Afghanistan is a land-locked mountainous country with a population of some 38 million. It is classified as ‘low income’ and ranks 168 out of 188 according to the HDI. As of 2016, an estimated 54.5% of Afghanistan’s population lived below the poverty line.

Located along the historic Silk Road, Afghanistan has long been integrated into trans-regional networks and different forms of economic, religious and cultural exchange. Its strategic location has exposed the country to many military campaigns throughout its history, from Alexander the Great, to Persian and Mongol invasions, to incursions by European colonial powers, all of which produced lasting cultural and demographic footprints. Established as a buffer state separating the Russian and British Empires in the 19th century, Afghanistan gained independence in 1919, under King Amanullah Khan.

The country entered a period of relative peace and stability from the 1930s, until the outbreak of war in 1978. During the Cold War period, Afghan rulers pursued a programme of gradual modernization and political neutrality, securing foreign aid from both superpowers. This strategy reinforced the country’s long-standing dependence on external funding, and also reduced the incentive for Afghan rulers to build a fiscal and social contract with their population.  

State penetration and service provision were limited in rural areas and a growing contradiction emerged between a foreign-funded enclave state and a rural population that received few of the benefits of this funding.  Ultimately these contradictions exploded in the Saur Revolution of 1978 leading to a communist government, wide-spread civil unrest, then the Soviet Union invasion in 1979 to prop up the regime. This led to the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War that killed and displaced millions of Afghans.

Since then, Afghanistan has experienced different phases of armed conflict, interspersed with phases of relative stability. After the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989, a regionalised civil war soon followed which involved the collapse of the state, the destruction of much of the remaining infrastructure and the integration of the country into an extremely volatile regional war economy and conflict system.

The emergence of the Taliban from the mid-1990s brought a measure of stability but reinforced the country’s international isolation.  This was to change radically with the US-led intervention of 2001, which removed the Taliban regime.

The government that emerged following the Bonn Agreement, headed by President Karzai, brought initial hopes of a sustainable transition to peace. But instead, it marked a new phase of armed conflict that has intensified and spread over time, displacing some 3.5 million Afghans. The country has been in the ‘high alert’ category of the Fragile States Index throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

Although there is a long history of poppy cultivation and opium use in Afghanistan, it was only during the war years that there was a major increase in the production and trafficking of opiates, and Afghanistan took over from Burma as the global leader in illicit opium production.

The geographical distribution and aggregate production of opium grew steadily during the 1980s and 1990s. A ban imposed by the Taliban in 2000-2001 led to a dramatic short-term drop in poppy cultivation. However, following the United States (US)-led military intervention and especially since the late 2000s, poppy production rebounded.

By 2017, opium poppy crops extended over a record 328,000 acres or 132,737 hectares. And, as of 2017, the illicit opium economy accounted for an estimated 20%–32% of Afghanistan’s GDP – more than all of the country’s licit exports of goods and services combined. In 2018, following a massive drought that resulted in a fall in production, the estimates for illicit opium economy fell, and accounted for 6%-11% of GDP.

Following several months of negotiations and a short-term reduction in violence, the US government signed a peace agreement with the Taliban on 29 February 2020, with the aim of bringing about a US withdrawal and an end to the conflict. The agreement includes a commitment to withdraw all US and coalition forces from the country by Spring 2021, in exchange for assurances from the Taliban not to provide protection or material support to terrorist groups posing a threat to the US or its allies.

Our research team is conducting research in three borderland areas of Afghanistan that were selected because of their contrasting historical and contemporary relationships with central state institutions and their differing experiences of conflict and illicit drug economies.

The province of Nangarhar has long been a politically influential economic and trade hub on Afghanistan’s eastern border. While the remote province of Nimroz has had little economic and political salience in Afghanistan for most of its history, it is currently in the process of transforming into an important trade zone on Afghanistan’s western border.

All three borderlands are impacted by the illicit drug economy and the ongoing Taliban insurgency to varying degrees. Our research in these three provinces aims to shed greater light on the relationships between drugs, development and violence in these borderlands, and how interventions by the central government and/or regional and international powers have impacted these relationships.

Nangarhar

Nangarhar is demarcated by the Spin Ghar mountain range to the south, which descend into arable lowlands to the north. This topography is broken in the northern-most tip of the province by the peaks of the Hindu Kush. An estimated 1.5 million people live in Nangarhar; the majority are Pashtun but there are also small numbers of other ethnic groups such as Pashai, Arabs and Tajiks. The Pashtun people are themselves divided between lowland and highland tribes.

