Setting the Record Straight on Eradication in Helmand

There is a robust poppy eradication campaign in Helmand and it is the single most destructive and predatory thing being done to the population.

Both the US and Britain would be well-served by an honest assessment of our collective shortcomings in addressing the scourge of poppy farming and the opium trade in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. As a U.S. Army civilian employee, I worked in Helmand alongside British troops in 2010-11 and am one of a small number of people who has conducted field research to assess the impact of counter-narcotics programs on the population in Helmand. Unfortunately, Sean Rayment’s article in the Telegraph – ‘Why Britain’s pledge to end Afghanistan’s deadly heroin trade has failed’ – is riddled with factual inaccuracies and a dated view of counter-narcotics policies and programs in Afghanistan. For Rayment, the answer to the question posed in the headline is simple (and strongly implied, but never directly stated): People growing poppy are the enemy and their crops must be eradicated, but we haven’t done this. He reports:

When asked why poppy fields aren’t destroyed, given that they represent almost the sole source of the Taliban’s income, most officers simply say: “It isn’t our problem”.

I never met a British officer who was so blithe about the poppy problem, but that aside, Rayment bemoans the lack of an eradication program when, in fact, there has been one in place for years. And it has been an utter failure.

In fact, there is no greater failure in Afghanistan than the counter-narcotics effort. It represents every contradiction of Western policy and strategy, every facet of Western hubris, and all of the elements of the civil-military divide that has plagued the campaign.

Contrary to what Rayment suggests, Western troops and civilians in Helmand have been involved in poppy eradication. Task Force Helmand and US Marine Regimental Combat Teams have long ceased their involvement in eradication because, as many predicted, eradication swelled the ranks of the Taliban and led to more dead soldiers.

The civilian agencies, however, have stayed in the game at great cost to the campaign. For the past few years, the British-led Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team has partnered with the provincial government in Helmand to fund and manage an Afghan-‘led’ poppy eradication effort. This program, designed and funded by the PRT, the United States Agency for International Development, and the United Nations, has aimed at dis-incentivizing poppy cultivation through wiping out some fields in order to provide a credible threat and push farmers toward planting wheat and other crops – for which they are given seeds. These agencies have purchased eradication tractors for the Afghan National Police and set them loose on the population.

Contrary to the United Nation’s own reporting, this program has been an abysmal failure.

Eradication only destroys 3% of the province’s total crop and does not create a credible threat. The crops meant to substitute for poppy are simply not nearly as profitable. Many farmers who have lost their poppy to Afghan police eradication tractors one year have chosen to plant poppy again in the next.

Funds continue to flow to the insurgency. Even if we could somehow eradicate more than half of Helmand’s poppy, drugs would still make their way to British streets. Afghanistan produces an estimated three times the annual global poppy demand for heroin.  And the 3% of the province’s crop that is eradicated is concentrated in the ‘green zone’ of the Helmand River Valley – the key terrain we have been trying to win over. Most of these farmers are terribly poor. They are not making a fortune from poppy. It merely helps them get through the year in a harsh, war-torn land.

So what is the point of eradication?  What is its primary purpose; its raison d’être? No one can answer this question, but it is still somehow called a success by the United Nations and the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

Eradication has succeeded in one area: destroying the lives of these rural families who depend on their meager profits from poppy. As one farmer remarked, ‘If somebody takes away your water on a hot day, what do you do?’

But the PRT ignores this and they do so quite easily. The people in charge of running the counter-narcotics campaign are rarely, if ever, permitted to leave the confines of Lashkar Gah City and assess the fruits of their labor. Those who have systematically researched the impact of these programs in Helmand’s rural, contested areas, including people like David Mansfield and me, have come to the same conclusion: the eradication effort isn’t effective. It ruins lives.

This is the ultimate irony: In a campaign premised (rightly or wrongly) on the idea  of alleviating the grievances of the population and winning its ‘hearts and minds,’ the single most damaging thing being done to Afghans is a Western and UN-funded crop eradication program.

The low-level poppy farmers who suffer the most from eradication are not evil men and drug pushers. More recent efforts to target the real ‘bad guys’ – drug cartels and large traffickers in Afghanistan and the larger region – have borne some fruit, but in terms of starving the insurgency of its narcotics funds, it is ‘too little, too late.’ If this is a drug war, we have lost.

Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy 


11 thoughts on “Setting the Record Straight on Eradication in Helmand

  1. Mike Few says:

    After our little spat at Foreign Policy, Ryan and I got to know each other a bit better (limitations of time, distance, the Internet, and all of that)….

    Given his last CNP product and this piece on poppy eradication, I want to add a piece that might be complimentary.

    Instead over forced intervention, venture colonialism, or retracted FID, perhaps, we could consider an ombudsmen type of leadership?

    So, here we go…

    Ombudsman Leadership- The End of Yesterday?

    Ombudsman: one that investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints – Webster Definition

    “I’m supposed to be the soldier, who never blows his composure even though that I hold the whole world on his shoulders. I ain’t never supposed to show it, my crew ain’t supposed to show it.” Eminem, Like Toys Soldiers

    “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.” -Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard’s conclusions on brain injuries (PTSD, TBI, CTE) and suicide

    In Carl Prine’s lede for One Shot, One Kill, he opened with , “Football, war, concussions and my suicide note. No, I’m not going yet. But I might someday if I think I’m losing my mind to CTE. And you can’t say that I’m wrong to say so.”

    I was shocked by Carl’s description- not for the honesty, Carl and I have discussed these things for over a year in our private conversations, but because that he went public. Typically, Carl prefers to describe his war time experience, injuries, and trauma by telling other’s stories, trials, and tribulations. Prine uses allegories to purge, explain, process, and sometimes compress his own experience. Eminem, Pittard and Prine?

    I believe that there is a middle ground, and it is not through the direct or indirect leadership that we have become accustomed to- the military leader, the chaplain, the FID proponent of Special Forces, or the psychiatrist/psychologist.

    Rather, it is a form a leadership best invoked by the social worker or ombudsman.

    I wish that I could introduce both MG Pittard and Prine to a buddy of mine, a Special Forces medic we will call Nick.

    Nick is a Silver Star awardee whose story is similar to the current news that “1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). Beare, commander, Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, will present the citation for the group’s “valorous actions in support of the Canadian-led Operation MEDUSA, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan during August and September 2006,’”

    Today, Nick is non-functioning, dreaming of one day of leading a life of “clear, mulch, and grow,” but he feels entrapped and unable to get there in his current state.

    If we put Nick and MG Pittard in a room, I’m certain that a fight would break out, and Nick would be charged with assault and battery while MG Pittard ended up in the hospital.


    Carl Prine challenged me to write about life outside the military. As I am still in the exploratory process trying to determine what exactly that I want to do, I thought this might be the most important of subjects.

    On some days, I just want to walk away from my own combat experiences. I’ve been offered some good paying jobs. I can immerse back into what my VA doctor calls “the land of McDonalds, Suburbs, Brooks Brothers, and polite society- a dream within a dream.”

    Perhaps I will this fall or next year, but today, I ponder,

    Who will listen and provide context to our last decade of fighting?

    Who will get them past yesterday, back into the present, and focused on tomorrow?

    What type of leadership will it take?

    I recently wrote my own mentor answering these questions as it pertained to me,

    “I smile thinking back at how you have actually been a part of this effort throughout the whole ordeal, and I think that this is the example of a good educator.

    I don’t know exactly why you chose to continue fighting after your trip to A’stan in the 1990’s or why you felt the need to serve as an ombudsman for me during my personal break point, but I am glad that you did.

    What I was going through was never just about me. You are one of the people that intuitively knew that.

    I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to convey in this email.

    I guess that I’m just glad that you didn’t ex-pat to New Zealand after 9/11.”

    Perhaps, we need to rethink leadership?

  2. Solid analysis. It seems like so much of the CN literature out there focuses on the question of eradication (and Helmand). I realize this is a major part of the counternarcotics, but I wonder if you have found/seen any causal linkages between the illicit opium economy and 1) levels of violence and 2) severity of corruption in Afghanistan. Is this just a widely held assumption that they are connected or are there demonstrable linkages? Would be interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

  3. Very good piece Ryan, well done. I am working on a project on Drugs and Organized Crime, which might be of interest to you and your readers: We’ve had two events and two publications so far – with more to come.

    Short description:
    ‘The project provides a forum for open discussion and alternative policy approaches. Through the establishment of a broad and varied network of senior individuals and organizations involved in the field, it aims to develop a comprehensive assessment of potential policy responses. It seeks to highlight the local, regional and international dimensions of the topic and how they relate to one another for government strategies. Moreover, the project will explore the overlap and importance of areas including public health, education, international law and civil society efforts in informing a comprehensive and more effective approach to drugs policy.’

    If anyone is interest, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

  4. John Dallman says:

    Here’s a piece I sent in to the public “e-mail 10 Downing Street” address in August 2007. It was completely ignored, of course.

    The Opium Peace part 1, 27-aug-2007

    There is a possible solution to the problem of opium cultivation. It’s a bit radical, and might be politically difficult, but it attacks the problem from a different direction to the approaches which have, so far, failed.

    Buy the stuff.

    Cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan isn’t, in itself, a problem. The problem comes when the stuff is refined, smuggled to the west and sold to addicts. The vast amounts of cash this generates for criminals then causes all kinds of consequential problems, terrorists get into the business to raise money, and so on.

    But if we buy the poppy at source, in Afghanistan, we can do several things. Because we have honest men, and the wealth of an industrial nation at our command, we can buy most of the production quite easily, and at fairly small cost. This will vastly increase the smugglers’ raw material costs and hence cut into their profits. The street price of narcotics in the west will rise radically, cutting down on the recruitment of new addicts. With less money for corrupting people, the smugglers are easier to catch.

    We can achieve a virtuous spiral of changes, at the cost of a putting a few tens of millions of dollars per year into the pockets of Afghan farmers. We’re trying to do that now, but it isn’t working; this way could work.

    When we’ve squeezed the narcotics trade down to a small enough size – getting rid of it entirely will be impossible, and should be recognized as such – we examine the situation in Afghanistan. If we have developed the country to a satisfactory level, we can start reducing the price we pay for poppy, weaning the farmers off onto other crops. This will be a long-term job, but we’re in Afghanistan for at least a decade now, and it isn’t clear that we’re going to succeed if we play by the current rules.

    But we can change the rules, if we’re willing.

    Part 2, 29-aug-2007

    Well, it seems I was responding to the zeitgist when I wrote part 1, because today’s Guardian has a page about this stuff, which has been pushed by a thinktank, The Senlis Council.

    They want to use the purchased opium to make painkilling medicines more readily available. That’s not actually a necessary part of suppressing narcotics distribution, and not doing it – just destroying the opium instead – could well make it simpler to get public and media buy-in to the scheme. This is a pretty cold-hearted view, but that kind of political calculation is necessary when you have the Daily Mail and and the Sun to keep on-side.

    The only practical objection in the Guardian’s collection of articles is from a “senior NATO spokeman”. He points out that the drug trafficers will simply force the opium farmers to sell to them, rather than to the West. Yes, they would try that. But we can keep it from working.

    You see, if we’re providing the Afghan farmer’s income, by paying more than the traffickers, our relationship with him changes. He’s now got real motive to tell us when the trafickers threaten him. So our troops lie in wait, and catch the traffickers. The difference between that, and the current policy of searching for the Taliban, is that the people currently have little motive to tell us about our enemies – especially since they’re at risk of getting bombed by us when we react. But if the Taliban are taking something away from them, it’s rather different. The intelligence relationship changes completely.

    The army may feel that lying in wait for the Taliban, defending farms and villages, is “defensive”, “not the positive way to fight”. Before you accept that, ask Admiral Sir Alan West, the {then} security minister at the Home Office, about it. There’s an interesting analogy to the battle against the U-boats in World War One, when for three years the Royal Navy tried to hunt for U-boats, but could not find them, lacking any way to find them at sea. Then the Navy switched to escorting ships, so that whenever the U-boats found a ship to sink, there was a destroyer there to attack the submarine. In the same way, we can’t find the Taliban easily amongst the Afghan population, but if their targets call us to them, and we catch them red-handed when they attack, it gets a lot easier.

  5. SEAl 6 says:

    Dear Professor Evans, in my view the solution may be found, apart from that in the national and international laws, in the mass-media and the way it is interpreted by the different cultures and ethnic groups, there. But education could never be possible and effective without an effective and also healthy wealth, so i wonder who is to blame, here, if not the policy and the admninistration, in the first round!?

