International Journal of Drug Policy Special Issue: Drugs, conflict and development

This Special Issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy (IJDP) provides empirical research on the convergence of the drugs, development and peacebuilding policy fields, and calls into question a growing reformist agenda that advocates for the developmentalisation of drugs.

The articles span different geographical regions across the Global South, from Colombia to Myanmar, passing through Iran and Afghanistan, together with Viewpoints and Commentaries which examine the complex and context-specific entanglements between violence, drugs, development and peacebuilding.

Policymaking processes are studied as part of these complex entanglements, inseparable from the political economies of the borderland regions where drugs, development and peacebuilding, both as processes and interventions, converge.

The IJDP Special Issue is free to download for 60-days from publishing (until 15 June 2021).

Policy frontiers: the drugs-development-peacebuilding trilemma

Viewed from the vantage point of drug-affected borderlands in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, are the policy goals of ‘a drug-free world’, ‘the promotion of peace’ and ‘sustainable development’ compatible?

In these areas of long-term conflict, it may be difficult – if not impossible – to pursue all three goals at the same time. Policymakers need to explicitly recognise the trade-offs involved in pursuing all three policies, and to make compromises that are guided by the priorities of borderland populations.

This policy brief presents the ‘Drugs-development-peacebuilding’ policy trilemma as a useful framework and tool for highlighting tensions and trade-offs between these three policy fields.

This policy brief is a collective effort, based on an article in the International Journal of Drugs Policy. The brief was drafted by Karen Brock with input from Jonathan Goodhand, Patrick Meehan and Louise Ball.

Read the full article: Goodhand, J., Meehan, P., Bhatia, J., Ghiabi, M., and Gutierrez Sanín, F. (2021) ‘Criticial policy frontiers: the drugs-development-peacebuilding trilemma’, International Journal of Drug Policy (free to download until 12 June 2021)

Explaining Afghanistan’s failed counter-narcotics policy and opportunities for policy engagement

By Adam Pain, Kaweh Kerami and Orzala Nemat

Afghanistan’s opium poppy economy presents a complex policy problem.

Counter-narcotic policy ambitions since 2001 to eliminate, or at least control, poppy production in the country have clearly failed.

There has been an inexorable rise in cultivation area from some 70,000 ha. in 1994 to over 260,000 ha. in 2018. Since 2001, the US government alone has spent some US$7.28 billion on counter-narcotics programming for scant return in relation to the goals of its policy.

This failure of policy in terms of its explicit objectives requires explanation.

Here, we summarise five findings from a recent national policy and actor analysis on drugs and development in Afghanistan that help us to understand this failure. We then propose what this might mean for those seeking to inform counter-narcotics policymaking and interventions in Afghanistan.

1. Counter-narcotics has treated the opium poppy economy as a criminal and security issue.

There’s little evidence of any ‘joined-up’ or integrationist agenda with peacebuilding or development. While there have been policies that took a broader view and sought, for example, to mainstream counter-narcotics into development programming, the evidence shows that eradication, alternative development and security issues have essentially been treated as discrete problems that can be addressed through technical interventions – including eradication, crop substitution or interdiction. And they have been singularly unsuccessful in achieving any of their objectives.

2. There has been a tyranny of urgency, with the opium poppy economy framed as an obstacle and route to disaster for Afghanistan.

The opening paragraph in the 2004 draft Securing Afghanistan’s Future report is unequivocal, using the metaphor of Afghanistan’s historical location on the crossroads of the silk route to describe its position in 2004 when it was faced with a choice: ‘One path leads to a prosperous, financially independent, western friendly moderate democracy, which operates a cultural bridge between Muslim and Western societies and in this way disproves the thesis around the clash of civilisation. The other path sees a descent back into a narco-mafia state, characterised by lawlessness and regional militia…

This sense of urgency has encouraged hard responses, notably in the form of eradication and interdiction activities that, because of the challenges of implementation, have been tactical as well as strategic failures.

3. Alternative development and eradication have been ineffective at best, counter-productive at worst.

Rendered that way by short time-frames, weaknesses in programming and lack of temporal – let alone spatial – alignment.

Further, many of the alternative livelihoods projects, although located in provinces where there were significant areas of opium poppy cultivation, tended to be concentrated in the better-resourced districts, where transition out of opium poppy cultivation were possible, and not in the districts where opium poppy cultivation was more entrenched.

4. There’s been a lack of coherence between the major counter-narcotics policy actors and between branches of government.

This is perhaps the most striking feature. In short, they have had different and over time conflicting strategic interests, and the Afghanistan government (divided as it has been) has not been in a position to lead and assert its interests.

