What Is the Future of UK Drugs Policy for Afghanistan?

Royal Marines patrol though a poppy field in Marjah in 2010. Courtesy of Puckett88/Wikimedia Commons

The UK has a continuing interest in reducing the threat of Afghan narcotics. But how can it accomplish this with the Taliban in power?

The Taliban’s rapid victory against the Western-backed Ashraf Ghani government poses the UK and its allies with several challenging questions about the future direction of Afghanistan. One key question being asked in Whitehall is what steps, if any, will the Taliban take to address Afghanistan’s narcotics industry?

At its first news conference, the Taliban offered a glimpse of its future policy agenda, including its stance on narcotics control. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, said: ‘We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community, we will not…produce any narcotics…nobody can be involved in drug smuggling’.

It is unsurprising that the Taliban, attempting to position itself as a legitimate regime, has committed to uphold international narcotics controls. However, behind the rhetoric, it is still unclear if the Taliban intends to implement a counter-narcotics programme or tacitly endorse the country’s drugs industry.

It is possible that the Taliban will attempt to use drugs control as a bargaining chip to gain international legitimacy and development aid. After all, the Taliban enacted its opium ban in 2000 for these very reasons. However, without addressing the structural drivers that influence farmers to cultivate narcotics, any prohibition will prove unsustainable in the long-term. Moreover, banning narcotics without providing an economic alternative will result in the group losing support among the rural population – as was the case in 2000–1.

The scale of the challenge facing the Taliban is enormous. For decades, Afghanistan has been the world’s premier opium producer, accounting for approximately 80% of global supply. The country is also the world’s second largest producer of cannabis resin and, in recent years, has emerged as a significant methamphetamine manufacturer. Moreover, despite the US and the UK spending approximately $9 billion on counter-narcotics programmes since 2002, the drugs industry in Afghanistan is more entrenched and wide-ranging than ever.

The UK must shoulder part of the responsibility for record levels of narcotics production in Afghanistan. But the UK – like Afghanistan’s neighbours and European countries – remains an important destination for Afghan heroin: 95% of the heroin found on British streets originates from Afghanistan. The failure to make inroads against the drugs industry has been acknowledged as ‘a key threat to our national security interests’.

The UK has requested assurances from the Taliban that it will not allow Afghanistan to become a ‘narco-state’. In such an eventuality, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that his government ‘will redouble our efforts… to protect the UK homeland and all our citizens and interests from any threat that may emanate from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, from terrorism to the narcotics trade’. Beyond the prime minister’s statements, several questions remain unanswered. First, will the government make countering the drugs trade in Afghanistan a policy priority? Second, what shape will any resultant counter-narcotics strategy take?

Undoubtedly, London will continue to press the Taliban to control narcotics as a prerequisite for joining the international community. However, it is unlikely that combatting the Afghan narcotics trade will move up the UK’s policy agenda. For over a decade, the opposite has been true: attention dedicated to counter-narcotics has been trending downwards. Without an upsurge in the amount of heroin reaching British streets or a significant increase in the threat posed by Afghan narcotics, it is doubtful that this issue will (re)capture ministers’ attention. Furthermore, it is likely that the UK will scale back its already limited and narrowly focused post-2014 counter-narcotics policy for Afghanistan. This approach has more in common with the UK’s pre-2001 strategy, than the expansive counter-narcotics campaign initiated after the fall of the last Taliban regime.

From 2002 to 2011, the UK was the G8 lead country on counter-narcotics. In fact, then Prime Minister Tony Blair made destroying the narcotics trade an important, albeit secondary, objective for the intervention in Afghanistan. With Blair at the helm, Downing Street exerted considerable pressure on Whitehall and UK embassy officials in Kabul to demonstrate progress against the drugs trade, often in the face of unrealistic conditions on the ground.

During this period, the UK developed a comprehensive – however poorly conceived or implemented – counter-narcotics strategy, which focused on the dual and interlinked objectives of reducing the volume of heroin reaching UK streets and building Afghan capacity to reduce the country’s dependency on the narcotics industry. The UK initiated agricultural development programmes that sought to transition farmers out of opium cultivation by enabling them to grow other crops. Millions of pounds were spent creating a criminal justice system that could produce effective courts and judges to prosecute drug smuggling cases. The UK mentored and developed the capacity of the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan. British special forces were responsible for establishing the most acclaimed interdiction force in Afghanistan – the Afghan Special Narcotics Force, commonly known as Task Force 333. It also supported limited eradication efforts designed to deter farmers from planting poppies. At its peak, the UK was spending approximately £90 million annually on counter-narcotics, a significant amount by Whitehall standards.

