Helmand’s Flower That Threatens Us All

A Peace Deal With the Taliban Should Address Afghanistan’s Rampant Opium Trade

A poppy field in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan April 2016 Parwiz TPX/REUTERS

A peace deal in Afghanistan may be on the horizon. The latest round of high-level negotiations between the United States and the Taliban ended last week in Doha without a formal agreement, but with cautious optimism on both sides. If the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, gets the deal he reportedly seeks, all parties in Afghanistan will observe a general cease-fire, the United States will withdraw its forces, the Taliban and the Afghan government will open a dialogue, and the Taliban will pledge to harbor no foreign terrorist organizations on Afghan soil.

These developments are, in theory, encouraging: the United States’ longest war may finally be coming to an end. But in practice, the peace negotiations are unlikely to achieve Washington’s main national security objective in Afghanistan—preventing the formation of a terrorist safe haven—if they do not include a plan to directly address the country’s opium problem.

The Afghan drug economy is thriving. Although the United States has spent almost $9 billion to stem narcotics production over the course of the war, the most recent UN survey reports that opium cultivation in Afghanistan is at its second-highest level since 1994. Largely based in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, along the irrigated shores of the Helmand River, this multibillion-dollar trade has turned the country into the “opium capital of the world.” The industry makes up half of Afghanistan’s GDP and provides roughly 85 percent of the world’s opium.

Most important, the drug trade is a cash cow for terrorists. Its steep profits make up 65 percent of the Taliban’s revenues and line the pockets of several other groups that the U.S. State Department has designated as terrorist organizations. Al Qaeda’s ties to Taliban-owned poppy fields are well documented. The Haqqani network, one of the biggest threats to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, receives its funding from taxes levied on the opium trade. Other regional players, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, have made billions by allowing

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