Throughout of the latter half of the t wentieth century, Burma was the predominant supplier of opiates for the international market. It was also the scene of constant military confl ict, with many belligerent actors battling the state
and each other as they competed for control over trade
in illicit commodities such as drugs. The belligerents
ranged from ethno-nationalist groups, such as the Shan,
Karen and Kachin, to communist insurgents and the militias of notorious opium warlords, such as Khun Sa and
Sai Lin. Repeated, if often half-hearted, government efforts to suppress poppy cultivation through crop eradication failed to bring the central state any closer to victory
and further alienated the ethnic populations.
In the early 1990s, however, the military junta succeeded in ending the cycle of violence. A key factor in
its success was a change in attitude toward the drug and
other illegal economies. Unable to fully defeat the insur-gencies without some form of political accommodation,
and unable and uninterested in providing for the needs
of the marginalized population through the development of a legal economy, the junta offered the various
remaining insurgent groups semi-autonomous territories and a deal to traffic in anything, including drugs.
It also allowed former drug dealers, such as Khun Sa, to
acquire large stakes in Burma’s legal economy.
In effect, it was a weak and illegitimate state with a
fragmented society seeking to reduce violence by accommodating the armed groups and the traffickers. But
the bargain had mixed results: while opium cultivation
was eradicated in many areas once peace and some demobilization of the armed groups was achieved, some
groups such as the United Wa State Army switched their
financing to methamphetamine production, becoming
one of the world’s largest sources of that drug. At the
same time, poppy cultivation persisted in the border regions with India and China, providing a source of profit
for Northeast Indian insurgent groups and contributing to a substantial increase in Chinese addiction rates.
Moreover, since no legal economy replaced the poppy
Vanda Felbab-Brown is an adjunct professor in
the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She is also
a Foreign Policy, 21st Century Defense Initiative Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
economy in Burma, many of the former opium poppy
farmers persist in extreme poverty and participate in
other illegal economies, such as gem smuggling, illegal
trade in wildlife and illegal logging.
The government’s tacit acquiescence to the drug trade
and other illegal economies succeeded in reducing violence, establishing peace and preserving the state. But
since the state never adopted a more multifaceted approach, the demobilized communities remained economically, politically and socially marginalized. At the
same time, illegal economies persist, and the state remains deeply illegitimate.
In the mid-1990s, Afghanistan replaced Burma as the world’s number-one producer of opium poppy, a conse- quence of the fact that its agriculture-based economy was destroyed during the war with the Soviet Union in the previous decade. Today, it supplies more than 90
percent of the global market for opiates, justifying its frequent label as a “narco-state.” Between a third and a half
of the country’s GDP is dependent on the opium economy
(with foreign aid providing much of the other half). Not
surprisingly, the illicit drug trade underlies much of the
country’s economic relations and power arrangements.
As in other cases of weak states and a minimal formal
economy, the social fabric of Afghanistan’s society and its
political arrangements have become linked to illegality
and non-state armed entities, whether the Taliban and/
or government-linked powerbrokers.
Because of the economic dependence of large sectors
of the population on poppy cultivation, its protection is
a critical source of the Taliban’s political capital. Along
with inappropriate counternarcotics policies, such as
eradication of poppy without legal alternatives, the drug
trade has undercut the efforts of U.S. and NATO forces
to defeat the Taliban insurgency and sustain and defend
Afghanistan’s government. How the international community and the Afghan government synchronize the
counterinsurgency campaign with counternarcotics efforts is a critical strategic issue.
Over the past year, the U. S. and the international community have placed greater emphasis on rural development and interdiction. Given the weak links between
the state and society and the population’s dependence
on poppy for human security and basic livelihoods,
such a strategy is appropriate. But it is not easy to implement. Politically it is difficult because policymakers