiably, some are declaring that Afghanistan is back to square one. The past decade has seen the original aim of decisively defeating the Taliban be reduced into a notion dismissed as naive and fantastically impossible. And why shouldn’t it? The Taliban now control almost as much territory as in 2001, with violence reaching most provinces, signalling that the opium war has decisively failed.

Opium has been a crucial aspect of the War in Afghanistan, contributing over 7% of the national GDP. Coalition and government counterinsurgents have spent the last decade playing a game of cat and mouse with local tribal guerrillas and farmers, with the eradication of thousands of hectares of poppy fields. The logic of pro-eradication voices argues that eradication reduces the insurgency’s finances and forces hundreds of thousands of potential supporters into the licit agricultural economy, driving a wedge between the population and the Taliban. They could not have been more wrong.

Poppy cultivation is not a choice, but a matter of economic survival for 95% of poppy farmers. With over half of the country cultivating poppy now or at some point, treating participants as criminals is not just impractical; it is the very antithesis of counterinsurgency. Past eradication efforts have done much to prevent the separation of the insurgency from rural Afghan populations. The US military admitted as much, as stated by one of General Stanley McChrystal’s advisors in 2010: “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over.”

Eradication is itself a deadly undertaking. Farmers regularly resist government attempts to burn their crops, with 20 people dying in farmer-government clashes in 2014 alone. Eradication levels in the past 15 years have averaged around 2% of poppy field hectares, while cultivation has reached record levels.

And that’s where the opium stories in Afghanistan and the United States converge. For all its shortcomings, Afghanistan absolutely dominates poppy cultivation, producing between 85 to 95% of all opium consumed worldwide, including in the US. Previously, the North American opium market relied on Mexican and Colombian supplies, but this is now changing. Canada has confirmed that 90% of its Heroin comes from Afghan farms, and seizures of opiates in African seaports have repeatedly indicated the US as a final destination.

The Global Opium Market

Map created by Felipe Cruvinel. Sources: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2015” [online] Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr2015/World_Drug_Report_2015.pdf (May 2015). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2015: Cultivation and Production” [online] Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/_Afghan_opium_survey_2015_web.pdf (December 2015)

Map created by Felipe Cruvinel. Sources: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2015” (May 2015).
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2015: Cultivation and Production” (December 2015)

The growing market in the US, cheaper prices that indicate increased supply, and skyrocketing overdoses, a common indicator of increased purity, all suggest that the world is in the midst of a shift in the global opiate market towards new smuggling routes being carved out to satisfy US demand.

The Heroin epidemic cannot be ignored, but fighting it effectively will require more than just domestic solutions. In the process of eradicating a poppy field, making sure that the stem and its fertile bud are removed is crucial to preventing the plant from simply growing back just as strong. If there is a lesson to be taken from dealing with unintended consequences, treating the problem at its root source seems like a particularly relevant one to remember.

Felipe Cruvinel recently completed a Master’s Degree in International Security at the University of Saint Andrews, after getting a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Queen Mary University. His interests include security and foreign policy matters at the global level, and Counterinsurgency in particular. This has been reinforced by a life-long interest in History and constant desire to learn more about the long term cycles and trends of political systems. His Twitter is @FCruvi

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