Menace of drug spill-over
AFGHANISTAN seems all but ready for what is certainly going to be a new round of civil war.
And neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan are, justifiably worried fearing spill-over, of not only the militancy but also of new waves of refugees, guns and drugs
. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2019 says Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium-producing country, accounting for 82 per cent of global illicit opium production.
In 2018, Afghanistan cultivated 263,000 hectares of opium poppy. That year even following a large drop in value, the opiate economy was still worth between 6–11% of Afghan GDP and exceeded the value of the country’s officially recorded licit exports of goods and services.
The recent Afghanistan Opium Survey found that the total ‘farm gate’ (unprocessed and non-transported) value of opium production in 2020 was estimated at $300–400 million, following a 37% increase in area given over to poppy cultivation.
According to Iwan Benneyworth (The Afghan Addiction published by RUSI on 21 July, 2021) in recent years, the estimated value of trafficked opiates along the Balkan Route alone, through Iran, Turkey and Southeast Europe is $28 billion per annum.
Even a small percentage of this amount finding its way into insurgents’ coffers (by providing protection to traffickers or participating in trafficking themselves) provides a means for continuous procurement of weaponry, supplies and payment of recruits.
Opium is turned into heroin in the processing labs, often located in the volatile Pakistani border regions or security vacuums in Afghanistan itself.
According to the World Drug Report 2021 prepared by UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the number of opioid users worldwide has nearly doubled since 2010.
Almost 31 million people used either heroin or opium in 2019, representing a huge and growing market for Afghan-produced opioids. Pakistan is already suffering from the menace of drug addiction among a good number of its youth.
The breakdown of government control during the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war, and the physical destruction of land, livelihoods and mass displacement that resulted, encouraged an economic climate just as fertile as the physical one for exploiting opium cultivation and export.
At first this was a convenient source of finance for the Mujahedeen opposition to the Soviets, supplementing CIA and Saudi funds funnelled through Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence.
However, as the Mujahedeen morphed into different interest groups, warlords and war entrepreneurs in the post-Soviet struggle for power after 1992, the drug trade became a key source of funding for their military efforts.
With the Taliban takeover and enforced peace from 1996, there was little conflict for the war economy to sustain, but the drugs industry that had supported the fighting continued and became one of the primary foundations for economic activity.
Western intervention in 2001 may have stabilized Afghanistan to a degree, but only enough for drug-trafficking networks to consolidate themselves.
They took advantage of the ground situation, where security was not strong enough to enforce the rule of law, but neither was it so dire that anarchy was an impediment to trafficking.
Added to this, the smuggling routes along the porous Afghan–Pakistan border left over from the Soviet war continued to be just as viable.
The opium paste that is the precursor to heroin is extracted from the unripe seedpods of the opium poppy.
The plant is ideally suited to cultivation in Afghanistan, for it requires little water and is tolerant of drought.
Such survivability has long been a boon to those farmers who lack the right fertile and socioeconomic conditions (ready workers, access to markets, and so on) to cultivate alternative cash crops on a sustainable scale.
According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Bank, although opium cultivation does not dominate every district, where it does occur, 70–80% of available agricultural land can be devoted to poppy growth.
Traders provide credit to poppy cultivators or they simply provide cash for opium or through direct bartering in exchange for foodstuffs.
At the apex of the pyramid are the key traffickers, several dozen powerful individuals who possess significant wealth and political connections.
Ultimately, endemic institutional corruption pervades all levels of Afghan society, government and security forces even occupying troops and their intelligence agencies. The spread of the drug trade has been facilitated by the traditional hawala system.
Its informality has been key to deepening and widening Afghanistan’s informal economy and the laundering of drug money, to the extent that at certain times of year in certain districts, 100% of hawala liquidity can be drug-related.
Additionally, a World Bank document found that, only a few years into the post-Taliban era, drug money was finding its way into the legitimate economy by boosting aggregate demand for non-durable and durable consumer goods, real estate and building construction.
The result was to embed Afghanistan’s economic dependence on the narcotics trade from the earliest days of international involvement in the country.
Interestingly, research on civil war duration by James Fearon has found out that those fuelled by contraband can last an average of close to 50 years, five times longer than conflicts that are not. This allows insurgent groups the luxury of strategic patience as long as they have access to such resources.
This perhaps explains the geographical correlation between areas of high drug cultivation and recent Taliban gains, as the insurgency not only expands its territorial control, but also consolidates its hold over a primary source of funding.
To be sure, aerial bombardment of opium fields has been resorted, as well as (unfortunately faltering) attempts at alternative development, but it has been an incredibly complex and intractable task to conclusively address the narcotics issue.
Also the interdiction budget for anti-narcotics police fell from a peak of $627 million in 2010 to approximately $138 million in 2017.
In addition to this, the February 2020 Doha peace agreement precludes aerial bombing of opium/heroin depots, labs and transportation trucks, further undermining any aggressive counter-narcotics effort.
According to Iwan Benneyworth regional crises in public health will increase, as levels of drug addiction grow in Iran, the Central Asian republics and Afghanistan itself, “an Afghan economy reliant on illicit trade will never be free of corruption, while meaningful development will be continuously stymied”.
“Most worryingly, vast opium cultivation potential will endure beyond the latest security developments on the ground.
Coupled with a growing global market for opiates, especially in low-income countries, it is highly likely that terrorist groups who do manage to base themselves or have branches in Afghanistan will have ready access to funds for their operations.
The blood-soaked Afghan soil could prove just as fertile for the flowering of regional and international terrorism as it is for the opium poppy.”
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.