Small Wars Journal

Drugs and Power: Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

Wed, 02/03/2021 - 8:54pm

Drugs and Power: Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

By Gareth Rice





Despite a significant counterinsurgency campaign since 2001, Afghanistan has transformed into a true narco-terror state.[1] Providing the source of close to 90% of the world’s supply of heroin,[2] Afghanistan’s narcotics trade has become interwoven in all aspects of Afghan society and has further compounded the country’s inability to achieve a peaceful end to hostilities. The Taliban’s relationship with this trade has slowly transformed from one of economic convenience to a dependency that sees it providing the largest source of their financing and significant political capital over large areas of the country. Moreover, that relationship has helped the group to control more territory than at any time since 2001.[3]


The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) annual Opium Surveys have provided a stark depiction of the scale of this problem. In 2018, despite a drought in large areas of the country, Afghanistan cultivated the second largest area of opium on record, continuing the upward trend in cultivation since 2001.[4] Indeed, in the last 30 years of the 20th Century, opium output increased in Afghanistan by 800%.[5] As a global comparison, Columbian drugs at the height of their production never reached more than 5% of Columbia’s GDP,[6] while Afghanistan’s drug trade accounted for 50% of its GDP by 2007.[7] This figure declined to between 6-11% by 2018 (due mostly to the growth in the Afghan licit economy), although opium still surpassed the value of the country’s legal exports of goods and services.[8]


There have been several barriers to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)[9] and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA) in addressing this problem. Debate as to the extent of the Taliban’s relationship with this trade and the best methods to address the problem have contributed to some of the many reasons it has never featured as a key strategic issue.[10] Similarly, the uncertainty of Taliban profit margins from the trade have resulted in a conflicting prioritisation of counter-narcotics efforts across the member nations of ISAF and provincial governors of GIROA.[11]  The drug trade in Afghanistan has simply proved to be insurmountable and its relationship to the insurgency too unclear to deserve greater attention.


This study seeks to understand the relationship between the drug trade and the insurgency to provide a better understanding of the interaction between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency campaigns. Existing research on this topic has often focused on the socio-economic factors[12] of the drug trade, criminal interactions[13] or financing of terror groups;[14] all of which fall short of providing constructive guidance to counterinsurgency campaigns. By exploring the economic, cultural and political dimensions that underpin this trade, this study will provide a greater understanding of not only how the insurgency continues to thrive but additionally, how this trade intersects with the Afghan society. In doing so, the study will demonstrate the economic motivations for entry into the insurgency and the drug trade, the cultural paradigm that ensures trust between actors and ultimately the political power that is derived from controlling an illicit drug trade. The importance of understanding these relationships has far reaching implications for counter-narcotics strategies and contemporary understanding of insurgent groups more broadly.




This research paper provides a literature review with a counterinsurgency focus across the various intersecting fields of study relating to the Afghan drug trade. The counterinsurgency focus is unique because the trade in illicit narcotics are often seen as a policing or socio-economic issue. As such, there are few studies into illicit drug trades that are undertaken with the express purpose of aiding a counterinsurgency campaign. This in part explains the inconsistent approach to counter-narcotic programs that have been undertaken in Afghanistan. Further, when narcotics is discussed in relation to the insurgency, it is more often an analysis of insurgent financing which does not encompass the full impact of these trades on the conflict.


There was a lack of reliable, quantitative data to support an in-depth analysis of insurgent financing. Cultivation data produced by the UNODC was found to be the most reliable data on narcotics cultivation. However, corresponding data on other metrics of violence and insurgent behaviour were far less reliable. Utilising data on opium production and the deaths of western soldiers, Jo Lind, Karl Moene and Fredrik Willumsen provide one example of attempting to demonstrate a causal link between conflict and opium production.[15] While the use of soldiers’ deaths is a questionable data metric, it was found by the authors to be the only reliable data available. As such, many of the findings of this paper are theoretical in nature and provide a framework from which to understand the insurgency.


There are a number of obstacles to conducting primary research into extremist groups. The ongoing violence in drug-cultivating areas is a significant disincentive for many researchers wishing to conduct field interviews. Similarly, the lack of modern financial infrastructure both within this region and utilised by the insurgency make it almost impossible to accurately track finances that are linked to this trade. As a result, it may well be impossible to accurately determine the level of insurgent finances derived from narcotic-related activities. It is not surprising then to see the significant debate on this topic as highlighted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR):


the extent to which the Taliban participate in the trade of narcotics is debated. While the Taliban are believed to collect payments from those involved at each stage of the value chain in Afghanistan, the extent of their control over the processing, sale, and distribution of opiates is less clear.[16]


Rather than contributing to the debate on insurgent finances, the focus of this research will expand on the intrinsic relationship between the insurgency and the drug trade. In doing so, it provides a framework for understanding how insurgent groups within this region operate and the often-convoluted relationship between criminal and extremist elements. More broadly, financing will always be a fundamental requirement for extremist groups to survive. Understanding how to dismantle these funding sources is therefore critical to defeating them. This research will demonstrate that narcotics is a particularly unique source of financing because of its ability to generate political capital for the group that ensures both its ongoing survival and the basis of its power.


Insurgent groups within Afghanistan operate under a number of different affiliations and with varying degrees of cooperation or competition. The most commonly understood insurgent affiliation is the Taliban, and to avoid confusion in this study all insurgent and terrorist groups connected to the drug trade will be referred to under this title.[17]  Further complicating this landscape, groups or cells within the Taliban do not always operate within a centralised, hierarchical structure. On the contrary, it is more common to see groups that are interconnected and responsible for their own finances and low-level operations.[18] The same is true of the drug trade. Where some groups have almost no interaction with the drug trade, others have achieved significant control of the trade within their areas of operation. Consequently, the findings of this study may not apply to all insurgent actors in Afghanistan.




Narcotics have played a role in Afghanistan since the days of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE.[19] Opium is believed to have been imported by Alexander’s armies and it thrived in the Afghan climate, producing yields far higher than the global average and often in spite of scarce irrigation infrastructure.[20] It is not surprising then to consider that opium has played a central role in Afghanistan for the past 40 years.[21] Indeed, conflict and drugs have become a fundamental part of the Afghan state as both a crop of convenience for those seeking to survive a war-torn country and a commodity to be exploited for criminal gains.[22]


Given its relationship with conflict, the drug trade has existed in its current form since the 1960s.[23] The only variables that appear to have changed are the volume of drugs being produced and where the money from the trade is flowing.  With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, these variables would begin to change rapidly. Afghan farmers increasingly turned to opium as agricultural output declined, due in part to the deliberate destruction of irrigation infrastructure by the Soviets.[24] When the Mujahideen required funding for their war against the Soviets, this crop also provided an easy source of revenue.


While the Mujahideen enjoyed significant foreign sponsorship during the Soviet-Afghan war, narcotics allowed them to gain financial independence and carry out more sophisticated attacks.[25] With the help of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Mujahideen encouraged opium production and subsequently imposed a tax on its output.[26] In what became a vicious debt cycle, farmers began to plant more poppy to pay for the tax and became victims to credit systems offered by an influx of drug merchants.[27] The combination of (US led) foreign funding and an expanding opium harvest allowed the Mujahideen to sustain their insurgency until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.[28]


As Afghanistan’s opium production expanded from 100 tonnes per annum in the 1970s to 2,000 tonnes in 1991, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), helping to coordinate the war, chose to ignore the drug trade in order to focus on defeating the Soviets.[29] Indeed, at one point in the war, there were even plans to flood Soviet troops with heroin in an effort to undermine the military’s effectiveness – highlighting the often conflicting approach to counter-narcotics.[30] While the CIA appeared to quietly endorse the growth in narcotics, the ISI began to take a more direct role that helped contribute to a near twentyfold increase in output during the war.[31] This period undoubtedly led to a transformation of many warlords[32] into drug lords that would continue well after the war concluded.[33]


Following the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan descended into a civil war that corresponded with another doubling in opium output.[34] The opium trade would prove to be a popular market for an influx of returning refugees requiring employment and poor farmers seeking credit to sustain themselves between harvests.[35] Opium would once again play a pivotal role in conflict as warlords sought to maximise their narcotics returns to fund their struggles for power.[36] The political structures that many of these warlords created would eventually establish much of the framework for Afghanistan’s future.[37] As the concept of a central political power became an increasingly distant reality, these warlords created their own cultural, economic and political structures of which opium would play a central role.


When the Taliban finally seized Kabul in 1996, they continued to encourage opium production and offered protection in exchange for taxes on production and refinement.[38] Opium output increased by 25% in the year following the Taliban’s rise to power with 97% of this output coming from Helmand and Kandahar province where the Taliban held the most power.[39] Despite earning significant profits, the Taliban had an inconsistent approach to the drug trade based on an ideological belief that it was un-Islamic, as well as a practical acknowledgement that foreign aid and political recognition would often be conditional on not supporting its continued cultivation.[40] [41]


Poppy Cultivation By Province (2018) and Historical Trafficking Routes[42]