Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

From Bad to Bombing: US counter-narcotics policies in Afghanistan

Jelena Bjelica 15 min

Afghanistan’s opium-driven economy has been a thorn in side of its international backers, and a major challenge for fighting the insurgency and rebuilding a functioning state. Through the lens of the military side of counter-narcotic strategies, the United States and its international allies have pursued various counter-narcotics approaches, centred mainly on eradication and interdiction. However, none of these have resulted in fewer drugs. To the contrary, they have contributed to an expansion in the opium poppy area. The new US administration recently has decided to up the game by conducting its first ever series of air strikes against alleged Taleban drug labs. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks back at the US counter-narcotics policies in Afghanistan, to assess how effective this new approach might be.

opium 2022Afghan government-led eradication in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah in 2015. Credit: Andrew Quilty, 2015.

On 19 and 20 November, US and Afghan forces conducted a combined 24-hour operation to strike several alleged Taleban drug labs and one so-called command-and-control node in the north of Helmand province. A press release from the Resolute Support Mission said the strikes – three in Kajaki district, four in Musa Qalah district and one in Sangin district – were successful. From videos of the strikes, it appears the operation was named “Jagged Knife” (see these two Resolute Support Facebook posts here and here).

The US forces said that the airstrikes were the first authorised use of the new approach under President Trump’s strategy in South Asia, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, “that allow U.S. forces to actively pursue terrorist elements and attack them offensively in collaboration with Afghan forces.” In the words of General Nicholson “never before have we had the kind of trust and cooperation [with the Afghan military] that makes these types of strikes possible.” President Ashraf Ghani endorsed the new campaign (quoted here) “We’re determined to tackle criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force.”

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted a local Afghan official who claimed that, as a result of the airstrikes, “44 drug smugglers were killed and their heroin labs completely destroyed”. The Afghan Taleban’s Voice of Jihad website reported on 20 November 2017 that ten members of a family, including children and women, had been killed in the US air strikes in Musa Qala and seven houses destroyed. They also rejected the existence of any heroin factories in Helmand (quoted here).

Neither the Afghan government, nor the US forces, reported that there had been civilian casualties in the attacks. The Resolute Support mission in its press release said that, for the first time, US Air Force F22A Raptors has been used in Afghanistan, “principally because of their ability to mitigate civilian casualties and inadvertent damage by employing small diameter bombs during U.S. airstrikes.” Nevertheless, given that the drug labs for processing the opium poppy into heroin in Afghanistan are not clearly marked stand-alone factories, but rather improvised facilities, often operated in civilian residences, it is likely that there could have been some civilian victims.

2017: A turnaround in the US policy

The US counter-narcotics approach in Afghanistan has changed dramatically since the 1980s, when it mainly involved passive observation of developments on the ground. Following the military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. stepped up their game and tried various counter-narcotics tactics, primarily centred around eradication and interdiction, as it will be explained in detail below. However, in late 2017, as a result of the new US president’s strategy for South Asia, there was a turnaround in the government’s counter-narcotics policy and, for the first time, included airstrikes against drug facilities that are linked to the insurgency, and operating without any legal limitations, as was the case before (see also this AAN analysis on Trump’s strategy on Afghanistan here and here.) Some 90 days after the announcement of the new strategy authorising US forces to “attack the enemy across the breadth and the depth of the battle space,” as the US commander on the ground, General John Nicholson put it, the US forces in Afghanistan conducted their first ever aerial bombing of heroin labs in Helmand. According to Nicholson, the new strategy also allowed the U.S. forces to attack “[the enemy’s] financial networks and revenue streams.”

At a subsequent press conference, Nicholson announced that the strikes were “just the beginning.” He said:

To give you a sense of scale, in Afghanistan, there’s an estimated — you know, the Drug Enforcement Agency would estimate there’s anywhere between 400 and 500 drug labs active at any given time. So, last night, we took about 10 of those out — off the battlefield in one night.

Nicholson military strategy is to hit the Taleban “where it hurts,” i.e. their finances. According to a Resolute Support estimate, published on 30 November 2017, the Afghan and US operations against Taleban heroin labs on 19 November have caused financial damage to the Taleban of 11 million USD.