It could be described as a classic failure of collective action in that a coherent policy around a recognised challenge failed to emerge. But it is also clear that different actors defined the policy problems in different ways and therefore there was no coherence around the possible solutions. It has to be said that the SIGAR’s 2018 report review in a remarkably frank way fully acknowledges this failure of the US effort. 

5. Ambitions to achieve security, peace, statebuilding and development simultaneously have scuppered attempts to constructively address the opium poppy economy.

Rodrik’s notion of the policy ‘trilemma’ (2011), in suggesting that all good things (economic integration, national sovereignty and democratisation) cannot come together at the same time in liberal statebuilding, provides a powerful analogy to draw on.

As Goodhand et al. (2020) have suggested, drugs control, peacebuilding and development offer an equivalent ‘trilemma’; and possibly only two of these goals might be achieved at the same time.

Moreover, the inability to prioritise, sequence and manage the trade-offs between achieving security, statebuilding, reducing opium poppy cultivation and supporting development, have meant that none of the goals of the reconstruction effort have in fact been achieved.

So then, where does this lead us with respect to policy engagement on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan? Here we consider three different approaches to policy engagement.

The first approach is using research and analysis to influence the key makers of drug policy at a global policy level. It assumes an evidence-based approach can change policy practice – speaking truth to power as it were.

From the evidence of counter-narcotics policymaking and policymakers presented in our paper, there is little reason to believe that much traction can be gained at present from such a direct engagement on counter-narcotics policymaking in and for Afghanistan.

That is not to say however, that wider testimony on the failure of counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan is unimportant, and that different and better policy narratives could not be constructed.

The second approach is more engagement with policy and practice, using research and evidence to influence key players in the making and implementation of counter-narcotics policy, including government, donors and civil society.

Given the fractured and politicised landscape in Afghanistan at present, this is not without its challenges. But there may be opportunities in specific areas such as drug use and alternative development programming to engage in specific ways to influence or inform practice.

The third approach is engagement with policy and practice to affect social change in favour of those most marginalised by borderland illicit economies.

This would require engagement with peoples’ organisations and their representatives, as well as government, society and donors.

There are many ways in which this could be done. At one end, more broadly and in a deliberative manner contributing and influencing the public debate on key issues through appropriate media formats could be seen as one important avenue to pursue. At the other end, identifying and targeting key constituencies where there are opportunities to provide strategic support, is another approach.

This might imply a more activist agenda working, for example with borderland communities or their representatives who have been marginal in the opium policy debate, to engage with and advocate their interests. The identification of these constituencies and the opportunities that they might provide for engagement could be the starting point for national-level engagement strategy on counter-narcotics issues.

Drugs and development in Afghanistan: national policy and actor analysis

By Adam Pain, Kaweh Kerami and Orzala Nemat

Afghanistan’s opium poppy economy presents a complex policy problem. It lies at an intersection between various seemingly discordant policy challenges: an emergency or a development issue; a law-and-order issue or a security threat; a peacebuilding opportunity or a conflict resource; and a health issue or a means of securing a living?

The diverse strands of counter-narcotics policy, ranging from alternative livelihoods, eradication and interdiction to law and order, speak to the multifaceted and interlinked policy challenges that the opium poppy economy has presented.

But almost 20 years since counter-narcotics was instated in Afghanistan in 2001, its policy ambitions to eliminate, or at least control, poppy production in the country, have clearly failed. There has been an inexorable rise in the size of the cultivation area from some 70,000 ha. in 1994 to over 200,000 ha. in 2016. Since 2001, the US government alone has spent some US$7.28 billion on counter-narcotics programming for scant return in relation to the goals of its policy. This failure of policy in terms of its explicit objectives requires explanation.

This report seeks to provide this explanation; it gives an overview and background understanding of the counter-narcotics laws, policies and programmes that have underpinned counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2001. In so doing, it seeks to map the opportunities for the Drugs & (dis)order project to engage in relevant policy processes.

Call for papers: militias, frontiers and frontiersmen

Royal Geographical Society with IBG Annual International Conference, 31 August – 3 September 2021.

Convenors: Dr Patrick Meehan (SOAS) and Dr Nick Pope (SOAS)

Militias engage in diverse and multifunctional activities such as ordering marginal spaces, trading and smuggling illicit commodities, or deterring migrants from crossing borders, to name a few. And whilst the fluidity and flexibility of militias has been long noted (Hills, 1997), the analytical toolkits available to explain militias remain contested, confusing and contradictory (Tapscott, 2019).