These efforts, however well-meaning, failed to achieve the UK’s dual objectives of eliminating opium from Afghanistan and reducing the flow of heroin to the UK. Bruised by the experiences of the previous decade, the UK started to divest itself of its wide-ranging counter-narcotics responsibilities after 2011. In the years that followed, the decision was taken to close the Joint Narcotics Analysis Centre (JNAC), a UK and US unit established to conduct strategic analysis of the Afghan narcotics industry by using all-source intelligence (the decision to close JNAC, however, was later reversed). The counter-narcotics brief was transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Home Office, with the former withdrawing funding for the counter-narcotics campaign. Much to the chagrin of then Home Secretary Theresa May, Richard Stagg, British Ambassador to Afghanistan, refused to promote counter-narcotics as a central objective for the UK in Afghanistan. Stagg’s mission, as set by then Prime Minister David Cameron, was to oversee the drawdown of British troops from Helmand, reduce the size of the embassy and streamline the UK’s diplomatic and development efforts.

The lack of attention devoted to counter-narcotics was also reflected in policy discussions in Whitehall. While counter-narcotics was discussed during Pakistan and Afghanistan Strategy Group meetings – a cross-departmental official-level body responsible for coordinating Afghanistan strategy – it was not considered a priority subject. In terms of agenda time, for instance, counter-narcotics was on par with issues such as detention policy for Afghan insurgents and resettlement policy for Afghan interpreters. Likewise, counter-narcotics was rarely discussed in the more senior National Security Council meetings on Afghanistan.

After the withdrawal of UK forces in 2014, the National Crime Agency (NCA), the lead UK counter-narcotics organisation, reduced its operations in Afghanistan. As interdiction and intelligence missions were constrained by a lack of military support, NCA officials could only operate in areas which were an eight-hour drive from Kabul. Apart from limited interdiction and capacity-building operations in Afghanistan, the UK’s principal objective became preventing heroin reaching UK shores. This approach, as a former NCA official told me, stood in contrast to the previous end-to-end strategy of focusing on activities that had an impact from ‘the needle in the arm of the addict [in the UK] to the poppy fields [in Afghanistan]’.

With the evacuation of British personnel from Afghanistan and cooperation between the UK government and Taliban regime uncertain, there are practical considerations that will limit the nature and shape of the UK’s counter-narcotics strategy; none more so than the UK’s inability to operate in Afghanistan. This will inevitably lead the UK to prioritise stemming the flow of narcotics from entering the UK, as opposed to helping the Afghans build a multifaceted counter-narcotics programme as an integral part of the country’s development strategy. This is inadequate especially as it appears that sections of the UK government are considering imposing sanctions on the Taliban that will undoubtedly contribute to economic collapse, an exodus of refugees, and result in many Afghans turning to the production of opiates and methamphetamine as an economic lifeline.

Consequently, it seems likely that UK counter-narcotics policy will revert to its pre-2001 posture: UK law enforcement working with allies, primarily Turkish and Pakistani counter-narcotics officials, to intercept narcotics on its way to Europe. The 1990s strategy, in the words of a former HM Customs and Excise officer, amounted to: ‘a ring of steel around Afghanistan…sitting on the outside and waiting for drugs to come out…working downstream… [with countries]…around the region’. Much of the UK’s attention will also focus on Africa, which has become an increasingly important transhipment point for Afghan heroin heading to Europe; this has resulted in the NCA’s presence on the continent increasing in recent years.

Anglo-American counter-narcotics efforts over the past 20 years have shown the intractability of solving Afghanistan’s narcotics problem. Vast amounts of resources and high-level political direction failed to reduce levels of opium cultivation. This legacy looms large over any debate about the future shape of UK counter-narcotics policy. Nevertheless, even if the UK does scale back its counter-narcotics policy to reflect realities on the ground, the UK has a continuing interest in reducing the threat of Afghan narcotics.

This article was amended in November 2022 to clarify that funding for the counter-narcotics campaign was withdrawn by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and not the Home Office as previously stated.


Philip A Berry

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