This aggressive US counter-narcotics strategy could indicate that interdictions, i.e. raids against drug traffickers with links to insurgency that the US favoured until 2014, have been elevated to aerial bombing. This may be happening simply because the latter requires less personnel (the US do not have enough ground troops for raids and interdiction anymore). It may also be that such attacks generate more media coverage. There is a fear now that, in future, the air strikes could be used as the primary counter-narcotics measure in Afghanistan, given that the number of US Air Force attacks increased significantly in the last year. (1) However, there is no guarantee that the new, more remotely controlled method will be any the more successful. Almost certainly, it will be deadlier, as UNAMA findings show about the growing number of civilian casualties caused by the air war (AAN analysis here).

A look back: US counter-narcotic policies 1979- 2017

The dawn of Afghanistan’s drug industry

The beginning of Afghanistan opium industry dates back to the anti-Soviet jihad of 1979 (see here and here and here). Between 1979 and 1989 the mujahedin fighters used profits from the opium trade to buy weapons for their war against the Soviets. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the different warring mujahedin factions encouraged the continuation of opium cultivation in their respective fiefdoms to finance their micro-conflicts, which resulted in the factional wars in the 1990s.

When the Taleban took power in 1996, they lacked any substantial international financial support, as their regime was not recognised, they exploited the opium production as a source of tax revenue. The opposing force, the Northern Alliance, continued using drug profits to maintain their power base and position (see here). Although, the Taleban, in order to please the UN and attract aid for the country, banned opium cultivation in their final year in power in 2001, Afghan opium production between 1979 and 2002 had increased more than 15-fold. Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer, accounting for almost three-quarters of global opium production (see here).

During the 1980s and 1990s, a US counter-narcotic policy in Afghanistan was almost non-existent. Although the CIA was arming and supporting the mujahedin fighters, it kept a blind eye on their involvement in the drugs trafficking. According to a forthcoming book by Alfred W McCoy, titled “In the Shadows of the American Century” (reviewed here), the State Department did report on drugs. For example, in the late 1980s, it acknowledged that resistance elements took up opium production and trafficking “to provide staples for [the] population under their control and to fund weapons purchases”. McCoy also quoted Charles Cogan, a former director of the CIA’s Afghan operation, who, in 1995, explained the agency’s choice: “There was fallout in term of drugs, yes. But the main objective was accomplished. The Soviets left Afghanistan.”

US stepping up the game: 2002 – 2009

At the beginning of the international intervention in Afghanistan the policy on paper, as well as the action in the field of counter-narcotics, was vague. This was true both for the civilian and the military actors. The best example on policy is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1401 from March 2002. This provided the mandate to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) (2) that mentioned “the vital importance of combating the cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs”. This only appeared in its preamble clauses that meant that no concrete policy was spelled out in the main text.

On the ground, the US and allied military forces played a politically sensitive game in order not to upset their Afghan military allies – “the war entrepreneurs of the former Northern Alliance [who] integrated themselves into the emerging political system under the guise of legitimate politicians,” as German analyst Citha D. Maass put it in a report translated by AAN. The US, with only 9,700 troops on the ground by the end of 2002 (see here), took a hands-off approach to the drug problem in Afghanistan. They focused on working with former warlords (who were involved in the drugs business) to fight al-Qaeda and the Taleban (see here). It should be noted that the US, the UN and the United Kingdom counter-narcotics efforts also included institution building, such as the new Ministry of Counter-narcotics, the Counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan, the Criminal Justice Task Force, amongst other initiatives such as the Alternative Livelihoods programmes. However, this analysis is only concerned with the military side of counter-narcotic strategies.

As part of the 2002 Bonn Agreement, the UK initially assumed the role of the international community’s “lead nation” for the counter-narcotics support (Germany led on police reform; Italy on justice reform; and the US on creating new Afghan military forces), during the period of the transitional government in Afghanistan. The UK’s counter-narcotics policy followed the same political considerations as the US’s and was built around a programme for promoting compensated eradication. The government in London would pay 350 US dollars to farmers for each jerib (0.2 hectare) of poppy they themselves eradicated; a programme for which 71.75 million USD had been committed. In 2002, UK forces were concentrated in Kabul, with 1,700 soldiers working alongside other allied units; see here.