‘Militia’ is a descriptive ‘catch-all’ and most analytical roads tend to lead back to ideological, behaviourist or systems grounded typologies (Alden et. al). So, how can we move beyond these descriptive, analytical, and conceptual limitations and better understand militias? What can frontiers and borders reveal about the complex social, political, and economic dynamics and processes (Cons and Eilenberg, 2018; Rasmussen and Lund, 2018) in which militias are implicated?

In this session, we encourage thinking that challenges the narratives of militias as temporary governance fixes in marginal spaces, in lieu of anticipated diffusions of state and market from the centre (Harvey, 2006). Instead, we invite thinking that reflects on: (a) how militias produce and shape boundaries, borders, and territories; (b) the links between militias, illicit economies, security, and socio-spatial transformation; (c) how violent militia b/ordering practices contribute to (or detract from) frontier governmentality; and (d) the role of militias in processes of (de)territorialisation and/or frontierisation.

Spatialising an analysis of militias and locating them within power assemblages spanning sub- and trans-national and cross-border networks, provokes important questions about militias and claims to sovereignty, the importance of values, beliefs and ideas, the affective and emotional effects of everyday life in marginalised spaces (Anzaldúa, 1987), and co-dependence and/or proxy relationships with partners and other authorities (Ahram, 2011).

In particular, we welcome submissions that address, but are not necessarily limited to the following questions:

  • How can a frontier analytic help to address the problematic conceptualisation of ‘militias’; and is it a useful frame of analysis for comparative thinking?
  • What do gendered readings of borders and frontiers highlight about the masculinities of militias and the way power is exercised?
  • How do militias and their practices relate to processes of state formation, state building, separatism, economic development, and/or local forms of resistance?
  • What are the different roles that militias fulfil in different circumstances – i.e. peace processes, separatist movements, the rise of authoritarianism, advancement of democratisation, far-left or far-right political activism and protest, wars waged by foreign powers, self-defence, and beyond?; and to what effect?
  • How do different types of frontiers (e.g. urban, natural resource, narco) affect militia practice?

Interested participants should contact Nicholas Pope ([email protected]) by Wednesday 3 March 2021 to indicate their interest. Please include your affiliation, a proposed title, and a 250-word abstract.

All session presenters must register for the conference. We expect this will be a fully virtual session.


Ahram, A. (2011). Proxy Warriors: The rise and fall of state-sponsored militias. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Alden, C., Thakur, M., and Arnold, M. (2011). Militias and the challenges of post-conflict peace: silencing the guns. Zed Books Ltd.

Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza.

Cons, J., & Eilenberg, M. (2019). Introduction: On the new politics of margins in Asia: mapping frontier assemblages. Frontier assemblages: the emergent politics of resource frontiers in Asia, 1-18.

Harvey, D. (2005). Spaces of neoliberalization: towards a theory of uneven geographical development. Vol. 8. Franz Steiner Verlag.

Hills, A. (1997). Warlords, militia and conflict in contemporary Africa: A re‐examination of terms. Small Wars & Insurgencies8(1), 35-51.

Rasmussen, M. B., & Lund, C. (2018). Reconfiguring Frontier Spaces: The territorialization of resource control. World Development101, 388-399.

Tapscott, R. (2019). “Conceptualizing militias in Africa.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.

Journeys to borderlands always seem to lead to unexpected surprises

This particular journey to the remote Afghan village in Shughnan district on the Tajik border would lead me to a rare glimpse into the intricacies of political struggles in the borderlands, and how they reveal a complex and contested relationship between the peripheries and the centre that is often overlooked.

It was 2014 and our last evening conducing field research. Filippo and I sat down with the chief of border police and the manager of a big aid programme, who was also an influential local and fixer. 

We were tired; it had been a hard day of interviews, and we were starting to look forward to spending the next night across the border where there were hot showers and internet access. 

I didn’t expect much from the interview, even though I knew the police chief had interesting stories to tell. He was a former mujihadeen commander, who had lived through turbulent times in the border area and, exceptionally, had managed to stay alive and keep his position. 

I’d interviewed him five years before on my last trip to Shughnan. But unsurprisingly he wasn’t very forthcoming to me, a foreign researcher, about his past or the political dynamics surrounding the drugs trade that was so central to the local economy and was the subject of my research. 

We sat down to the usual green tea, introductions and small talk.  The police chief immediately seemed more relaxed than last time – he was in the house of a friend, which helped, but he clearly also ‘clicked’ with Filippo, a warm and gregarious Italian, who gently prompted him to talk about his stories of the war and what life had been like in Shughnan at that time. 

The conversation continued in a strange mixture of Russian, Dari and the occasional English, over a huge meal of rice and chicken, with the commander becoming ever more animated and loquacious.  I knew this wasn’t going to be a normal evening when the vodka came out – an unprecedented experience for me in Afghanistan. 

