|Afghanistan: Back to bad opium
By Mark Berniker
another winter arrives in Afghanistan, opium seeds are
already in the soil for next year's crop, and there is
little evidence that the tide of heroin's deadly cycle
will be stopped any time soon.
There are some
indications the US, Britain and the drug and crime arm
of the UN are serious about taking on a crisis that
threatens Afghanistan's political stability and economic
reconstruction. But the battle is being lost to the
powerful incentive for opium farmers to sell their crop
to swindlers, who then turn the plants over to be
refined, packaged and shipped to capitals from Moscow to
Glasgow, Boston to Tehran.
While a US-led
military offensive removed the Taliban and opened a new
chapter for Afghanistan, the past year has seen regional
Afghan warlords presiding over the bulk of the country.
President Hamid Karzai has enlisted the international
community to help his government combat the scourge that
is the opium trade. But a bumper opium crop brought tons
of heroin to markets West and East this year, and not
enough is being done by local, regional or international
officials to prevent junkies from getting cheap and
lethal heroin worldwide in 2003.
shipments from Afghan opium are skyrocketing, and both
governments and international organizations have yet to
find strategies to successfully combat opium farming,
processing and heroin smuggling. Despite the Karzai's
government banning of opium farming, the United Nations
recently detailed the severity of the crisis.
The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC)
confirmed that last spring's projections for opium
planting in Afghanistan would have to be revised upward
to just under 200,000 acres, yielding 3,400 tons of
opium. The UN says the bulk of the Afghan poppy fields
are in the five provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan,
Badakhshan and Nangarhar. The opium-heroin drug trade
will generate close to US$1.2 billion for the Afghan
underground economy, a figure greater in value than the
actual international aid funds that have arrived in the
country this year.
Several reports claim that
warlords of the five provinces where most of the Afghan
opium is harvested have amassed immense power and
fortunes. These warlords and their associates have
fostered trade in a brutal underground economy that
trafficks in drugs, weapons and other contraband. The
dramatic growth of the opium trade in the past year,
since liberation from the Taliban, now constitutes a
serious threat to the long-term stability of President
Hamid Karzai's rule.
While there has been a
flurry of statements in recent months touting the
seizure of heroin caches and cross-border opium
smugglers, there remain questions about the
effectiveness of both regional police efforts, and
assistance in clamping down on border drug crime.
Afghanistan's opium farmers are said to sell their crops
to regional warlords and their associate underground
operatives, who then move the poppies into chemical
processing and packaging factories in the region. Less
is known about the exact locations of these opium
processing facilities, or if US-led air strikes targeted
them during air raids in Afghanistan, but there is no
mistaking the fact that a flood of heroin is hitting
several major urban areas in Europe, the Middle East,
Asia and the US.
There is little evidence that
any of the regional neighbors are effectively clamping
down on any aspect of the opium business. Several
regional "cooperation" agreements have been signed, but
whether they will impact the flow of opium remains to be
seen. On December 23, the Kabul Declaration on Good
Neighborly Relations was signed by Afghanistan with six
of its neighbors: Pakistan, China, Iran, Tajikistan,
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The group pledges action
against "terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking". On
November 24 in Moscow, the Shanghai Cooperation Council
(SCO) signed a multilateral anti-drug cooperation pact
that will set up a new regional anti-terrorism center in
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The SCO's members
include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,
Uzbekistan and Russia.
Despite the government
press briefings, the fact remains that Afghan opium
crops and heroin product make their way through a
variety of countries in Central Asia with porous
borders. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been named as
key border transit routes for shipments. Afghan opium
has been reported to be processed in hidden factories
both inside Afghanistan, as well as on the other side of
its border in Tajikistan.
On the trafficking
side of the trade, Afghanistan and its neighbors are
seeing raw opium and processed heroin moving unabated
across borders. While there is little known evidence
that there are links between Afghan warlords and any
Russian or Eastern European gangsters, the opium planted
in Afghanistan is often consumed in places like the
downtrodden urban areas of Britain. The flow of the
heroin trade isn't only to the West; Iran, Pakistan and
India are also transit paths to fertile heroin markets
in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Central Asian states that share a border with
Afghanistan - namely Tajikistan and Turkmenistan - are
at the front lines of the heroin trade. There has been a
lot of talk about trying to stop the heroin trade, but
the Bush administration isn't advocating that Afghan
opium farms be fumigated, as is being done in Colombia.