The UN also backed and facilitated this initiative. It stressed in its 2003 UNSC Resolution on Afghanistan that “recovery or reconstruction assistance ought to be provided […] where local authorities demonstrate a commitment to maintaining a secure environment, respecting human rights and countering narcotics.” The policy, nevertheless, was aborted after less than a year because it was plagued by numerous problems, including corruption. This programme mainly focussed on Nangrahar. At that stage, this was one of the largest poppy-producing provinces and UK troops had not as yet arrived in Helmand; the largest producer province. Also, local poppy-substitution initiatives elsewhere faced difficulties in attracting British support. (3)

By 2004, the policy refocused on interdiction. This was not very successful nor did it have a desired impact, because intelligence was often flawed or provided by Afghan allies to settle personal scores.

In January 2006, when the Afghanistan Compact, the key political agreement between the international community and the government of Afghanistan, came into force, the UK moved to be the lead nation on counter-narcotics. As in all other sectors, Afghanistan took over, at least nominally, to reflect that, from now on, policies and implementation would be ‘Afghan-led’. (4)

The US had already become critical of the UK counter-narcotics action as early as 2004, mainly because it found the approach to eradication “overly restrictive.” US journalist James Risen describes in his book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” (pp 152-62) what probably was the only, or one of the few, airstrikes against drug-related targets since 9/11. (A British Special Forces team had called in a US air strike against a drug lab, but it is unclear if US commanders even knew what the target was.) Risen further quotes Robert B. Charles, Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), as saying: “We had regular reports of where the labs were. There were not large numbers of them. We could have destroyed all the labs and warehouses in the three primary provinces involved in drug trafficking… in a week.” (See also Charles’s testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, entitled “Afghanistan: Are the British Counter Narcotics Efforts Going Wobbly”).

In 2005, the US developed its first own counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan and allotted over two billion USD “to stem the production, consumption and trafficking of illicit drugs in the country through elimination/eradication, interdiction, justice reform, public information, and drug demand reduction.”

However, this came too late, because Afghanistan’s drug economy had been consolidated already by 2005, mainly by “the new breed of ‘warlord politicians’ who occupied powerful positions, while remaining actively involved in the illicit economy,” as Maass pointed out. The potential gross value of the opiate economy in that period was equivalent to almost half of Afghanistan’s total licit GDP (see this AAN analysis).

Between 2003 and 2009, US counter-narcotic policies had mainly focused on eradication and interdiction efforts (see here, and here).

These policies, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at Brookings, had severe negative effects on the overall US combat mission in Afghanistan as they had alienated the local population (who saw themselves as its main target and also as, temporarily, there was no compensation issued for eradicated poppy) from the national government, as well as from local tribal elites or local administration when they had agreed to eradication. Together, these effects motivated some people to support the Taleban or to withdraw cooperation with the international and Afghan troops and government (see here).

William Byrd’s 2008 paper on Afghanistan’s opium economy challenge draws a similar conclusion. He wrote that the Government’s anti- drugs campaign in 2004/05 “which achieved by far its greatest success in Nangarhar Province, also carried significant political costs for the Government, especially in that province” in the form of what he called “a political reaction, which in the Afghanistan context can be exploited by anti-government interests and by the drug industry itself.”

An insightful read on why the US eradication efforts failed is also offered in the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee report from August 2009. The report pointed to social injustice, showing that DynCorp International, a major US Government contractor, “has been paid 35 million to 45 million USD a year to supervise manual eradication efforts most often carried out by Afghans paid a few dollars a day.” (5)

Interdiction efforts, including the destruction of heroin processing facilities in night raids undertaken between 2003 and 2009 also failed to generate the desired effects. Since 2009, the interdiction efforts included ‘kill or capture’ missions. This tactic was heavily flawed given the entrenched corruption and favouritism in the counter-narcotics police forces, as Felbab-Brown pointed out in her testimony before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control held in October 2009. There she stated that these efforts have been “manipulated to eliminate drug competition and ethnic and tribal rivals.” She added, “operations were largely conducted against small vulnerable traders who could neither sufficiently bribe nor adequately intimidate the interdiction teams and their supervisors within the Afghan government.” Byrd highlighted another aspect; namely that “cases have been reported of drug traders being arrested, but then released in return for a payment,” adding that there had been cases of “their drug shipments being confiscated, not for destruction, but for onward sale by corrupt local authorities, including the possibility of returning part of the shipment to the trader concerned for an additional payment.” (See also this AAN analysis here)

2009: disagreement in NATO and the US modification in policy

A change in the general diplomatic discourse was already noticeable in 2007; a year that also marked a historical record in opium cultivation levels with 193,000 hectares planted with opium poppy; a figure only topped in 2013, 2014 and 2017. (6) For example, in the preamble clauses of the UNSC 2007 Resolution, concerns were expressed over the links between terrorism and illicit drugs. This also meant that for the first time UN mentioned counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics in the same breath. The US military had been using that line since 2004. It also meant that the UN adopted the US position of a drugs economy controlled by the insurgents, although it had had a more balanced stance before.