We were in one of the key smuggling bazaars on the northern Badakhshan border, with drugs and cigarettes going northwards and crates of vodka and consumer goods coming the other way. But it was still a shock to see our host open the bottle and pour very generous quantities of what I assumed was poor quality Russian vodka into our glasses.

This is when the talk really began. 

We turned to recent events – the outbreak of conflict the year before in Khorog, the town across the river Panj (that demarcated the border) when government troops from Dushanbe were pushed back by local commanders after heavy fighting and many casualties. And on this side of the border, the growing presence of the Taliban in Badakhshan, which was making travel to the provincial capital, Faizabad, more precarious. 

Our host and the commander were both Ismailis, a community that spanned the border but that were being increasingly threatened from two directions: on the one side by the Tajik government that was trying to establish direct control over the border (and the lucrative drug smuggling networks), and on the other side by both the Taliban, who were focused on extending their physical presence and control of key strategic sites in the province, and the Afghan government whose administration was dominated by Sunni Pashtuns and Tajiks.  

So, the conversation revolved around how Ismailis were reacting to these events, and how they were attempting to fight back by strengthening their positions in the local administration, including the key posts like the head of border police, district police chiefs, the district head and so forth.  

The discussion became ever more byzantine and bewildering as the names of key commanders, sub-commanders, local militias leaders, drug traffickers and members of parliament were reeled off, the relationships between them explained, and the ripple affects of the violence of 2012, in relation to local, provincial and national political settlements, were described. 

By the second bottle of vodka, I was starting to lose the thread.  Filippo impressively appeared to be still in the game and following the intricacies of competing, mutating drugs and political networks that emanated from Moscow, Dushanbe and Kabul and converged at the border. 

The next morning, I awoke feeling the effects of the Vodka. But as this lifted on the journey back across the border bridge and the short drive into Khorog, Filippo and I reflected on the experience of this last meeting in Shughnan. 

In some respects, it confirmed things that we knew or had long suspected. The unstable and churning politics of the borderlands. The central role played by the drug economy in the cementing or unravelling of political settlements. The strong connections between the border areas and provincial and national capitals, as well as the intricate networks and relationships that spanned the border. The way that different scales seem to collapse or collide at the border – how Ismailis were acting and organising locally, whilst also thinking and strategising nationally and globally  in relation to their political, religious and economic networks.  

What was really unusual about this ‘interview’, in my experience at least, however, was the willingness to name names and to talk about events and processes that were normally avoided or referred to in euphemisms.

Of course, Filippo and I knew that this version of events was highly edited. Even so, it was as though a window had been opened up to a world that we knew existed, but had only been seen in transitory glimpses or in very blurred focus. 

It’s not a new insight to say that interesting things happen in borderlands. And in recent years there has been a renaissance of borderlands studies including many fascinating ethnographies and histories of border regions. 

But there is a tendency in much of this work to romanticise the borderlands as places of resistance, or non-state spaces – partly in order to challenge state-centric analytical approaches. In so doing, they tend to reify the division between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, rather than creating a clearer relational understanding of how the two are mutually constituted. 

This for me was the bigger point that came out of our conversation with the commander-turned-police chief: an historically remote, resource-poor borderland had become a site of struggle that had sucked in surrounding powers. 

It was marginal geographically, yet it was anything but marginal in terms of its political economy. The drugs economy had exerted a gravitational-pull on political elites in Kabul and Dushanbe, and the borderlands had become a centre of accumulation and of political struggle. 

Furthermore, from this and subsequent conversations it appeared that state elites on both sides of the border, rather than trying to make the border zone more legible and governable, sought to maintain a degree of illegibility and illegality. 

In a sense this was its comparative advantage – the border region was the equivalent of a ‘special economic zone’ that enabled rapid accumulation and the investment of profits in the property markets of Kabul, Dushanbe, Dubai and further afield.

Rather than seeing state building as the steady diffusion of power outwards from the centre to the periphery, flowing through the bureaucratic and hierarchical structures of the state, we see a more contested oscillation of power backwards and forwards between a complex assemblage of institutions and actors located at the centre and periphery.

The margins are not just reflective of power relations at the centre, but play a role in constituting or co-producing power relations and political settlements at the national level.  Therefore, studying the margins may tell us very important things about the centre; or to put it another way the character of the whole is shown sharply by attention to the edge.  

And so, peripheries are interesting places in their own right, yes, but they also a privileged vantage point for understanding power relations at the centre, and how these power relations are at least in part constituted by what’s going on in the periphery.