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Afghanistan on the Edge

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Coalition Struggles with Narco-Terror Afghanistan’s Opium Trade

August 17th 2009

Afghan Topics - Afghan Poppy Fields

It is almost decision time again for Coalition forces in Afghanistan. In village after village, men will be plowing their fields in readiness for planting the second annual opium crop in November. The first crop has already been harvested, and the temporary respite from attacks, caused by the Taliban granting furloughs to their fighters to help gather the illicit harvest, will be briefly repeated as many head back to the family farm to broadcast the poppy seed across their fields in scenes reminiscent of medieval European agriculture. The difference, of course, is the presence of hi-tech, unmanned Predator drones flying silently high above the ground, searching for Taliban activity.

Currently, according to DEA estimates, Afghanistan is responsible for production of between eighty-five to ninety percent of the illegal heroin consumed worldwide, with the remainder divided between the so-called Golden Crescent area of northern Burma, Laos and Thailand as well as, increasingly, Colombia. For the time being, Afghanistan remains the mother lode when it comes to illegal opiates.

This hasn’t always been the case. During the 19th century British rule of India, when the colony’s solvency relied primarily on the production and sale of opium, the Raj’s administrators recognized that opium was the perfect commodity to finance guerilla warfare, and managed successfully to prevent the introduction of poppy growing into what today is the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ironically one of the reasons cited by Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government for requesting Soviet military assistance in 1979 was the refusal of some tribal groups to accept Kabul’s prohibition on opium production.

Today the story is very different. Afghanistan is a narco-state, whose economy is, for all intents and purposes, entirely dependent upon illegal drug trafficking. Every state institution has been completely penetrated by the traffickers, whose revenue is measured in billions, and whose corruption runs from the lowliest village policeman to ministers of state. The German magazine Stern recently alleged again that President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is one of the country’s most powerful heroin traffickers, after British troops discovered tons of opium stockpiled at his countryside residence in southern Afghanistan in July of this year.

Unsurprisingly, in a nation where corruption is so rife, no measures have been taken against him. Ahmed Wali Karzai’s explanation is that the drugs are part of an elaborate plot by his brother’s political enemies, and that he is innocent of all involvement in trafficking. This, however, is not the story discovered by investigative journalist Tom Lasseter, who interviewed Dad Mohammed Khan, a former Afghan national intelligence directorate chief, who told him that Ahmed Karzai had forced him to release a senior Taliban commander arrested in a major drug-trafficking operation. Soon after the interview, Khan himself was killed by a roadside bomb.

This latest incident is not the first time President Karzai’s brother has been found uncomfortably close to the discovery of major drugs shipments. In 2004, Kandahar security forces discovered over a ton of heroin hidden on a tractor-trailer unit. The local Afghan commander quickly impounded the truck and notified his boss. Within hours the local commander, Habibullah Jan, was telephoned by Ahmed Karzai and asked to release both the truck and the drugs. In an interview with American investigators, notes from which were seen by the New York Times, Jan complied after being contacted directly by one of President Karzai aides.

The Coalition has found itself floundering in response to Afghanistan’s drugs trade. British and American responses have until recently been diametrically opposed, and a previous source of tension between the allies. The only common ground shared was each being equally unsuccessful in containing the problem, let alone eradicating it. US forces have recently implemented a new strategy under the Obama administration, deploying US Marines and Afghan forces throughout recent months to target and destroy stockpiles of poppy seed, opium and heroin in compounds identified as being owned by the major warlords and/or drug traffickers across Southern Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said that the several major seizures are evidence the new strategy is working. The decision to go after the warehouses is a tacit admission by US commanders that its previous strategy had been badly misplaced, and effective only in increasing support for the insurgency. How long it will be before the traffickers respond by dispersing their stockpiles to diverse locations, or even to their rear bases in Pakistan, remains to be seen.

Previous US strategy was zero tolerance, which translated on the ground as the destruction of individual poppy fields. The strategy failed because it did not consider the economics of Afghan opium farming, as opposed to opium trafficking.  The majority of Afghan farmers live in debt bondage to the local landowner, and have no choice over whether they will grow opium. They are advanced the poppy seed on credit, with no exemption from repayment if their crop is destroyed in a US sponsored anti-narcotics raid. The wealthy pay the corrupt local police to ignore their fields, the poor often end up selling their daughters, or alternatively losing their land entirely and being forced to move to the city to find work. Thus eradicating poppy fields, while making almost no impact on the amount of opium produced, created enormous resentment against Coalition forces.

The Taliban understand the dynamic perfectly, and make sure their recruiting propaganda capitalizes on it. They promise protection to opium farmers if they join the Taliban’s war and succeed in driving the Coalition from the region. What more, they pay a small bonus to the sons who sign up for jihad against Coalition soldiers, thereby ensuring that farmers whose crops were destroyed would avoid penury by sending their young men to join the Taliban’s ranks. 

