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Afghanistan: Narcotics and U.S. Policy

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Publication Date: April 2009

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Topic: Social conditions (Alcohol and drug addiction and trafficking)

Coverage: Afghanistan


Opium poppy cultivation and drug trafficking have become significant negative factors in Afghanistan's fragile political and economic order over the last 25 years. In 2006, poppy cultivation and opium production reached record highs, in spite of ongoing efforts by the Afghan government, the United States, and their international partners to combat poppy cultivation and drug trafficking. Afghanistan is now the source of 92% of the world's illicit opium. U.N. officials estimate that in-country illicit revenue from the 2006 opium poppy crop will be over $3 billion, sustaining fears that Afghanistan's economic recovery continues to be underwritten by drug profits and that large sums are reaching criminals, corrupt officials, and extremists.

Across Afghanistan, regional militia commanders, criminal organizations, and corrupt government officials have exploited opium production and drug trafficking as reliable sources of revenue and patronage, which has perpetuated the threat these groups pose to the country's fragile internal security and the legitimacy of its embryonic democratic government. The trafficking of Afghan drugs also appears to provide financial and logistical support to a range of extremist groups that continue to operate in and around Afghanistan, including the resurgent remnants of the Taliban and some Al Qaeda operatives. Although coalition forces may be less frequently relying on figures involved with narcotics for intelligence and security support, many observers have warned that drug-related corruption among appointed and elected Afghan officials may create new political obstacles to further progress.

The Bush Administration warned in September 2006 that "failure to act decisively now" against narcotics and related corruption and security challenges "could undermine security, compromise democratic legitimacy, and imperil international support for vital assistance" in Afghanistan. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has identified the opium economy as "the single greatest challenge to the long- term security, development, and effective governance of Afghanistan." Afghan, U.S., and coalition efforts to provide viable economic alternatives to poppy cultivation and to disrupt corruption and narco-terrorist linkages succeeded in reducing or eliminating opium poppy cultivation in some areas of the country during the 2004-2005 season. However, escalating violence in Afghanistan's southern provinces, particularly in Helmand, and widespread corruption fueled a surge in cultivation over the last year, pushing opium output to an all-time high of 6100 metric tons. In response, Members may be asked to consider options for strengthening counternarcotics efforts during the first session of the 110th Congress.

In addition to describing the structure and development of the Afghan narcotics trade, this report provides current statistical information, profiles the trade's various participants, explores alleged narco-terrorist linkages, and reviews U.S. and international policy responses since late 2001. The report also considers current policy debates regarding the role of the U.S. military in counternarcotics operations, opium poppy eradication, alternative livelihood development, and funding issues for Congress. The report will be updated to reflect major developments. For more information on Afghanistan, see CRS Report RL30588, Afghanistan: Post-War Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman.