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Losing the war on drugs


By Imtiaz Gul

 Friday Times,Nov 02, 2012


Between 2001 and 2009, the US spent nearly $3 billion on the counter-narcotics mission in Afghanistan, becoming the largest contributor to international efforts against drug trade originating in Afghanistan. 

In a major review in 2009, the Obama administration moved the goalpost. According to then US assistant secretary of defense Michael G Vickers, the new counter-narcotics strategy was to focus on "going after those targets where there is a strong nexus between the insurgency and the narcotics trade, to deny resources to the Taliban." This meant that the US formally moved away from its traditional heavy reliance on forced eradication, interdiction, and alternative development measures, such as crop substitution.

This policy, if viewed in the context of the dramatic rise in drug trade in Afghanistan in the last decade, seems to have backfired, paving way for record production of raw and processed opium in Afghanistan.

A recent United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report says that opium production has nearly doubled in southern Afghan regions between 2010 and 2011, while the once poppy-free provinces of northern Afghanistan have become drug-processing centres that specialize in turning opium into heroin in makeshift mobile laboratories. 

A rather sophisticated system has developed, and continues to develop, in which opium is cultivated and produced in the south before being processed into heroin in the north, from where it is subsequently trafficked through Central Asia. Similar systems have also emerged within Afghanistan for trafficking to the east through Karachi and the west through Iran, another report by the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI) says.

UNODC says poppy production in Afghanistan was 5,800 metric tons in 2011. In 2001, the UNODC had declared Afghanistan poppy-free. Poppy production peaked in 2007, with 8,000 metric tons cultivated on 193,000 hectares. The area is about 25 times the 8,000 hectares under cultivation in 2001. 

After peaking in 1999, poppy cultivation fell in 2000 after a decree by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. In 2007, it was 35 percent higher than in 1999. 

A study by Dr Ekatrina Stepanova, a scholar associated with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says 40 percent of the drugs produced in Afghanistan transit through Pakistan, 25 percent through Iran and the rest through Central Asian States and Russia. Afghan farmers and contractors benefit the least from this multibillion dollar trade. A sixth of the benefits go to handlers and dealers in Central Asia and Russia. Two thirds of the monetary dividend goes to dealers in western Europe.

A significant amount of the poppy grown in Afghanistan is cultivated in areas where US and NATO troops are deployed in large numbers - Helmand, Zabul, Kandahar, Paktia and Nangarhar. Have the US counter-insurgency efforts in southern and southeastern Afghanistan taken precedence over its stated counter-narcotics strategy? Have the US-led troops deliberately ignored the drug lords who have been essential to counter-insurgency efforts?

The coalition forces have relied for support on politically strong ethnic Pashtun families including those involved in drug trade, to neutralize the predominantly Pasthun Taliban opposition and prevent them from sheltering Al Qaeda.

A report in Daily Telegraph has questioned the outcome of these tactics. "After almost 11 years of failed policies, and the deaths of 414 British soldiers and 1,972 American ones, little has changed," it said. "Instead of destroying Afghanistan's drug trade, the country is today responsible for 82 per cent of the global production of opium, and more than 90 per cent of heroin found on British streets is made from Afghan opium. Every year the Taliban make around £100 million from the illicit trade by taxing farmers, supplying opium seeds and ensuring safe passage of the drugs across the country's borders."

These drugs serve as the major conflict drivers in Afghanistan - a major source of sustenance for the Taliban who make over $150 million in taxes annually. And as the foreign troops pull out in 2014, the problem is likely to worsen. 

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the forthcoming book Osama: Pakistan Before and After, Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk