Afghan hash at an all-time high
By Julien Mercille
In addition to being the world's leading producer of opium, Afghanistan has now
become the largest producer of hashish, according to the first-ever cannabis
survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) this
month. Again, the US invasion is behind the new record.
The 2009 Afghanistan Cannabis Survey revealed that there is large-scale
cannabis cultivation in half (17 out of 34) of Afghanistan's provinces,
covering a total area of 10,000 to 24,000 hectares every year (lower than opium
cultivation, which covers 125,000 hectares). Afghanistan's crop yield is so
high at 145 kilograms of resin per hectare that it overtakes other leading
producers like Morocco, where cannabis covers a larger land area but whose
yield is lower, at 40 kg/ha.
It is estimated that Afghanistan produces 1,500-3,500 tons of
hashish annually, an industry involving 40,000 households. The total export
value of Afghan hashish is still unknown, but its farm-gate value - the income
paid to farmers - is estimated at about US$40-$95 million, roughly 15% that of
opium ($438 million in 2009).
Abundance of supply fuels demand, making hashish the most commonly used drug in
Afghanistan, whose more than 500,000 users are mostly men. Marijuana, the other
drug that can be obtained from the cannabis plant, is a minor product in
Afghanistan as compared with hashish. Farmers choose to grow cannabis mainly
because it sells at a higher price than licit crops and even opium, fetching
over $3,000/ha compared to $2,000 for opium and $1,000 for wheat. Many farmers
grow both drugs but opium is still more important, in part because cannabis has
a short shelf life and is a summer crop (when less water is available for
The history of the two plants and the ways in which they have supported US
foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is similar, although opium's impact
has been more important in scale. In the 1960s, Westerners traveled to the
Orient on the "Hippie Hashish Trail", passing through Istanbul, Delhi and
Kabul. They found Afghan hashish of such a high quality that they started
smuggling it back to their home countries, through syndicates such as "The
Brotherhood of Eternal Love", a famous American group. This popularized hashish
consumption in the West and generated an enormous demand, which Afghanistan and
Pakistan filled starting in the 1970s.
King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), under whose rule cannabis cultivation was allowed
in Afghanistan, even encouraged farmers to use fertilizers to boost exports to
the West, before outlawing cultivation in the early 1970s under pressure from
Richard Nixon, who had just launched his war on drugs. The Afghan police
succeeded in eradicating a lot of the cannabis crops, but conveniently,
cannabis farms controlled by Afghan government officials were spared, a bias
reminiscent of today's situation.
The 1979 Soviet invasion further disrupted cannabis cultivation, which partly
moved to Pakistan's tribal areas, where transformation into hashish and export
took place, just like poppy cultivation and heroin processing. The US-supported
mujahideen used the hashish trade to finance their fight against the Russian
The Taliban regime used opium to finance itself in the 1990s, but outlawed
hashish production, some say because hashish was consumed by Afghans whereas
opium was for the unbelievers in the West, although the real reason had more to
do with the fact that there would have been an uprising against the Taliban if
farmers had not been allowed to grow poppies. The Taliban ban on hashish was
extremely effective - the crop persisting only in a few places - just like
their later ban on opium in 2000-2001. But the 2001 US invasion changed all
that, leading to the spread of cannabis to new areas, especially from 2005
onwards, according to independent experts and UNODC.
US/NATO policy played a role in stimulating cannabis and hashish production in
several ways. First, the invasion itself removed the Taliban's ban and
empowered Northern Alliance and other drug lords who received the necessary
protection to continue and increase their production and trafficking of
cannabis and opium, up to this day.
Secondly, cannabis cultivation has also been stimulated by poppy eradication
campaigns, which led some farmers to simply switch to cannabis. The latter has
been sometimes safer to grow, having been targeted even less than poppies, to
which the US and NATO have not paid much attention in any case.
Thirdly, US/NATO's militaristic policies have not helped to contain the spread
of hashish production: the UNODC report notes that “villages that had not
received agricultural assistance were slightly more likely to have cannabis
cultivation”. The problem is that while the US spends about $1 million a year
to support the deployment of one American soldier in Afghanistan, an average of
just $93 in development aid has been spent per Afghan per year over the past
seven years. Put differently, the US alone has spent $227 billion on military
operations in Afghanistan since 2001, while all international donors together
have spent less than 10% of this amount on development aid.
US/NATO allies in Afghanistan continue to benefit from the hashish industry, as
confirmed to this author by a UNODC official involved in drafting the report.
The document states that “there is a clear geographic association between opium
and cannabis cultivation at the provincial level” as well as at the trafficking
level: “a large proportion of cannabis traders also trade opium.” This means
that many members of the police, local militias, and ultimately, government
officials supported actively or tacitly by international troops, do benefit
from hashish production.
Yet, the American government and UNODC continue to have their eyes set on the
drugs-Taliban connection. For instance, UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa
declared that “All drugs in Afghanistan, whether opium or cannabis, are taxed
by those who control the territory, providing an additional source of revenue
for insurgents” - and what about sources of revenue for government forces?
The Taliban-cannabis association is also emphasized by repeating that, over the
last few years, cannabis cultivation has shifted away from the north to the
south (just like poppies), where the insurgency is raging. Costa can therefore
state: "A concentration of cultivation in the southern part of Afghanistan
shows that the Taliban and those insurgents that control the southern parts of
the country are not only funding themselves by trafficking opium but also by
trafficking cannabis. It's the same area."
True, the Taliban tax and control part of the trade in cannabis products. But
as the UNODC report shows, cannabis trading centers are spread all over
Afghanistan, which means that even though crops are concentrated in the south,
hashish is traded everywhere and exported following similar routes as opium and
heroin, to Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. Therefore, although precise numbers
regarding the total value of the cannabis industry in Afghanistan are not
available yet, revenues are tapped by many segments of Afghan society, from
farmers and police forces to warlords and insurgents.
This might give pause to the many pundits who argue that we must fight a war on
drugs in order to cut the Taliban's finances. Wouldn't eliminating opium and
cannabis crops also cut many other Afghans' income, including government
forces', weakening them in their fight against insurgents?
This question has been pondered by Dutch marijuana shop owners post September
11, who have wondered if smoking Afghan hash amounts to supporting terrorism.
One of the owners, Nol van Schaik, gave an interesting answer: “If the Northern
Alliance are the people on the ground who are going to defeat the Taliban,
people who want to defeat the Taliban should buy as much of their hash as they
can," Van Schaik said. "It's a patriotic duty to buy their hash."
Whatever one thinks of this solution, it undermines mainstream experts' claims
that ignore the fact that those they support are also involved in drugs. There
are good reasons to eradicate drugs, but weakening the Taliban may not be the
most logical one.
In fact, a double withdrawal could be the best solution for Afghanistan: get
international troops out of the country to reduce locals' grievances that fuel
the insurgency, and treat drug addicts in the West and Afghanistan to reduce
the demand for narcotics.
Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He
specializes in US foreign policy and geopolitics. He can be reached at email@example.com.