Trail of Afghanistan's drug money exposed By Julien Mercille
As United States President Barack Obama and his advisors debated future troop
levels for Afghanistan - which resulted in the decision to send an additional
30,000 troops - a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
(UNODC) muddied the water on one of the most important issues in the debate -
the effects of Afghanistan's drug production.
The report, entitled "Addiction, Crime, and Insurgency: The Transnational
Threat of Afghan Opium," gives the false impression that the Taliban are the
main culprits behind Afghanistan's skyrocketing drug production. It also
implies that drugs are the main reason why the Taliban are gaining in strength,
United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of their own
responsibility in fomenting the insurgency.
In fact, the United States and its Afghan allies bear a large share of
responsibility for the drug industry's dramatic expansion since the invasion.
Buried deep in the report, its authors admit that reduced levels of drug
production would have little effect on the insurgency's vigor.
The following annotation rebuffs some of the report's main assertions, puts in
perspective the Taliban's role in the opium economy and highlights US/NATO
responsibility for its expansion and potential reduction.
insurgents draw some US$125 million annually from drugs, which is more money
than 10 years ago, [and as a result] the perfect storm of drugs and terrorism,
that has struck the Afghan/Pakistani border for years, may be heading towards
Central Asia. A big part of the region could be engulfed in large-scale
terrorism, endangering its massive energy resources.
claims are supposed to make us shudder in the face of an impending
narco-terrorist seizure of a large chunk of the world's energy resources. UNODC
states that a decade ago the Taliban earned $85 million per year from drugs,
but that since 2005 this figure has jumped to $125 million. Although this is
pitched as a significant increase, the Taliban play a more minor role in the
opium economy than UNODC would have us believe and drug money is probably a
secondary source of funding for them. Indeed, the report estimates that only
10-15% of Taliban funding is drawn from drugs and 85% comes from "non-opium
The total revenue generated by opiates within Afghanistan is about $3.4 billion
per year. Of this figure, according to UNODC, the Taliban get only 4% of the
sum. Farmers, meanwhile, get 21%.
And the remaining 75%? Al-Qaeda? No: The report specifies that it "does not
appear to have a direct role in the Afghan opiates trade," although it may
participate in "low-level drugs and/or arms smuggling" along the Pakistani
Instead, the remaining 75% is captured by government officials, the police,
local and regional power brokers and traffickers - in short, many of the groups
now supported (or tolerated) by the United States and NATO are important actors
in the drug trade.
The New York Times recently revealed that Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid
Karzai's brother, has long been on the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's)
payroll, in addition to his probable shady dealings in drugs. But this is only
the tip of the iceberg, as US and NATO forces have long supported warlords,
commanders and illegal militias with a record of human-rights abuses and
involvement in narcotics. A former CIA officer said, "Virtually every
significant Afghan figure has had brushes with the drug trade." According to a
New York University report, General Nazri Mahmad, a warlord who "control[s] a
significant portion of the province's lucrative opium industry," has the
contract to provide security for the German Provincial Reconstruction Team.
UNODC insists on making the Taliban-drugs connection front-page news while not
chasing with the same intensity those supported by Washington. The agency seems
to be acting as an enabler of US/NATO policies in Afghanistan.
When I asked the UNODC official who supervised the report what percentage of
total drug income in Afghanistan was captured by government officials, the
reply was quick: "We don't do that, I don't know."
Instead of pointing a finger directly at the US/NATO-backed government, the
report gives the impression that the problem lies mostly with rotten apples who
threaten an otherwise well-intentioned government.
But the roots of Afghanistan's upsurge in drug production since 2001 are
directly related to US policies and the government that was installed in the
wake of the invasion. The United States attacked Afghanistan in 2001, in
alliance with anti-Taliban warlords and drug lords, showering them with
millions of dollars and other forms of support. The empowerment and enrichment
of the warlords with whom the US allied itself enabled them to tax and protect
opium traffickers, leading to the quick resumption of opium production after
the hiatus of the 2000 Taliban ban.
To blame "corruption" and "criminals" for the state of affairs is to ignore the
direct and predictable effects of US policies, which have simply followed a
historical pattern of toleration and empowerment of local drug lords in the
pursuit of broader foreign policy objectives, as Alfred McCoy and others have
documented in detail.
Impunity for drug lords and warlords continues: a US Senate report noted in
August that no major traffickers have been arrested in Afghanistan since 2006,
and that successful prosecutions of significant traffickers are often
overturned by a simple bribe or protection from above, revealing
counter-narcotics efforts to be deficient at best.
