How Iran Won the War on Drugs

Lessons for Fighting the Afghan Narcotics Trade

A drug addict smokes heroin in Kabul. Mohammad Ismail / Courtesy Reuters

“Selling poppies is easier than selling diamonds and gold in Afghanistan, and just as valuable,” an official in the Afghan Ministry of Public Health told me in 2011. “The [police] is corrupt, the farmer is poor, and the addict always buys.”

He was right. The failure of international forces in Afghanistan to curb the narcotics trade presents one of the gravest threats to the country’s long-term stability and security. Even though the U.S.-led coalition has spent more than $6 billion on stopping drug shipments, creating incentives for farmers to exchange poppies for other crops, and disrupting illicit financial networks over the past decade, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest supplier of heroin and other illegal opiates.

In NATO countries alone, Afghan narcotics cause more than 10,000 heroin-overdose deaths per year -- making them far deadlier than the munitions that have claimed the lives of approximately 3,200 coalition personnel since the start of the war. Meanwhile, needle-sharing among intravenous drug users has led to an explosion of HIV infections from the Russian heartland to communities in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. The Afghan drug trade presents a unique threat to international security, since it has created unlikely bedfellows out of ideologically divergent terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, which has its hands in narcotics transport and financing from Lebanon to South America, and the Taliban, which controls production.

Within Afghanistan, the drug trade provides the funding for the ongoing insurgency and perpetuates a culture of impunity and corruption -- major impediments to the establishment of good governance and a healthy civil society. Furthermore, from a public health standpoint, the skyrocketing rate of drug addiction there has created a potentially insurmountable challenge for the central government. A 2010 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that roughly one million Afghans between the ages of 15 and 64 are addicted to narcotics, up from 860,000 in 2005. Afghanistan’s eight percent addiction rate among adults is twice as high as the global average.

Most troubling, Afghans are

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