A year later, in October 2008, as a US initiative, it was agreed at the meeting of NATO defence ministers that NATO soldiers in Afghanistan could attack opium traffickers. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report from August 2009 stated that the authorisation for using lethal force on traffickers, which came in early 2009, “caused a stir at NATO”, because “some [member-]countries questioned whether the killing traffickers and destroying drug labs complied with international law.” Germany, in particular, refused to follow this approach, while the UK, for example, was prepared to back it. Each kill-or-capture mission was to be signed off by military lawyers “who will need to be satisfied that a drug smuggler is clearly linked to the insurgency,” the Guardian reported at the time. As a result, this policy was not long-lived and very few, if any, such missions were carried out. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Secretary General of NATO at the time, the US Senate report said, ensured that “filters had been put in place to make sure the alliance remains within the bounds of the law.”

The 2009 policy modification, which came with Obama’s administration new counter-narcotics strategy, dropped eradication and centred on increased interdiction. This primarily targeted Taleban-linked traffickers, and a rural development strategy as a means to help farmers to identify what alternative crops could be grown and where (see here and here). The US also developed an agriculture strategy for Afghanistan, for the first time, which foresaw deployment of 450 additional civilian officers to oversee its implementation.

This change was also reflected in the 2009 UNSC Resolution on Afghanistan, which, for the first time, called upon ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom “to continue to address the threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan posed by the Taleban, al-Qaida, illegally armed groups, criminals and those involved in the narcotics trade.” [italics by AAN]

However, these tactics also have not been successful. As noted by Felbab-Brown again. After hundreds of interdiction raids were conducted in 2009, especially in southern Afghanistan, these had almost no effect on the Taleban’s resource flows. (7) She further elaborated that even at the height of the US military surge in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2012, “the cumulative effects of the narcotics interdiction effort to suppress the Taleban financial flows did not affect their activities and sustainability at the strategic level.” This policy also neglected the point that the larger part of the Afghan drugs economy was not controlled by the insurgents. “Moreover, the strategy of using night raids and house searches to both capture ‘high-value’ targets (whatever that exactly means) and search for drugs and explosives blurred the distinction between farmers and ‘high-value’ drug traffickers and Taleban operatives,” Felbab-Brown pointed out.

As John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, put it in his testimony before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in January 2014:

Since 2002, the U.S. counter narcotics effort has evolved from one that emphasized eradicating poppy fields and interdicting drugs, to one more closely aligned with the overall U.S. counter-insurgency strategy [… o]n my last trip to Afghanistan, no one at the Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the U.S. government counter narcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after the 2014 transition.

That this is correct is supported by the statistics: between 2009 and 2014, Afghanistan managed to add to its opium cultivation scorecard two more record years. In 2013, an estimated 209,000 hectares were planted with opium poppy, and in 2014 224,000 hectares.

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, 1994 – 2017 (hectares). Source: UNODC, Annual Opium Survey 2017

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, 1994 – 2017 (hectares). Source: UNODC, Annual Opium Survey 2017

Following the Afghan presidential elections of 2014 and the withdrawal of most US combat forces in December of that year, the counter-narcotic efforts seemed to enter into a lull. President Ghani appointed a female law professor of Uzbek ethnicity, Salamat Azimi, as the Minister of counter-narcotics in April 2015. This political appointment was meant to gratify the coalition with Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first vice president and the leader of Jombesh-e Melli political party. Azemi, who comes from a university background and had never held a ministerial position before, was a weak candidate, for what some refer to as “the toughest job in world.”

There was almost no eradication under Azemi’s tenure, as the UNODC annual opium surveys published between 2015 and 2017 indicate. This is understandable, given that eradication had become an effort led by the provincial governors. It required considerable personal engagement and stature on the part of the minister to convince some governors to undertake it. (For a discussion of the hurdles woman in Afghan politics still face, see this recent New York Times article) An official from the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) told AAN in 2016 that, in the first year of her tenure, Azemi only travelled to Bamiyan (in early 2016), a province that had not seen any poppy cultivation since 2005, to open a new wing of the city’s university. President Ghani, who is known for his tendency to micro-manage, also did not make eradication a priority. The change of administration in the US in 2016/17 also contributed to a lack of a clear policy and, in general, pushed counter-narcotic objectives to being secondary.