Britain, on the other hand, is getting directly
involved in cracking down on the Afghan opium trade.
This may be because much of the heroin making it to the
British street comes from Afghan fields. The UN's most
recent opium crop survey released in October reported
that Afghan heroin is the source of 75 percent of the
world's heroin, and 90 percent of Britain's heroin.
Afghanistan, after a brief hiatus under the
Taliban, is again the world's leading opium producer.
But steps are being taken to try to deal with the
resurgence of the opium trade: British law enforcement
officials are setting up a drug enforcement police
training program at the Afghan Police Academy in Kabul.
Germany has also pledged its support for a
counternarcotics force in Afghanistan.
have also been threats that opium farms will be wiped
out next year, but beyond destroying Afghan opium farms,
the trade won't be stopped. The bigger issue is the
credibility of Afghan law enforcement, both in the
provinces that contain the major opium farms, and also
along the country's lengthy borders with Iran,
Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
The ODC will be
coming out with a major study concerning the Afghan
opium trade in January. Antonio Maria Costa, head of the
ODC since last May, recently disclosed some details of
the upcoming report. The new policy will try to get
farmers to move out of the opium farming business, but
the fact remains there is no other crop that can
generate close to the same amount of money.
Karzai government is trying to take on the problem, but
heroin production in Afghanistan has spiked 1,400
percent since the US-led victory over the Taliban. This
is a disturbing after-effect of the war; while it freed
the country from the repressive grip of the Taliban, it
also undermined the stability of the country, and
effectively reinforced regional warlord authority.
Back in February, 2002, The Washington Times
reported that the US gave dozens of Afghan warlords
US$200,000 each and satellite phones, in an effort to
buy their loyalty. Thirty five warlords were said to be
getting a total of $7 million. The report said one of
warlords receiving payments was Mirza Mohammed Nassery,
who "defected from the Taliban and served as a commander
with the Pir Gillani group in the hotly contested city
of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan".
remain over whether the warlords actually received the
payments, and which 35 warlords were involved in the
scheme. Some of the most powerful Afghan warlords
include the ethnic Tajik Ismail Khan, who rules the
western part of the country around Herat, the ethnic
Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north, and Gul Agha and
Padshah Khan Zadran, who operate in the southern
provinces of the country.
Karzai recently issued
a decree outlawing the warlords' military units, and
said they must disarm by December 22, or risk military
reprisals by the official Afghan army with help from
While no clear links have
been made between Afghan warlords and al-Qaeda
operatives, the US Drug Enforcement Agency is stepping
up its programs in the region. The DEA's "Operation
Containment" will open offices in Kabul and Tashkent,
Uzbekistan. And American and British military officials
in Kabul, as part of the International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF) are expected to extend their
military operation region to up to six new cities,
It is possible that joint
Afghan and ISAF military operations could commence in
the provinces of Logar, Paktia, Paktika, Khost and
Ghazni, targeting several warlords in the southern
section of the country. On December 23, The Washington
Post reported that the US military plans to set up
"eight to 10 relatively small regional bases across
It is an encouraging sign that
Karzai and his fledgling government are finally starting
to take on the warlords, and their entrenched fiefdoms
outside Kabul's control. It also appears that the US,
Britain and the UN's ODC are actively taking steps to
unravel the problems of combating the heroin trade, the
military insurgency from Taliban remnants, and the
gargantuan challenge of economic development. It will
take time, considerable financial resources and military
action to take on the opium business in Afghanistan.
Only then will international aid efforts be able to
begin the reconstruction of the country.
sheer money terms, opium accounts for more of the Afghan
economy than international aid efforts to date.
Afghanistan is said need more than $20 billion over the
next five years, but received pledges of only $4.5
billion, and not all of the $1.8 billion earmarked for
this year has been distributed. It is time for the war
on drugs to arrive in Afghanistan, otherwise stability
and reconstruction will remain elusive.
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