What We Left Behind in Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canadian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.

After twenty years of nation-building in Afghanistan, the United States leaves behind a country in shambles. It might be argued that we slowed down the momentum of terrorist cells and that we kept the Taliban in check for two decades. But there seem to be few positive long-terms stories to highlight—perhaps the empowerment of Afghan women; but that might not last very long under renewed Taliban rule.

Afghanistan is rich in natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious/semiprecious stones, and arable land [1]. But, during the American presence, the country was not targeted by the Western private sector to harness these potential economic development capabilities. The only real area of growth over the last two decades was opium production—that is perhaps our legacy in Afghanistan.

According to the most recent “Afghanistan Opium Survey” report of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world [2]. UNODC also reported that the Taliban was the biggest buyer of opium and the biggest collector of opium production taxes as well [3]. Moreover, “sales of opium and poppy derivatives constituted the main source of income” for more than half of the population, and the “gross income from opiates exceeded the value of the country’s officially recorded licit exports in 2019″ [4].

Left: A poppy field in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 3, 2013. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

It is a good educated guess to believe that the Taliban will rely even more on the production, taxation, and export of opium to maintain and stimulate Afghanistan’s economy. Although the United States government and its Western allies have left with their troops, the West’s relationship with Afghanistan will continue to exist through opium, its derivatives, and its value-added pharma products.

It is not unforeseeable that the United States and its allies could return to Afghanistan—this time dressed as business people and entrepreneurs interested in capitalizing on opium production. Or, alternatively, the US could return dressed as DEA agents interested in extending and expanding the American War on Drugs into Afghan territory. One thing is clear, the United States never really seems to leave an invaded territory—especially a country loaded with illicit substances.

After twenty years in Afghanistan, the United States leaves behind a place with low, and perhaps, decreasing economic development standards. As a country, Afghanistan has the eleventh highest death rate in the world, the eleventh highest maternity mortality rate, and the highest infant mortality rate [5]. Moreover, Afghanistan has low sanitation and clear water standards and high food insecurity [6]. The country has only a 43% literacy rate and an unemployment rate of more than 20%. Its impoverished economy keeps more than 50% of its population living below the poverty line [7].

The only current economic highlight is Afghanistan’s vast production and global export of opium. That is our success story in Afghanistan.

After twenty years, the United States and its allies managed to turn opium into an economic development tool that secured some measure of economic and social stability on the ground. It provided income to rural populations and some sort of revenue for the national economy. Ultimately, the CIA has officially identified opium as part of the country’s set of export commodities together with gold, grapes, fruits and nuts, insect resins, cotton, handwoven carpets, soapstone, and scrap metal [8].

The United States leaves behind an economy that is even more dependent now on the production and export of opium than it was twenty years ago. We leave behind a steady and secure supply of heroin for Europeans and Eurasians [9]. When will our policy makers learn that we are not effective nation builders overseas? When will we get it right?


[1] Central Intelligence Agency, (CIA) “Afghanistan,” CIA.gov: The World Factbook. Last updated September 08, 2021. See “Natural Resources” in the “Geography” section.

[2] United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2019: Socio-economic survey report: Drivers, causes and consequences of opium poppy cultivation,” February 2021, p. 4.

[3] UNODC, “Afghanistan Opium Survey,” p. 4.

[4] UNODC, “Afghanistan Opium Survey,” p. 5.

[5] CIA, “Afghanistan.” See “People and Society” section.

[6] CIA, “Afghanistan.” See “Environment” section.

[7] CIA, “Afghanistan.” See “Economy” section.

[8] CIA, “Afghanistan.” See “Economy” section.

[9] CIA, “Afghanistan.” See “Illicit Drugs” in “Transnational Issues” section.

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