Afghanistan’s opium economy has been called the most serious problem facing the country today. President Hamid Karzai has long warned that either “we destroy the problem or it will destroy us,” going as far to declare jihad against poppy cultivation in 2004. But almost a half-decade after his declaration of war against the poppy, Afghanistan’s illicit drug trade continues to plague security, stability and state-building initiatives in the country. Of late, drug activity has particularly contributed to the violence generated in southern Afghanistan. In 2008, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) tallied 78 fatalities caused by mine explosions, gun attacks or suicide bombings against eradication teams and counternarcotics personnel, compared to just 19 such deaths in 2007. The trend of insurgents and criminals supporting or facilitating attacks against eradication personnel and government targets has continued in 2009. By mid-June, four suicide attacks targeting counternarcotics personnel and their headquarters in Helmand and Nimroz provinces had left 16 people dead and 55 wounded. Scores of other eradication personnel died in a series of roadside bomb attacks in Kandahar and Helmand.
Economic and social issues such as poverty and food insecurity, weak governance, corruption and protracted instability have long created the perfect environment in which the Afghan narcotics industry can flourish. Yet many are now suggesting that the second half of 2009 will be pivotal. With international attention focused on the rising tide of violence, this year’s deployment of 17,000 additional American soldiers to southern Afghanistan is tasked with a dual responsibility: tackling the insurgency, and disrupting its financial connection with the illegal-drugs industry. Unfortunately, an overemphasis on combat operations and forced eradication measures remains at the forefront of this strategy, at the expense of meaningful alternative livelihood programmes. Implementing wide-scale eradication in the current unstable security climate could create an even more hostile and dangerous environment. The economic void created by the singularly focused eradication process has been shown to be severely damaging to rural livelihoods – increasing the poverty rate and sowing further anti-government sentiment. By creating an appealing environment for insurgents and criminals to thrive and multiply, such groups could, in turn, co-opt thousands of angry farmers and unemployed youth into their ranks.
The current counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan is exclusively funded by the international community, and implemented by the Afghan government. It follows an eight-fold approach, with a nationwide focus on public awareness, alternative livelihoods, law enforcement, criminal justice, eradication, institutional development, regional cooperation and demand reduction. But few successes can be attributed to this ‘war on drugs’, especially given the unprecedented annual records of opium production and endemic non-stop violence. UNODC estimated 8200 metric tonnes of opium was produced in 2007, and 7700 in 2008 – enough to feed the world’s demand for heroin and illicit opiate-based drugs for more than four years.
No element of this approach is more controversial than that of eradication, argued by many economic and counternarcotics experts again that it improperly targets the most vulnerable members of the narcotics industry – poor rural farmers. Arguably, eradication does have some merit, but it should be implemented only after an acceptable level of governance and security is achieved, thus allowing for a more-efficient government intervention and the ability to provide the necessary economic and agricultural assistance following the eradication measures. Those in favour of eradication argue that targeting illicit crops helps to shatter the image of the ‘protection’ offered by criminal and insurgent groups, and that all poppy farmers are not necessarily poor – that a distinction between ‘greedy vs needy’ needs to be made during the planning of eradication operations. However, this analysis fails to recognise the inevitable discord when a fledgling government fails to provide viable alternatives to the overwhelming majority of subsistence farmers growing poppy.
Eradication can only be successful when carried out in tandem with programmes designed to support the agricultural livelihoods destroyed in the process. It has often been argued that Afghanistan holds a comparative advantage in growing poppy, with a unique and intricate social-network system adding to the complex geographic and environmental processes that allow poppy to be a superior agricultural crop in large parts of the country. The level of insecurity in the main poppy-growing areas – 98 percent of which is centred on seven southern provinces – has helped to thwart eradication and agricultural reforms over the past five years. A lack of infrastructure, such as cold-storage depots and the electricity needed to run them, as well as the poor condition of roadways, has severely hampered schemes to replace poppy. The cultivation of licit and profitable commodities such as apricots, pomegranates, roses (for rose oil extract), strawberries and saffron is impossible without adequate assistance, increased security and infrastructure improvements. Yet without properly following eradication with economic alternatives, eradication efforts simply become counterproductive.
Rampant corruption and weak governance has also plagued the implementation of eradication efforts in the past. Bribes paid to local warlords have prevented the destruction of the poppy fields and have left wealthy landowners and drug barons unmolested. Uncoordinated and ineffective eradication efforts have helped to foster anti-government sentiment throughout the rural southern and central provinces; and, in cases such as Nad Ali District in Helmand, have pushed residents into the arms of the insurgents. Perhaps the most successful ‘hearts and minds’ campaign implemented during the fighting of the past decade occurred in 2006, when Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban’s top military strategist in the south, publicly announced the Taliban’s resolution to defend rural farmers and their livelihood by attacking government-led eradication efforts launched against them. Thereafter, the alliance between rural poppy farmers, narco-traffickers and insurgents took on new precedence, prompting a surge of violence against eradication personnel and counternarcotics police – a trend that has only continued in subsequent years.In reality, that alliance is even larger than the farmers, traffickers and insurgents. Power-hungry and opportunistic commanders, district governors and police chiefs all are known to escort narcotics convoys and to actively participate in the protection of clandestine processing laboratories, poppy farms and fields. Each, of course, is making a significant cut of this lucrative trade. UNODC and international officials estimate that the Taliban and other insurgent groups stand to make at least USD 100 million from the tax imposed on farmers in exchange for protecting the poppy fields; an additional USD 400 million is divided among traffickers, local commanders and insurgents for their processing and transportation capabilities. Narcotics traffickers are known to provide funding and material support (such as vehicles and weaponry) to insurgents in exchange for the protection of trafficking routes, poppy fields and processing facilities. The profits derived from the drug industry continue to pay the wages of part-time insurgents, and enable warlords and drug barons to bribe government officials. Ultimately, this funding is able to effectively thwart the central government’s authority and legitimacy, both elements critically needed in pacifying and stabilising the Afghan countryside.
