Technology transforms opium farming – and shows the pointlessness of the US presence in Afghanistan

The BBC reports that solar power technology is revolutionizing opium poppy farming and heroin production in Afghanistan.

Mr Brittan is a former British soldier whose company, Alcis, specialises in satellite analysis of what he calls “complex environments”.

That’s a euphemism for dangerous places. Among other things, Mr Brittan is an expert on the drugs industry in Afghanistan.

He zooms in on an area way out in the deserts of Helmand.

A few years ago there was nothing here. Now there is a farm surrounded by fields.

Zoom in a bit more and you can clearly see an array of solar panels and a large reservoir.

Over to the right a bit there is another farm. The pattern is the same: solar panels and a reservoir.

We scroll along the image and it is repeated again and again and again across the entire region.

“It’s just how opium poppy is farmed now,” Mr Brittan tells me. “They drill down 100m (325ft) or so to the ground water, put in an electric pump and wire it up to a few panels and bingo, the water starts flowing.”

Take-up of this new technology was very rapid.

The first report of an Afghan farmer using solar power came back in 2013.

The following year traders were stocking a few solar panels in Lashkar Gah, the Helmandi capital.

Since then growth has been exponential. The number of solar panels installed on farms has doubled every year.

By 2019 Mr Brittan’s team had counted 67,000 solar arrays just in the Helmand valley.

. . .

Richard Brittan calls up a new screen on his computer.

It shows the entire Helmand valley.

He superimposes an image showing the area under cultivation in 2012.

Then, farmers were working 157,000 hectares.

. . .

By 2018 it had doubled to 317,000 hectares.

In 2019 it was 344,000 hectares.

“And it is continuing to grow,” he says.

At the same time, the land is getting more productive … As farmers switch to solar, you can see the area shaded green growing.

“All this water is making the desert bloom,” Mr Brittan says.

There’s more at the link.

Since its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the USA has spent at least one trillion dollars on the war there and associated costs.  More than 2,300 US service personnel have been killed there, with many times more than that wounded, maimed and otherwise seriously affected by their deployments to the war zone.

If the main economic result of that massive expenditure of lives and resources has been a massive increase in hard drug production, it’ll be yet more evidence that the US’s Afghan adventure has been a monstrous failure that should never have been attempted.  I’ve said for years that there is no military solution to the problems of that country – not unless one takes that concept to its logical, merciless conclusion, and exterminates the Afghan people and reduces the country to a lifeless wasteland.  Thanks be to God, we’re not so far gone from common sense as to consider that . . . but it’s high time we brought our troops home.  They’re achieving nothing there right now except keeping others (Pakistan, China, etc.) out – a dog-in-the-manger game that I don’t think is worth the candle.



  1. Want to wipe it out in Afghanistan? You can't. Unless you wipe out the Afghanis.

    Though we could use an herbicide and lots of planes, but after the Vietnam war, that solution kind of got a negative image.

    Fire. Lots of fire.

    And punishing the drug users here in the USA to the point they don't want to screw with the stuff, or they eat a figurative gun and are gone from society. That is the only really way to slow down opium farmings in turd world countries.

  2. The poppy crops were at record LOWS when we went in,, I have some vague memories of some military guy,, a fellow named North, IIRC,, and some suggestion of using drugs and guns to do certain things,, And , forgive me for being vague And cynical,, But I hafta believe we have stayed in A/stan in order to have access to that drug money,, and the drugs on the streets in America help a certain contingent ,, It makes some people money and it feeds the gaping maw of the Justice system and the for profit prisons,
    Nobody else finds it odd that the equipment used to defoliate Vietnam couldnt be used to destroy poppy fields? Instead,, we have our military protecting those fields? Dont cry bullshit,, Ive seen the pictures and read the statements,, Could it all be lies? Yeah,, I suppose so,, Ive seen some good lies,, BUT,, when it lines up so well with Observed REality in other ways,, I lean towaRD believing it,, Hate it, but believe it,,
    Where Does that Black Budget money come from? And what role do the BIg MOney makers play in OUr Stock market and banking system?
    Hey, Youve got a Great distribution gig going, if youll put your money Here,, we wont squash you,

  3. The only way to stop this is to do as the Roman did – make it a desert and call it peace. I have commenters saying that we need to "do it again, harder" but I don't see America having the stomach to do what it would really take to stop this.

    And God have mercy on our souls if we do have the stomach for it.

  4. The cynic is me is prepare to agree that the money is what keeps this whole business going. When they have bales of cash found in Mexico, it is not a great leap to think that many here are on the payroll. I am guessing that many higher ups in this country are taking their cut.
    I hope I am wrong, but I wonder.

  5. Honestly, the best way to get rid of the opium planting would probably be to let the Taliban return to power. As noted above, the Taliban had banned opium farming before the U.S. invasion, and had mostly removed it.

    Their method was simple: death penalty for growing it. Farmers find something else to grow real quick.

  6. In the first place, the tragedy of Bush’s War on Terror is that we didn’t take down the governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, do a little general cleaning up of WMDs and weapons that neighs Astarte was supposed to have (mostly Iraq), maybe hunt down Saddam…and then LEAVE. With the message, spoken or not, being ‘Don’t annoy us again, or we’ll be back.”

    Sadly, that probably wasn’t politically possible.

    In the second place, much of what I’ve read about the War On Drugs (and I’ve been reading about it off and on since the mid 1970’s) inclines me to believe that it does more harm than good. Asset forfeiture, no-knock warrants, the over-use of Eliot Ness style ‘dynamic entry’ raids…all are products of a War that has, by many measures, been a consistent failure. I recall in particular a study purporting to show that a large proportion of ‘Opiate overdoses’ were the direct consequence of the government insisting on Opiate based painkillers being combined with Tylenol (which can cause liver failure in excessive doses).

    I don’t believe for a moment that ending The prohibition on most illegal drugs would not have serious downsides. But it would reduce the overuse of militarized police units, kick the legs out from under Asset Forfeiture, make it safer to be a user (if only because of quality control) and move at least some of the drug-gang conflicts out of the streets and into the courts.

    Not only here, but potentially in the producing countries.

    And if the results were really bad, we could start up the prohibitions again. That was the real, often overlooked, lesson of Prohibition; that laws with nasty side effects can be repealed.

  7. Huge addiction issue in Pakistan, that is supplying the chemicals needed to process.

    Iran has shoot to kill orders on smugglers.

    Taliban makes. Huge amount of money from the drug trade.

    Who does it help us being there?

    Afghanistan is a lot better than it was pre US invasion, but why are we doing nation building?

    I’m amazed the us is still there.

    8,600 left, which is a lot less than the peak of 100,000.

  8. The Afghan people, or in any case enough of them to matter, were right behind al-Qaeda using their country as a base from which to attack the U.S.

    Their Quran-fueled hatred is very strong.

  9. "All this water is making the desert bloom"

    I predict solar water pumping will be done on a widespread, unsustainable basis and will draw down the aquifer until the water is effectively out of reach and the cost of water will skyrocket not just for opium growers but also for ordinary households.

    Don in Oregon

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