Alternatively, British forces, recognizing that destroying individual poppy fields spread resentment and increased attacks on Coalition soldiers avoided this tactic altogether. Instead British commanders relied on deploying special forces, including the SAS, on intelligence-driven attacks against major drug shipments and laboratories. Unfortunately, due to the extremely closed and inward nature of Afghan society, as well as the disproportionate wealth of the traffickers, the amount of necessary intelligence was not sufficient to make any serious dent in the flow of heroin from Afghanistan.

The problem is a serious one, not least because increasing numbers of Afghan’s, especially former refugees deported back to Afghanistan after years of living in Iran, are themselves falling prey to the lure of heroin. Since the country lacks almost any form of rehabilitation facility, or even basic medical care, the consequences are particularly devastating, with reports coming from Western medical professionals and NGO’s, working inside the country, of serious consequences developing as a result. Catherine S. Todd, M.D., assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Division of International Health and Cross-cultural Medicine, who is currently working in Kabul, voiced her concerns in a recent report, that increasing levels of injection drug use and accompanying high-risk behaviors could lead to an HIV epidemic in Afghanistan. "The window of opportunity is rapidly closing to avert an HIV epidemic among Afghan injection drug users," she stated. The worryingly high prevalence of Hepatitis infection among the sample population tested are, if trends seen in former Soviet Central Asian republics are repeated, an ominous sign, since it indicates that the vectors for blood-borne viral transfer are well established, and only require the introduction of an HIV carrier to begin this deadly epidemic.

For Coalition soldiers and their families at home, the need to deal with Afghanistan’s drugs trade is imperative. Revenue from heroin sales is one of the main sources of revenue for the Taliban’s war chest, with the trade in gems, particularly Lapis Lazuli, and timber providing the remainder.  Unlike the 1980’s war against the Soviet Union, the Taliban do not currently enjoy any major international state support, so any successful effort to cutoff their revenue streams will reap immense dividends in terms of their ability to continue the war against the Coalition. An investigation by The Independent newspaper into the working of the Afghan drugs trade revealed that Russian mobsters and arms dealers meet Taliban drug lords near the old Afghan-Soviet border, deep in Tajikistan's desert. There a temporary bazaar is established at a new location each time, decided at the last minute by satellite phone or radio, in order to foil the Tajik border patrols, if they have not already been bought off. These temporary, “overnight towns,” exist solely to trade the Taliban’s heroin for Russian arms. Once the business is complete, the drugs head out to markets in Europe and the USA, and the weapons are delivered to Taliban commanders in proportion to the amount of heroin they have sent north.

It is indeed a strange war where Western soldiers patrol the fields among farmers harvesting the raw materials to purchase their enemy’s arms, and no doubt being repeatedly told they cannot destroy the poppy fields for fear of alienating the local population. This must certain be deeply depressing to any soldier’s morale. Those being sniped at and bombed in the villages and roads of Helmand province must wonder how much more alienated the local population can become.

So far the solutions proposed by the commanders on the ground have been of limited success at best, and decidedly negative in effect at worst. One hundred years of international attempts at eradicating the illicit traffic in drugs has proved one thing time and again. That this trade is surprisingly resilient to interdiction, and ideally suited to the economics and conditions of guerilla warfare. The Soviet Union was defeated because they could not interdict the mujahedeen bases in Pakistan, and the US supply of arms and money to aid anti-Soviet forces. The UK and US are now facing a surprisingly similar situation in Afghanistan. Even with the recent increased willingness of the Pakistani government to tackle Pakistan’s own Taliban insurgency, the refusal to allow US forces to enter Pakistan affords the Taliban the same safe havens as before. Removal of the revenue generated by the drugs trade would critically weaken the ability of the Taliban to take the war to the Coalition. Ending the endemic corruption caused by the disproportionate wealth of the traffickers would do wonders for the health of Afghanistan’s nascent democracy.

Achieving this is naturally no small matter, and the solution will not be found solely in Kabul, but rather requires coordinated international effort, and possibly a reconsideration of the entire framework for the control of drugs, which at present, rather than operating as a barrier to their production and distribution, is proving in practice to be almost a subsidy to organized crime and international terrorism. One suggestion made by French NGO, the Senlis Council, was to license Afghan poppy growers to produce opium for legal pharmaceuticals, of which there is a serious worldwide shortage, with the Lancet estimating that approximately eighty percent of the world’s cancer patients not having access to adequate analgesia. The Senlis proposal, though attractive on the surface is unworkable so long as there remains a market for illegal heroin in the West. Farmers would no doubt continue to produce opium for the drug warlords, while claiming to officials that their fields were licensed for medicinal purposes.

Until the West can resolve its own craving for illicit drugs with the Afghan farmer’s need to supply that need, the West will need to accept that winning the drug war in the fields of far off Afghanistan means losing the drug war on its own streets at home.

Adam Wallace is the Cutting Edge’s London correspondent.


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