Illegal drugs, armed conflict and peacebuilding in Afghanistan

Beyond “the flower”and the Taliban

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical framework
2.1. Relation between illegal drugs and armed conflicts
2.2. Some ideas on the casual mechanisms of the relation between illegal drugs and armed conflicts (a vicious circle)
2.3. The transition from war to peace

3. Interaction between illegal drugs and the armed conflict in Afghanistan
3.1. The development of the opium economy in Afghanistan
3.2. Implications

4. The impact of the interaction “illegal drugs and armed conflict in Afghanistan”on the transition from war to peace

5. Looking for a “peace dividend” in Afghanistan

6. Bibliography

List of Annexes

Annex Nr. 1: Table: “Economies, actors, motives and activities during armed conflicts”

Annex Nr. 2: Figure: “Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan (in hectares, 1994-2007)”

1. Introduction

Examining the links between illegal drugs and armed conflicts, Svante E. Cornell (2005:758) suggests that “the interaction […] is more complex than it seems at first glance, but it has important implications for strategies of conflict resolution as well as for counter-narcotics efforts”. It is clear that some of the most illicit drug crops and industries are concentrated in countries, regions and communities where the rule of law is weak and these areas are often characterized by social turmoil, instability and violence (Thoumi 2007: 126); this fact suggests that there is a nexus between illegal drugs and armed conflicts. Regarding this type of link some recent literature suggests that “narcotics extend the duration of conflict” (Cornell 2005: 751). Authors attempting to explain this nexus tend to refer to the concept of “war economies” which highlight the economic incentives as driving forces in contemporary violent conflicts (Cornell 2005: 752). According to John Goodhand (2005:213), “war economy has become a catch-all-phrase which is seen automatically as something negative and predatory”. This simplification is reflected in eradication and drug control efforts based on the discourse of predation and profit without considering the “micro-practices and institutional arrangements” surrounding the illegal drug economies (Goodhand 2005: 213).

This topic is particularly important in Afghanistan which is considered to be the world’s largest producer of opium (the raw material for heroin). The War on Drugs and the War on Terror find in this asian country the better scenario: "[b]attling the connection between drugs and conflict […] requires a long term commitment and the recognition that opium in Afghanistan is as much a narcotic issue as a matter of insurgency", said Andrea Mancini Official of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (NATO 2007)[1].

This paper aims to shed some light on the nexus that links illegal drugs, the Afghan War and the transition to peace. I will particularly address the question: to what extent the relation between the opium economy and the war in Afghanistan can affect peacebuilding in the country.

In this paper I suggest that there has not been a one- way causal relation between illegal drugs and the armed conflict in Afghanistan but a permanent interaction. The opium economy has been fueling the armed conflict persistently (in political and economical terms). In turn the violent conflict and the instability have stimulated the cultivation and trade of opiates. Since the opium economy in Afghanistan includes a complex network of actors, “micro-practices and institutional arrangements” (Goodhand 2005: 213) one cannot pretend that counter-narcotics policies will bring about “peace” automatically. These efforts may have an impact on a wider spectrum of people who in turn are relevant actors for state building and the post conflict scenario in the country (Rubin / Guáqueta 2007:5).

To understand the interaction between illegal drugs and peacebuilding in Afghanistan, one has to bear in mind that the participation in the opium economy also has political dimensions. Considering the fact that populations have been relying on opium production and trafficking for their livelihoods, “political leaders also have been competed for their support by offering protection to these economic activities” (Rubin / Guáqueta 2007:12). In addition, the article “Is Afghanistan a narco- state?’’ (Herald Tribune, July 24, 2008) suggests that president Karzai has been opposing some eradication proposals from the US (e.g. aerial eradication) because just as his Taliban enemies have been profiting from drugs, so does he gather more and more supporters who do so as well. Taking this into consideration, peace and stability seem to depend on the political cooperation of those with local influence (Rubin / Guáqueta 2007:12). In addition, using counter-narcotics measures as counter-insurgency poses risks and possibly negative side-effects. Massive eradication may eliminate illicit crops and perhaps reduce the financial resources that illegal armed groups use to further their purposes. But eradication can also affect local peasants and local rulers from whom the state looks for cooperation to build reconciliation and peace.