  6. Ryan Evans says:

    Thank you all for your comments! I must say, I expected more push back. And SEAl 6, while I must thank you for being the first person to call me Professor Evans, I have a long way to go before I reach that qualification. I am only just starting my PhD research this year.
    ejohnsonaz: There is absolutely a causal link (going both ways) between corruption and the narcotics trade in Afghanistan. No doubt. The incentives structure is such that it does not make any sense to NOT be corrupt in Afghanistan and, in fact, it can be very dangerous for a senior official to be uncorrupted. As far as violence, I am of the opinion that we do not understand a lot of the violence that happens in Helmand. We attribute it to insurgent attacks, but it seems likely that many episodes are also manifestations of conflict within the narcotics industry. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the insurgency in Helmand as a whole is a symptom of the drug trade, and they mutually reinforce one another.
    And as far as research on non-Helmand cases, my friend Benoit, who made the comment after yours, is running an excellent project at Chatham House that is taking a more holistic look at this issue. I recommend it highly.
    John Dallman: I have seen this suggestion in various forms over the years. Buy the crop and eliminate the problem. The trouble is, that would further wreck the agricultural economy. Perhaps this wouldn’t bring us to any worse a place than we are now… There was a brief experiment with the West buying some of the poppy crop – I think in 2005 or 2006? – and it just made everyone start growing more of the stuff. And you point to another problem: poppy is an attractive crop in part because people will come to your farm and pick it up and hand you the cash. There is no other crop that similarly removes the burden of taking the crop to market. I do think we could have implemented subsidies of a diverse array of legal crops (not just wheat and some veggies like they do now) to such a degree that poppy truly would have become less profitable. There are other issues related to agricultural costs that we could have addressed early on as well. This is more complex than I am making it out to be here, but stay tuned for more… And it would have cost more money than we have invested in the Alternative Livelihoods so far, but the savings could have been profound in the long run. I will be writing more on this in the future.
    Please continue to let me know what you think.
    Thanks everyone.

  7. Thanks for the insightful response. I’ve added Kings of War and the Chatham House project site to the blogroll on my (brand new and less impressive) blog site at I’m writing my master’s thesis about all this stuff so I’m sure you’ll hear from me more over the next few weeks and months.

  8. As I have been suggesting since about 1998 to USAID, INL and others, our primary problem has been not to address the opium poppy problem with a broad scope integrated reconstruction program which would have included support for the traditional cash crops the farmers have been cultivating for some decades. Instead we focus on single issues like eradication (the cops approach) and treat these farmers that we have been working with to improve their economy for something over half a century. The US had a virtual continuous presence in Helmand working on the central irrigation system, the present center of opium cultivation, from 1946-79. And wit eradication we use it as a punishment and guarantee its failure with bad timing and mis-management. Poppy fields can be distinguished from wheat in central Helmand when the fields are prepared for planting: the irrigation paddies are of different configurations. Poppies can be taken out at least soon after germination allowing other crops to be planted. But with eradication and the associated corruption near harvest time when the crop has such high value, we guarantee eradication teams’ pay offs not to destroy the crop, and in the farmers minds this process is associated with central government and occupational forces involvement. In 02 when we reduced opium cultivation in Nad-i-Ali by 85% in one crop year (just before our funding was cut) it was done with a drainage rehabilitation project that hired some 3000-5000 men to work on their own irrigation system for pay, some $1.75 a day, start support for the cotton gin that had not had any spare parts for some 20 years, back payments for cotton delivered to the gin but not yet paid for, promises for a continuing reconstruction effort (which did not happen) early warnings not to plant poppy and eradication at germination time, in time to replant with wheat. The farmers in at least Nad-i-Ali were into peanuts big time with Pakistani and Iranian markets, starting in early vegetables with crude green houses and several other innovations which did not get support. The price paid for cotton was and is very low at this time when the international cotton market has recently hit all time highs and the gin set a limit of buying only 3000 tons of cotton compared with some 9000 tons that the ineffective Taliban were able to buy (mostly on credit) toward the end of their time.
    One of the key reasons for the developing drug based economy has been our ineffectiveness (understatement) in addressing the issue for the past 10 years.

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