Jul 09, 2008
Afghanistan's notorious reputation of being the world's largest opium producer is only getting stronger in an atmosphere of corruption and state patronage. The new menacing triangle in the west, producing 70% of opium and 90% of the country's heroin, has surpassed the 1980s Golden Crescent in area.
Nature achieved this year what six years of United States-led anti-narcotics enforcement could not do in Afghanistan. Bad weather effected a decline in the country’s opium production by ruining a sizable chunk of the crop.
For Afghanistan, narcotics and insurgency are intertwined and inseparable problems. Illicit cultivation of opium was used by the US to finance the insurrection against the Najibullah government.
Many members of the Mujahideen, who were the Central Intelligence Agency’s paws, are now holding powerful posts in the US-propped Hamid Karzai government. These collaborations have ensured the Karzai government’s failure to contain opium production.
In December 2005, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized nine tonnes of opium from the house of the then Governor of Helmand, Sher Muhammad Akhundzada – the DEA is the only US organisation that seems sincere about reducing narcotics trafficking.
But, American and British military intelligence forces ensured that he was made a Member of Parliament. Similar is the case of Izzatullah Wasifi, the Director of the General Independent Administration of Anti-Corruption (GIAAC). He was arrested in July 1987 with 600 grammes of heroin in Caesar’s Palace Hotel, Las Vegas.
President Karzai’s step-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai is reported to be the ablest protector of all drug traffickers. With such patronage given by US forces and some people in the Afghan government, it is no surprise that opium production does not decrease.
The latest United Nations Rapid Survey for 2008 has projected that Afghanistan produced 8,200 tonnes of opium in 2007. During the days of the much-maligned Najibullah government in the 1980s, the average opium production was only around 300 tonnes annually.
That narcotics money supports the Taliban has been well known, but the Americans have begun to accept it only now.
One billion dollars a year is spent to control narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan, yet opium seizures decrease. As the fields gain in area, so does the power of the Taliban.
Iran, which loses about 300 soldiers a year in its efforts to prevent narcotics trafficking, spends less than one-tenth this amount but is eight times as successful in seizing drugs.
The Taliban pays its soldiers $300 each a month, whereas the Afghan soldier earns only $40 a month.
This is because the Taliban soldiers’ salaries are met by the opium contractor of an area. The muster rolls of the Afghan police and Army show more soldiers than are actually present.
The salaries of the ghost soldiers are pocketed by the officers. The war against drugs and the Taliban is bound to fail in such an atmosphere of corruption and collusion.
In 2007, Iran seized 2,31,352 kg of Afghan opium while Afghanistan could seize only 90,990 kg. Afghanistan seized 9,079 kg of heroin while Pakistan seized 24,341 kg, Iran 12,493 kg and China 9,085 kg.
Thus Afghanistan, which produces 90% of the world’s opium and heroin, seizes only 27% of the opium and 10% of the heroin. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces have actually made Afghanistan a safe place to grow opium.
With such ineffectiveness, a new and more dangerous triangle has emerged in western Afghanistan. It encloses contiguous areas of Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and Pakistan. Within this triangle comes 70% of the opium and 90% of the country’s heroin cultivation; the majority of the 110 narcotics-trafficking routes in the country are also here.
Opium cultivation, heroin refining and the trafficking in these are protected activities here. It surpasses the Golden Crescent of the 1980s in area and is more menacing.
Afghanistan has a 920-km-long border with Iran. Most of it is easy-to-cross deserts. The Iranians have set up forts on their side of the border and have also made 28 forts for Afghanistan. The most troublesome province is Nimruz.
India is building a 300-km-long road from Zaranj to Delaram, where most of this province’s opium is cultivated. Nimruz, which is in the southwest corner of the triangle, is a Baluch speaking area, as are adjacent territories in Pakistan and Iran.
A huge refining facility run by the Baluch community flourishes in Baramcha in southwest Nimruz and close to Helmand. The Baluch facility has the protection of the largely Pashtun Taliban forces, and is not disturbed by the enforcement agencies in its production of high-quality heroin.
The rampant venality of the Afghans has the tacit support of the US-led NATO forces. Multi-million dollar contracts and expensive consultancies are given, mainly to American and British companies, to find ways to contain narcotics trafficking; but no one asks for results.