Identifying drugs as the main cause behind Taliban advances absolves the
US/NATO of their own responsibility in fomenting the insurgency: their very
presence in the country, as well as their destructive attacks on civilians
account for a good deal of the recent increase in popular support for the
In fact, buried deep in the report, its authors admit that reducing drug
production would have only "minimal impact on the insurgency's strategic
threat". The Taliban receive "significant funding from private donors all over
the world", a contribution which "dwarfs" drug money. Although the report will
be publicized by many as a vindication of calls to target the opium economy in
order to weaken the Taliban, the authors themselves are not convinced of the
validity of this argument.
Of the $65 billion turnover of the global
market for opiates, only 5-10% ($3-5 billion) is estimated to be laundered by
informal banking systems. The rest is laundered through legal trade activities
and the banking system.
This is an important claim that points
to the enormous amounts of drug money swallowed by the world financial system,
including Western banks.
The report says that over the last seven years (2002-2008), the transnational
trade in Afghan opiates resulted in worldwide sales of $400-$500 billion
(retail value). Only 5-10% of this is estimated to be laundered by informal
banking systems (such as hawala). The remainder is laundered through the
legal economy, and importantly, through Western banks.
In fact, Antonio Maria Costa was quoted as saying that drug money may have
recently rescued some failing banks: "Interbank loans were funded by money that
originated from drug trade and other illegal activities", and there were "signs
that some banks were rescued in that way". "At a time of major bank failures, money
doesn't smell, bankers seem to believe," he wrote in UNODC's 2009 World
Drug Report (emphasis in original).
Afghanistan has the world monopoly
of opium cultivation (92%), the raw material for the world's deadliest drug -
heroin, [which is] causing up to 100,000 deaths per year.
is the world's deadliest drug, not heroin, and kills about five million people
every year. According to the World Health Organization, if present tobacco
consumption patterns continue, the number of deaths will increase to 10 million
by the year 2020. Some 70% of these will be in developing countries, which are
the main target of the tobacco industry's marketing ploys. So why does the
Taliban get more flak than tobacco companies?
The report estimates there are 16 million opiate users across the world, with
the main consumer market being Europe, valued at $20 billion. Europeans are
thus the main source of funding for the Afghan drug industry and their
governments share a significant part of responsibility for failing to decrease
demand and provide more treatment services within their own borders. Lowering
drug use in Europe would contribute significantly to reducing the scale of the
problem in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the report notes that NATO member Turkey is a "central hub" through
which Afghan opiates reach Europe. Perhaps NATO should direct its efforts
towards its own members before targeting the Taliban.
networks may be involved at the level of precursor procurement. These recent
findings support the assertion that the Taliban network is more involved in
drug trafficking than previously thought.
Yes, the Taliban
surely take a cut out of the precursor trade (the chemicals needed to refine
opium into products like heroin and morphine).
However, Western countries and some of their allies are also involved: The
report identified "Europe, China and the Russian Federation" as "major acetic
anhydride sources for Afghanistan". For instance, 220 liters of acetic
anhydride were intercepted this year at Kabul airport, apparently originating
from France. In recent years, chemicals have also been shipped from or via the
Republic of Korea and UNODC's 2008 Afghan Opium Survey pointed to Germany as a
source of precursors.
It is unclear what the total value of the Afghan trade in chemical precursors
is, but from the report's data it can be inferred that the retail value of just
one precursor, acetic anhydride, was about $450 million this year. Part of that
money goes back to Western chemical corporations in the form of profits.
Tighter safeguards should be in place on these products.
Areas of opium
poppy cultivation and insecurity correlate geographically. In 2008, 98% of
opium poppy cultivation took place in southern and western Afghanistan, the
least secure regions.
UNODC associates drugs with the Taliban
by pointing to the fact that most poppy cultivation takes places in regions
where the Taliban are concentrated. Maps show "poppy-free" provinces in the
north and a concentration of cultivation in the southern provinces, linking the
Taliban with drugs.
It is true that cultivation is concentrated in the south, but such maps obscure
the fact that there is plenty of drug money in the north, a region over which
the Afghan government has more control. For instance, Balkh province may be
poppy-free, but its center, Mazar-i Sharif, is awash in drug money. Nangarhar
was also poppy-free in 2008, although it still remains a province where a large
amount of opiates is trafficked.
Some Western officials are now implying that political elites in northern
Afghanistan are engaging in successful counter-narcotics while the southern
drug economy expands. But the fact is that although the commanders who control
northern Afghanistan today may have eliminated cultivation, none have moved
against trafficking. Most of them continue to profit from it, and some are
believed to have become millionaires.