After two years of repeated requests from Afghanistan counternarcotics officials for NATO to become involved in quelling the drug problem, Western military officials are finally listening. The US, UK, NATO and the UN have all recognised the symbiotic relationship between narco-traffickers and various insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan. As proposed by NATO officials last year, the newest amendment to the eight-fold counternarcotics strategy involves the continuation of military operations against drug traffickers and heroin-processing facilities. During a six-day operation in early February, over 700 British and Afghan commandos conducted the first NATO-led counternarcotics mission. Forces destroyed four large heroin-processing labs in Sangin District of Helmand, and seized over USD 70 million dollars’ worth of opium and chemicals needed for refinement. Soldiers also discovered a motorbike rigged with explosives, thought to have been prepared for a suicide attack. Indeed, Afghan and international forces are increasingly finding large caches of drugs and processing equipment alongside weapons stockpiles, roadside bomb materials and suicide-bomb equipment.
An emphasis on interdiction – the seizure of outgoing refined morphine, heroin as well as (incoming) refinement chemicals – could have a bigger impact on the illicit drug industry than eradication efforts, however. Afghanistan has produced opium on an upward trajectory since the early 1990s; but the refinement of opium into heroin, which results in far higher profit margins, traditionally occurred in the lawless nearby areas of Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. This changed in 1995, especially after the Pakistani military launched a narcotics offensive all over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), closing down as many as 400 clandestine refinement labs and pushing the industry back over the Afghan border.
During the Taliban’s reign of power from 1996-2001, heroin-processing labs operated at full capacity in eastern Nangarhar and in northern Afghanistan areas such as Badakshan, which was under the control of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Afghanistan’s domestic production of pure morphine ‘base’ and heroin has accelerated ever since. The UNODC estimates that since 2004, with over 100 known processing workshops scattered throughout Afghanistan, two-thirds of all Afghan opiates are now converted into morphine base or heroin prior to export. The resilience of the drug networks and their refinement capabilities cannot be underestimated. Afghan counternarcotics officials have observed drug-trafficking organisations increasingly using mobile heroin-processing facilities – typically gas-fired stove devices mounted onto the back of large trucks – in an effort to thwart detection by law enforcement, and to avoid the inherent potential for fixed laboratories to be targeted.
Increased interdiction efforts offer a potent opportunity to begin undercutting these advances. Significantly destabilising domestic heroin-production capabilities could weaken the economic power currently held by major drug-trafficking organisations, by disrupting the high profit margin for exported heroin they currently receive. Sustained efforts against domestic heroin production over the next few years could fundamentally alter Afghanistan’s narco-economy, forcing the country’s traffickers to export lower-grade opium and to lose millions of dollars in profits. Smuggling opium versus heroin is not only logistically more difficult, as its pungent smell can easily be detected, refined heroin is also one-tenth the weight of unrefined opium.
If actions related to interdiction are not taken immediately, Afghanistan runs a serious risk of becoming an entrenched criminal state, with drug traffickers continuing to consolidate their power, enhancing their ability to penetrate the state, and replacing some elements of the ideologically inspired generation of Afghan insurgents with economically motivated criminals and opportunistic narco-commanders. Current trends in Helmand and other areas in southwestern Afghanistan indicate that criminals are playing an integral role in maintaining the level of violence, by facilitating various types of bomb attacks outsourced to insurgent mercenaries. Until 2008, NATO and other international security forces had failed to address the strength of this criminal-insurgent nexus, a failure that today inevitably leaves the international force in Afghanistan at a strategic loss – and the growing criminal-insurgent nexus with a continued advantage.
The relationship between criminal drug-trafficking organisations and insurgents might represent the most significant threat to Afghanistan’s sovereignty today. If left unchallenged, it could succeed in carving out a semi-autonomous territory in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan. The symbiotic relationship between criminals and insurgents has already seriously eroded the Kabul government’s authority, having successfully defeated law-enforcement efforts to curb drug production. At the moment, it looks inconceivable that it will not continue to pose a serious threat to the larger region’s security interests for years to come.
Yet tackling the country’s illicit narcotics issue is only a partial solution to what is clearly a global epidemic. Global demand for illicit narcotics such as heroin and cocaine remains a critical catalyst for the cultivation of illegal crops in conflict zones, particularly in Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia and Peru. Aside from prolonging the duration of conflict in these four countries, the West’s demand for illegal substances has also led to a ‘spillover’ effect along known drug-smuggling and -transit routes, leaving a trail of hundreds of thousands of new drug addicts in Tajikistan, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Interpol estimates that Iran has been most affected by the influx of Afghan opiates, suggesting that among the estimated two million Iranian drug addicts, 1.2 million are addicted to heroin.
The infamous Balkans Route, through which Interpol estimates a quarter of all Afghan heroin is trafficked into Europe, has also seen a dramatic rise in domestic drug use. The Albanian Health Ministry recently stated there are now between 40,000 and 60,000 addicts in the country of 3.1 million inhabitants, up from an estimated 5000 in 1995. Russia is suffering a similar fate. According to UNODC data, Russia has five to eight times more drug users per capita than any EU country, while domestic use of heroin exceeds 12 tonnes of pure heroin annually. Until the international community unites to implement a practicable drug-demand-reduction campaign, the global effort to defeat the illicit cultivation and processing of narcotics will be limited to fruitless forced eradication campaigns and billions of dollars spent combating a threat emanating far from the poppy and coca fields themselves.