Afghan Narcotics: 2000-2018: From Control and Elimination Efforts to a Drug Economy and Bombings Labs

By Anthony H. Cordesman

If the Afghan government is going to defeat the Taliban and other insurgent and extremist elements, it must win at both the military and civil levels. At present, it at best faces a military stalemate and the situation may well be worse at the civil level. Far too many elements of the Afghan government and economy remain the equivalent of a kleptocracy. Despite repeated promises of reform, the World Bank and Transparency International rate the Afghan government as one of the most corrupt and least effective in the world.




Senior officials like President Ghani do continue to pursue reform with integrity, but the Afghan power structure is still filled with corrupt politicians, officials, and senior officers. Its political leadership is too divided to function effectively, and the central government in "Kabulstan" has limited or no real control over many power brokers, warlords, and local officials even in the areas nominally under government control while the Taliban controls much of the key areas for opium growing in the south.

No Honest Assessment of Afghanistan Can Ignore the Massive Impact of Drugs and Corruption

This is a critical issue shaping the outcome of the war because opium and other narcotics dominate the exports and hard currency portions of the Afghan economy. There are no reliable estimates of the total value of Afghan narcotics exports. Most assessments of the Afghan economy are fundamentally dishonest because they omit the key role of narcotics and criminal activity in the overall economy and only address the role of Taliban in using drugs to raise funds. As a result, much of the economic, development, and aid data on Afghanistan are little more than statistical rubbish.

It is particularly critical at the present time because Afghanistan's efforts to limit drug growing and the drug trade have virtually collapsed, it has come to dominate world markets in illegal opiates, and it is steadily expanding the level of domestic processing of its opiate crop and the hard currency earnings that Afghan narcotraffickers get from drug sales.

The Resolute Support command has reported that there are now at least several hundred drug labs in Afghanistan and that it has begun to actively target Taliban drug labs and processing centers. No official source, however, has addressed the links between Afghan officials and officers and the drug trade, or the collusion between Afghan officials and officers and the Taliban elements profiting from the drug trade. Once again, this creates a fundamentally dishonest official picture of the Afghan economy and Afghan government progress in meeting the needs of its people.

A New Report on Afghan Drugs: Guesstimating the Narco-Economy and Total Impact of Corruption

As a result, it is only possible to make a guesstimate of the impact of corruption and criminal networks. However, a new report by the Burke Chair at CSIS does use official UN and Afghan government sources to trace the collapse of counternarcotics efforts over the past six years, the steady rise of opium output, and various estimates of the economic impact of opium on the Afghan economy. This report is entitled Afghan Narcotics: 2000-2018: From Control and Elimination Efforts to a Drug Economy and Bombing Labs, and is available on the CSIS website here.

It should be stressed that the report can only make guesstimates about the economic impact of Afghan narco trafficking. It seems clear, however, that narcotics have earned at least $2.0 billion in hard currency in recent years, and the total may well have been over $3 billion by 2017. The CIA World Factbook estimates that the total legal exports from Afghanistan only totaled $619 million in 2016. These legal exports would be only be 31% of the $2 billion figure for drugs and 21% of the $3 billion figure. This truly makes Afghanistan a narco-economy.

It is equally important to stress, however, that narcotics are only part of Afghan criminal network activity and corruption – a critical issue in a country that Transparency International ranked as the sixth most corrupt country on the world in 2016, and whose rank had risen to fourth in 2017 – despite what were supposed to be major anti-corruption activities.

Moreover, while Afghan officials and officers almost certainly play a major role in narcotics trafficking, the bulk of Afghan corruption almost certainly occurs in the ways they steal from the Afghan national budget, official revenues, and aid funds; extort bribes from Afghan citizens, manipulate Afghan government contracts; and sell government services.

(These issues are addressed in more detail in Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Afghanistan Affectations, How to Break Political-Criminal Alliances in Contexts of Transition , United Nations University Centre for Policy Research Crime-Conflict Nexus Series: No 8, April 2017,

To put this level of activity in perspective, the latest CIA World Factbook report on Afghan government spending is for 2016. It indicates that the Afghan government had revenues of $1.9 billion, but enough aid and credit to spend $6.6 billion in a country that only has a GDP of $21.1 billion at the official exchange rate in 2017. These figures also do not include substantial portions of outside military spending and civil aid that provide a further source of funding for corruption.

This raises a critical question about a U.S. strategy based on granting aid on a conditional basis, and the real-world integrity of UN, World Bank, and IMF efforts. How can any effective strategy and aid effort be managed – or be conditional – that does not explicitly address corruption and the existence of massive criminal networks?

Key Contexts of the Report:

  • The Uncertain Realities of a Narco- Economy 2-5
  • Focus on Counternarcotics Efforts 202-2014 6-29
  • Weather Intervenes: The Year (Illusion?) of Successful Cuts  in Production: 2015 30-43
  • Afghanistan shifts Back Towards a Narco-Economy 44-59
  • A Steadily Growing Narco-Economy 2017 60-76
  • The Taliban, Afghan government and Narco-Economy Challenge 77-101
  • Afghanistan's Global Impact 102-106

Other Burke Chair Reports on Afghanistan

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.