Afghanistan is winning the war against heroin. Last year, 18 of 34 provinces were poppy free, compared to 13 the year before. Now that most of Afghanistan has been declared "poppy free", the Afghans have gotten the U.S. to halt the spraying of poppy fields with herbicide. While the spraying has been successful in other parts of the world, in Afghan, local officials have shown that they can persuade farmers to stop planting poppies via a combination of threats and rewards. This policy has worked in the north, but is more difficult to implement in the south because of the large Taliban presence, and the formation of several powerful drug cartels. The latter are your typical warlord operations, armed with lots of cash (for bribes) as well as gunmen (Taliban contractors, as well as fighters working directly for the drug boss).
Not surprisingly, poppy crops have declined 20 percent in the last year. And as poppy production gets shut down in the rest of the country, the drug gangs are forced to make a stand in Helmand, where half the Afghan poppy crop has always comes from. The various U.S. and NATO operations currently underway in Helmand are meant to disrupt this heroin hotspot. The drug gangs have to hustle to move markets, processing labs (to turn the poppy resin into heroin), smuggling routes and storage sites. In such a chaotic situation, the Western troops have an advantage. Better communications, mobility and UAVs make life miserable for the drug gangs, and the Taliban.
The heroin sales are the cornerstone of the Taliban resurgence. The religious conservatism that drives the Taliban has always been around in parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban were amped up a bit by Wahhabi missionaries from Saudi Arabia, but the Taliban are simply building on an ancient hatred of outsiders, and the desire to dominate neighboring tribes via religious fanaticism. But normally, such organized, and heavily armed, religious fanatics are a minor problem out in the countryside. The drug money has made the Taliban more powerful, and when the drug money dries up, the Taliban will fade back to nuisance status.
The U.S. has had a lot of success building roads and helping farmers grow more profitable (non-drug) crops. Much U.S. aid has been spent to repair, improve or create irrigation systems. Same with marketing and the introduction of cell phones to the rural areas. The Taliban has resisted all of these improvements, along with their staples (education for girls, music and videos). The Taliban is not well liked, but they pay well.
The drug gangs will die hard. Heroin has brought undreamt of riches to resourceful, and ruthless, Afghans. The men in the drug gangs know that they will never see this kind of wealth again if they lose control of poppy production and refining. Many will prefer to die fighting, rather than return to rural poverty. Although their Pushtun cousins across the border warn them of the destructive aspects of opium and heroin, the Afghan gangs can only think of SUVs, new guns, big houses and satellite TV. But it's the addictive qualities of the drugs that cause the most problems, both in the export markets, and closer to home.
Heroin and opium addiction is becoming a major, and growing, problem in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. This has been an issue for over twenty years, ever since heroin production got started in Pakistan. In the 1990s, the Pakistanis drove most of the drug lords out, and the heroin trade just moved across the border into Afghanistan. By the late 1990s, there were five million heroin addicts in Pakistan, three million in Iran, and one million in the Xinjiang province of western China. Opium and other drugs were also popular, and Pakistan estimated that five percent of adult Pakistanis were addicted. But the Taliban punished drug users in Afghanistan, and kept the number of addicts down. When Taliban were driven from power, the Pushtun drug lords began selling opium and heroin to fellow Afghans on a larger scale. There are now over a million addicts in Afghanistan, and the number in neighboring countries has increased as well. While much marijuana is also grown up in the hills, that's a drug that's been around for thousands of years. It's not as devastating as opium and heroin, and more tolerated. But the ravages of opium based drugs have quickly left a bitter taste, and except for the few who profit from it, most Afghans are glad to see the stuff disappear.