A historic resort for the Afghan monarchy and other aristocratic elites during the winter months, the province has long held importance for Afghan rulers and neighbouring powers. Today, the provincial capital of Jalalabad remains a key commercial, cultural and political hub of eastern Afghanistan.

As a key centre of resistance against the communist regime, Nangarhar was severely affected by the (1979-1989) Soviet-Afghan War. Violent struggles intensified again in the wake of the US-led offensive from 2001 onwards against the Taliban, which had controlled the province since 1994. As of 2019, the Taliban still has considerable influence in Nangarhar despite a significant number of interventions by North American Treaty Alliance (NATO)/US troops. The conflict scenario has been further complicated by the appearance of Islamic State (IS) or Daesh militant groups in the province since 2015.

Nangarhar shares a border with Pakistan to the south and east and has had a thriving transit trade and arbitrage economy since the 1970s, built upon strong cross-border tribal networks. Mining (marble, talc and gems) and illicit logging have also been a key source of income and rents for provincial business elites and political-military groups.

Nangarhar has a strong agricultural economy: its farmers grow a significant proportion of Afghanistan’s agricultural produce, including rice, wheat, various fruits and opium poppy. The province has been a major opium producer since the late 1980s; at certain points in time, it produced up to a quarter of Afghanistan’s opiates, with significant increases since 2010. The province has experienced intermittent bans on cultivation including prior to, during and after the Taliban regime – the most recent of which was implemented in territories controlled by the IS.

The Durrand line dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan has been disputed since the colonial period. On the one hand, the borderland it is a ‘sensitive space’ geopolitically, on the other there have always been close economic and social connections across the border, involving the movement of people and commodities across the formal and multiple informal crossing points.

However, post-2001, there has been a growing imperative from both sides of the border to regulate, manage and filter flows across the Durrand line, linked to concerns about security, terrorism, taxation and citizenship. Pakistan has been erecting a fence along the border to discourage unauthorized cross-border movement. As a result, several of the informal crossing points along the eastern Afghan-Pakistan border have closed in recent years, which has had significant impacts on the livelihoods of borderland communities.

Nimroz

Nimroz is largely comprised of flat desert terrain. It is the province with the lowest population density (approximately 2.8 people per km) in Afghanistan. As of 2015, an estimated 164,978 people lived in Nimroz – around a third of them in the provincial capital Zaranj. The population includes a mix of ethnic groups, including Baluch, Pashtun, Tajik, Barahawi, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.

Many of the province’s inhabitants have resided elsewhere at some point in their lives; a significant number are returnees from Iran, while others (especially Baluch nationalists) took refuge in Nimroz after being forced to leave Pakistan due to their political activism. A growing number of Afghans from other provinces have migrated to Zaranj in recent years, attracted by its relative security and burgeoning economic opportunities.

Although Nimroz has never been a stronghold for armed insurgents and has been comparatively less affected by the broader Taliban insurgency, a number of criminal networks and local strongmen wield a great deal of influence in the area. For centuries, disputes over access to water have periodically flared up between Nimroz and neighbouring Iran, and there are some reports that Iran is supporting Taliban forces in the province. While the capital of Zaranj remains under government control, remote districts such as Dularam and Chakansur are increasingly contested by the Taliban.

State presence in the region has historically been very limited, as indicated by the paucity of public services in the province, which has always been one of the poorest in Afghanistan. The province borders Iran and Pakistan and the region’s inhabitants have long engaged in cross-border trade, facilitated through Baluch networks that straddle the border in all three countries.

The importance of the Nimroz Afghan-Iran border was accentuated following the construction of the Delaram-Zaranj highway in 2009 and the signing of a 2016 trilateral transit agreement between Iran, India and Afghanistan. This highway is now one of Afghanistan’s busiest roads and a crucial trading route for licit and illicit commodities.

This includes drugs produced in neighbouring Helmand province, which accounts for about half of Afghanistan’s opium production. Nimroz itself cultivated about 6,200 hectares of opium poppy as of 2017, much of which was planted in the last decade following the introduction of solar-powered deep well technology. In recent years, Nimroz has also become a people-smuggling hub for Afghans migrating to Iran, Turkey and Europe.