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Narcotics and the war


By Imtiaz Gul

 The News,October 24, 2012


Narcotics – poppy and heroin – continue to serve as one of the major conflict drivers in Afghanistan. A recent United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report says that opium production nearly doubled in southern Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011, and that the poppy-free provinces of northern Afghanistan have become drug-processing centres that specialise in turning opium into heroin in makeshift, mobile laboratories.

Thus 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, where it subsequently goes on to be trafficked through Central Asia. Similar systems have been set up within Afghanistan for trafficking to the east through Karachi and west through Iran, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Dr Ekaterina Stepanova, a scholar associated with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that in 2011 the poppy produce in Afghanistan shot to 5,800 metric tonnes (in 2001 the UNODC had declared Afghanistan poppy-free). Poppy production in 2007 had peaked with 8000 metric tonnes in 2007.

UNODC says that the area under poppy cultivation peaked in 2007 (193 000 ha), almost 25 times larger than the low of 8,000 ha in 2001, when the strict Taliban ban on opium poppy cultivation was in force. Following the historical peak year of 2007, the area under poppy cultivation temporarily decreased in 2008-2009, but even then it remained 35 percent larger than the peak year of 1999. In 2010, poppy cultivation and opium production stabilised and in 2011 started to rise again (reaching 131 000 ha and 5,800 metric tonnes, respectively).

The bulk of this poppy came from where US-Nato troops were deployed in large numbers (Helmand, Zabul, Kandahar, the Paktia and Nangarhar region). These are the regions where the US-led Isaf troops were heavily concentrated – British, Canadian and then beefed up by the US surge in 2010.

Dr Stepanova, in her report “Illicit Drugs and Insurgency in Afghanistan” (http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/index) published by Terrorism Research Initiative argues that some 40 percent of the drugs produced in Afghanistan transit through Pakistan, 25 percent through Iran and the rest through the Central Asian states and Russia. She reckons that Afghan farmers/contractors benefit the least from this multi-billion dollar trade, while 1/6 of the benefits reach the handlers/dealers in Central Asia and Russia. At least 4/6 of the monitory dividends go to dealers in Western Europe.

The high quantity of cheap, available heroin in the region has moved people from the more traditional smoking of opium or marijuana to the use of intravenous narcotics. According to the UNODC, intravenous use of heroin and the eventual addiction thereto have contributed to a skyrocketing incidence of HIV/AIDS in Central Asia that has increased 48 percent annually for the past decade.

Reports by SIPRI, UNODC, and other sources suggest that the livelihoods of the people of Central Asia are also an important story. Afghan farmers find themselves constantly at odds with the US coalition and Afghan security forces on the one hand, who want to pay them money to produce licit goods, and narco-terrorist forces on the other hand, who want to pay them to produce illicit goods. Either way, farmers find themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, merely struggling to live day-to-day without suffering field eradication by the Afghan government or being forced to sell off their daughters in return for debt-write off.

According to the Afghanistan Winter Risk Assessment 2012 by UNODC, over 70 percent of Afghan farmers say that they are drawn to cultivate poppy due to the high yield prices paid by the drug trade. “If top notches are involved in drugs, how can we eradicate drugs- and if we don’t, peace is likely to remain elusive,” says Dr Stepanova. She also points out that, though it’s hard to figure out the exact extent of drug-related revenue for Taliban and drug-lords between the 2000s and early 2010s, the UN did talk about annual $200-400 million range in opium-related funds of armed groups for 2006-2007. But later UNODC put the Afghan Taliban income from opium at around $155 million in 2009, as compared to the $2.2 billion income for Afghan traffickers alone.

At the same time critics also point out how the US-led counter-terrorism initiative took precedence over countering narcotics, the latter often being compromised in the hope of, or in return for, short-term gains through tactical alliances with powerful personalities, many of whom happen to be part of the drug cartels in Afghanistan. This also means that local US-Nato commanders would avoid annoying the commanders they would use to counter the Taliban insurgency.

Although a second-tier stakeholder in Afghanistan, Moscow too appears concerned about the political and social impacts of drugs coming from an embattled region. Drug cartels, Taliban militants and war-lords live and thrive off one another but this nexus entails considerable security concerns for Russia as well as the Central Asian states. This also leads to the question as to whether – given the current role of drugs as a major conflict driver – Afghanistan can follow the path of reconciliation and return to some semblance of peace at all if the drugs continue to grow right under the eye of the Afghan and US-led coalition forces.

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