Counter-narcotics at which cost?

The US and its allies, as explained above, have tried a variety of approaches to counter the expansion of drug industry in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2017. This has included the latest airstrikes against drug processing facilities under the Trump’s administration new US strategy for South Asia. Apart from humanitarian and ‘technical’ considerations, the main shortcoming was, and still is, that the approach is at least blinkered, if not ‘blind in one eye’. It targets the insurgency and leaves other actors profiting from it, given that they are considered allies in the anti-insurgency campaign.

Central indicators also prove that these approaches have been counter-productive and have produced the opposite outcomes from those intended. The attempts at eradication have resulted in more acreage being planted and, subsequently, more opium paste being produced. Meanwhile, tactics for intense interdiction have resulted in the consolidation of the drug industry. Allies, such as warlords, commanders and other actors in this drugs business, have often been able to use their access to the US forces to manipulate the campaign and redirect these efforts in order to eliminate their competition.

As intelligence obtained from Afghan allies, among other sources, undoubtedly will continue to be key to the ‘new’ approach, why would then airstrikes make a difference?


Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kouvo


(1) According to a Washington Post article from November 2017 “the Air Force had dropped 2,901 weapons in Afghanistan in 2017 through to the end of September, up from 1,337 in all of 2016 and 947 in all of 2015.”

(2) The UNAMA mandate is reviewed annually, with the latest renewal on 17 March 2017 when the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2344 (2017).

(3) In 2003, the Mangal tribe in Paktia and Khost province approached the local UNAMA office after it had heard about the British compensation programme and had taken a decision through its Central Shura (since then collapsed) to ban all poppy cultivation. The UNAMA office in Gardez and the UN agencies were able to verify that this had indeed been implemented almost completely, but requests for funding remained unheard. (AAN colleague Thomas Ruttig then headed this UNAMA office. About some fallout, read this AAN analysis.)

(4) For UK counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan post 2006 see this blog entry by David Mansfield, a leading UK expert on Afghan drugs.

(5) See also in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report from August 2009 on the aerial spraying debates in the period from 2001 to 2008 (p 7):

The most effective method for widespread eradication is widely understood to be aerial spraying, the technique used to eliminate huge portions of Colombia’s coca crop. Crop dusters can drop herbicides on vast fields in a short time, outside the range of insurgent fire. But the Afghan Government, Britain and other countries opposed aerial spraying for a variety of reasons. Explaining the benefits and safety of spraying would be difficult in a country with a literacy rate of only 28 percent. More significantly, the tactic would give the Taliban a dynamic propaganda victory. ‘‘If we began aerial spraying of poppy crops, every birth defect in Afghanistan would be blamed on the United States,’’ said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. ‘‘Afghans also still remember that the Russians dropped small bombs disguised as toys. Every time a child picked one up, death and destruction resulted. The general belief is that bad things come from planes.’’

Others offer a more sinister interpretation of the refusal of Afghan officials to allow aerial spraying. In 2004 and 2005, Charles and other State Department counter-narcotics officials thought that they had reached an agreement among a large number of influential clerics and tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan to support aerial spraying. President Karzai agreed tentatively to a pilot project. But the Afghan cabinet rejected the idea outright, banning all forms of aerial spraying. ‘‘Some of them were protecting the source of their own wealth,’’ said Charles in the recent interview.

(6) The metric unit of hectares under opium cultivation is used here as an indicator, because it shows the increase in area under the opium poppy cultivation. This implies, that socio-political conditions country-wide and lack of rule of law allowed more poppy to be planted. It also shows that considerable number of farmers were prepared to risk (or were aware that there was no risk) and, thus, allotted more land for opium poppy.

(7) See also in the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee report from August 2009 a section titled “A Metaphor for War – The battle of Marjah”, which offers a detailed account of the three-day attack that started on 19 May 2009 in Marjah village in Helmand province. After three days of intense fighting, the report says, “about 60 militants lay dead and coalition forces had seized roughly 100 tons of heroin, hashish, opium paste, poppy seeds and precursor chemicals used to turn opium into heroin.” (pp 18-21)


anti-narcotics drugs