In the second part of the paper I will provide a theoretical framework. Here I will examine the links between illegal drugs and armed conflict paying particular attention to the theoretical approach of Svante E. Cornell and Jonathan Goodhand and examining the transition from war to peace considering mainly some ideas from Klaus Schlichte. Then in the third part I will present an overview of the development of the opium economy in the country and its implication, taking into account the theoretical section of this paper. Having understood the nexus that links illegal drugs and war in Afghanistan, I will reflect on its implication on the transition from war to peace in the fourth part. Finally, a conclusion regarding the research question of the paper will be presented, where I expect to validate my main argument presented above. In this last part I will present some final reflections about the transition from war to peace highlighting a coherent alignment of the current counter-narcotics measures with the peacebuilding efforts.

2. Theoretical framework

In this part I will present two academic approaches that seek to validate the existing relation between illegal drugs and armed conflicts followed by a brief description of the causal mechanism of this relation. I will conclude by alluding to the elements that I will consider in the analytical part in relation to the transition towards peace.

2.1. Relation between illegal drugs and armed conflicts

According to Cornell (2005: 751), the relation between illegal drugs and armed conflicts has been explored scientifically from two theoretical approaches: “economics and conflict, and the crime-rebellion nexus”.

According to the “economics and conflict” approach, the economical motivations (e.g. loot-seeking) of the combatants could be more relevant than the socio-political factors (e.g. justice-seeking). In other words, internal conflicts could be better explained by their economical causes and motivations (greed) than by political causes (grievance) and motivations. Cornell (2005: 751) indicates that “where a pre-existing drug production is present, the conditions of the armed conflict boost narcotics production and enable insurgents to become involved in the drug trade to finance their struggle, thereby increasing their capability and the challenge they pose to states”.

The “crime-rebellion nexus” approach argues that the illegal armed groups find an ideal source to finance their operations in organized crime (e.g. illegal drugs and smuggling). Cornell points out an important difference between both approaches: while the “economics and conflict” approach assumes that the motivations of the parties do not vary, for example, “the rebels are fully motivated by either greed or grievance from the beginning and engage in crime only for operational purposes” (Cornell 2005: 755), the crime-rebellion nexus model “suggests that the opportunity of economic profit may mutate the motivations of originally ideologically motivated insurgents” (Cornell 2005: 755). The fact that the motivational structures of the illegal armed groups change with time could have important implications in the dynamics of the conflict as well as the transition towards peace. “The narcotics industry inherently makes conflicts harder to resolve, as it reduces rebel incentives for a negotiated solution” (Cornell 2005: 753). The empirical evidence also shows that illegal drugs are related more often to the length of the conflicts than to their initiation (Cornell 2005: 753).

In turn, John Goodhand analyzes the relation between illegal drugs and conflict from a more general approach considering the concept of “war economies”[2], which, according to the author “is used to include all economic activities carried out in wartime” (Goodhand 2004: 157). Goodhand identifies three types of economies that emerge in wartime conditions, namely the combat, shadow and coping economies[3]. The combat economy includes “the production, mobilization and allocation of economical resources” (Goodhand 2004: 157) in which the armed parties intervene to finance their military purposes and/or to decrease in a strategic manner the capacity of the opposing party to wage warfare operations. The shadow economy includes all those economic activities that develop outside the formal and legal framework disposed by the government. Finally, the coping economy refers to all the vulnerable groups of people that are seeking to survive and to keep their asset base (Goodhand 2004: 157). The author indicates that in practical terms there are no clear divisions among these three types of economies, in which diverse networks and overlapping connections have developed (Goodhand 2004: 157).

For Goodhand narcotics are just one of many activities that allow each one of the protagonist actors of the three types of economies to obtain their objectives. In the case of the combat economy, the combatants generally obtain their benefits from the taxation of illicit economies (among them the drug economy) which in some cases include the provision of “security” in the territories under their dominion. The conflict profiteers (businessmen, etc.) are main actors of the shadow economy and are interested in “[making] a profit on the margins of an armed conflict” (Goodhand 2004: 158). As in the case of the combat economy, the drug economy is only one source of income among others (e.g. smuggling and mass extraction of natural resources). Finally, the vulnerable population, generally poor farmers facing conditions of adversity, get involved in illicit activities (e.g. illegal crops) to cope and maintain asset bases or to survive. The interactions between actors and activities of these three economies are intense, close and are given in a fragile governance environment.

2.2. Some ideas on the casual mechanisms of the relation between illegal drugs and armed conflicts (a vicious circle)

Some studies coincide in asserting that a one way arrow of causality does not exist but that there is an interdependent relation (Graubner 2007: 9) represented in a vicious circle.

For a better understanding of this relation of interdependency it is important to analyze the reasons why illegal drug production is concentrated in some countries more than others. A common idea is that the main reason for the production of narcotics is their profitability. Nevertheless, this explanation is overly simplistic considering the fact that “profitable illegal economic activities require not only profitability, but also weak social and state control on individual behavior, that is, a society where government laws are easily evaded and social norms tolerate such evasions” (Thoumi 2007: 126). The possibility of realizing this illegal scenario where the rule of law is weak finally conditions the creation of the drug industry. Considering the aforementioned it is not surprising that fragile governance environments associated to situations of armed conflict are a stimulant for the cultivation of illicit crops. The armed conflicts, with their economic, social and ecological costs not only at a macro level but also at a micro level (householders), could pressure the drug crop cultivations and production as the only viable alternative to confront the destroyed perspectives for economic development and in this manner secure people´s livelihoods. Likewise, other actors could take advantage of the institutional destabilization motivated by simple profit or military intentions.

When analyzing the other direction of the vicious circle (the impact of the illegal drugs on the conflict), it is impossible to avoid the academic efforts that try to analyze and explain the economic factors that intervene in the armed confrontations (especially in internal conflicts) and more specifically, the role of the natural resources in the violent conflicts as suggested by Cornell according to the “economics and conflict” approach. Here, concepts such as “war economies” and “markets of violence” are once again the protagonists of the debate. Some academics sustain that

“the existence of easy-to-export legal or illicit primary commodity goods or, more precisely, the opportunity of profit that such commodities offer, can work towards the exacerbation and the prolongation of ongoing conflicts by providing the funds necessary for entrepreneurs of violence to continue fighting.” (Collier et al. qtd. in Graubner 2007: 10).

The “advantages” that illicit drugs offer in terms of their easy farming, storage, traffic and their constant demand, allow their categorization amongst the aforementioned commodities.

Other impacts of the illegal drugs on the armed conflict could be identified in terms of their effects on the formal and informal (traditional) institutions. The drug economy undermines formal institutions by encouraging corruption, complicity and infiltration of certain actors of this illicit economy in the state. Likewise the state revenues from the taxation of legal activities are reduced due to the shift to illegality, which naturally is not taxed. Said reduction in the revenues could consequently limit its capacity for social investment, which in addition to possible repressive actions against the actors involved in the drug economy, can challenge its legitimacy from the population’s perspective (Graubner 2007: 12).

As presented above, normally the proper activities of this illicit economy are given in contexts of fragile governance in which the state has minimal or no presence whatsoever. The formal institutions are replaced by alternative forms of governance represented in cooperation networks and informal traditional arrangements that in some manner could be affected, for good or for ill, by the illegal drug economy (Graubner 2007: 12).


[1] Meeting of the NATO PA Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security. Madeira. 27.05.07. In. (accessed July 18, 2008)

[2] There are several definitions of war economy. For instance, Phillipe Le Billon defines it as “Produktion, Mobilisierung und Verteilung wirtschaftlicher Ressourcen zur Unterhaltung von Konflikten [...]“.(Le Billon 2003: 145)

[3] See Annex Nr.1: “Economies, actors, motives and activities during armed conflicts”.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Illegal drugs, armed conflict and peacebuilding in Afghanistan
Beyond “the flower”and the Taliban
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Fakultät für Geistes-, Sozial- und Erziehungswissenschaften)
Contemporary Wars
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
593 KB
Afghanistan, Drugs, Peacebuilding, Kriegsökonomien, Economics and conflict, Drogen, Konflikt
Quote paper
Andrés Home (Author), 2008, Illegal drugs, armed conflict and peacebuilding in Afghanistan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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