|Afghanistan: Back to bad
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.
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
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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