The recent assassination of political strongman Ahmed Wali Karzai put in plain sight for Americans something in Afghanistan that has been off the radar for many: drug-related corruption. Half-brother to the president and head of the elected provincial council in Kandahar, the late Karzai was known in southern Afghanistan for his wealth and power—both of which, some allege, he derived in part from his influence in the illicit drug trade.
After his death, media reports labeled him as a suspected player in his region's narcotics business. And according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in illicit economies, in a country like Afghanistan where narcotics made from opium poppy, like heroin, contribute to an estimated third or more of its economy, it would have been hard to impossible for Karzai to achieve the status he did without some drug involvement. "It's very much the economic engine of the country," she says. "Under such circumstances, anyone who wants to have any level of power or any level of economic security will somehow participate in the drug trade, at least in terms of cultivation of poppy."
Although it was hardly mentioned during the recent debate over U.S. withdrawal, the outcome of the war and the future of Afghanistan depend significantly on the opium business, which has been a prominent under-the-table source of funds for many Afghans, including government officials. Therefore, U.S. anti-drug efforts in the country involve a sort of give and take, choosing the lesser of two evils. Western forces try to target Afghanistan's drug producers when they know profits go to the Taliban or to terrorist groups like al Qaeda. But when the illicit cash goes to allies of the Afghan government, they're more likely to look the other way, says Felbab-Brown.
And for all the problems with that line of action, it might just be the best strategy available. According to Mark Kleiman, public policy professor at University of California-Los Angeles and author of Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, even if U.S. law enforcement and the military could accurately target Afghanistan's top officials for involvement with narcotics—in turn, weakening an already unstable government—drugs would still be produced. Take the case of Karzai, for example. "If we'd arrested Wali Karzai, convicted him, imprisoned him, would a single kilo of heroin not have left Afghanistan that's now going to leave? Of course not," he says. "It's worth making sacrifices if you're getting some gain, but not just for ritual."
Though Myanmar has increased its output in recent years, Afghanistan remains the world's top cultivator of opium poppy, producing 63 percent of global supply in 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's 2011 World Drug Report. It's difficult to quantify how much money that actually means for the people of Afghanistan, but based on the street prices in consumer nations, primarily in Europe and Asia, Afghan opiates generated approximately $65 billion on global markets in 2010, according to Brian Nichols, principal deputy secretary of secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. To put that in perspective, Afghanistan's legal gross domestic product was roughly $15.6 billion in the same year.
These economic realities make it difficult for Americans to go after the drug problem, and some would argue, are enough reason to just leave it alone for now. According to Kleiman, counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, like in parts of Latin America, often end up empowering enemies, which in this case are the Taliban and terrorist groups the country has been at war with for nearly a decade. By trying to limit the supply of drugs, he argues, "We are keeping prices high, [which is] good for the bad guys, and we are forcing drug traffickers into areas that are not maintained by the government, [which is] also good for the bad guys. It could not be a more counterproductive approach."