Central Asia

Afghanistan: Back to bad opium habits
By Mark Berniker

As 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.

Heroin 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.

But the 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.

There 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.

The 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".

Questions 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 international forces.

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, including Gardez.

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 Afghanistan".

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.

In 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.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies, or to submit a letter to the editor.)
Dec 25, 2002

Afghan opium trade on a high (Oct 31, '02)


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