Afghanistan has received $14 billion as aid in the last six years but there is nothing to show that it has been utilised honestly. As for dishonest utilisation, one can see huge, ugly and gaudy buildings, each worth millions of dollars, in the Sherpur and Wazir Akbar Khan suburbs of Kabul.
These are owned by Afghans and sub-let to foreigners. Narco kleptocracy, narco terrorism and narco politics rule Afghanistan. Except for 3,00,000 or so citizens, who earn thousands of dollars, about 28 million people in the country earn an average of $35 a month. There is complete failure in every sphere of civil society.
Opium is supposed to be destroyed by US contractors, who courageously hit only the fields of the poorest farmers. Some of these farmers have to repay huge loans taken before sowing opium poppy seeds by selling their daughters or sisters to the traffickers who advanced them the money.
Dependence on opium
The lives of 14 million people in the country are dependent on opium. Many poor farmers have a better-than-average life because of opium. Hence mere eradication will not solve the problem as six years of enforcement failure has lamentably proved.
It is not merely an enforcement headache but a political one. In an impoverished country where establishing a Coca-Cola plant is touted as industrialisation, there is not much hope for increasing prosperity.
The cement factories and the textile mills of the 1980s have not yet been revived. A more respectable, humane and practical alternative to opium cultivation will have to be found.
In Herat and Farah to the north, smuggling is more audacious. Here, in post after lonely sand-swept post, I heard the familiar refrain of drugs being moved in cavalcades that are protected by anti-tank rockets and heavy machine guns.
These too come in through the open border, and are paid for from the drug money. So organised is the entire operation.
Seizures on the Afghan side are actually offerings the border villagers have to make to buy peace with the troops. Development projects are only meant for official reports so that more money can be siphoned off in their name.
After travelling miles on a dusty road to Kohasan, a town east of Islam Qala near the Iran border, I was surprised by a 600-metre-long tarred road. At the end of it was a huge signboard proclaiming that it had been built by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Contempt for the US
I stopped at a tailor’s shop nearby and asked a few people what they thought of the improvement in their lives since the US occupation.
The response was abusive contempt. They had praise for Iran which gave them electricity and the excellent three-lane tarred road from Meshed to Herat, and for India which is building a dam on the Hirai rud (river).
But what surprised me was the affection and regard they still had for the Najibullah regime, which they consider the golden period in Afghanistan’s history. In those days, they could save $5 from a monthly income of $35 but today it is impossible to save anything though they make $150 a month on an average.
Legalisng poppy cultivation
Legalising opium cultivation is now a serious alternative for the country. Turkey in the 1970s had done so with its illicit opium poppy cultivation.
A London-based organisation, the Senlis Council, has, after considerable field research, made a Poppy for Medicine (P4M) proposal, which has received overwhelming support from the European Parliament.
P4M suggests that the crop should be legalised, since enforcement and eradication have failed miserably in Afghanistan. As per this plan, the village council (shura) will supervise the cultivation. It will have the power to delicense and penalise any farmer within its fold if he diverts his opium crop.
The farmer is the “least corrupt” of the entire Afghan society. It is deprivation that has forced him to cultivate opium. With poverty and creditors banging at his door, the farmer pays the Taliban to protect his opium.
Advantage of P4M
The biggest advantage of the P4M scheme is that the Taliban will eventually be starved of funds that sustain it now.
All the opium produced in Afghanistan at present is illegal. With the P4M proposal, the quantity of legal opium garnered would be much more than the 180 tonnes that is seized annually.
This simple and practical plan has many advantages: it can make farmers happy, most of the opium produced will no longer go for illicit purposes, there will be more funds for development at the village level, and as each year passes there will be fewer farmers cultivating opium.
The Afghanistan government opposes this plan because the US and British authorities are against it. Also, it does not suit the traffickers. Most Afghans support this idea, but they do not have a say.
The other motivation to go for this scheme is that there is not enough cheap morphine – a derivative of opium and the most efficacious painkiller – to go around. Eighty per cent of all the morphine produced in the world is consumed by just eight countries.
Even among them (in the US 55.5 mg per head is consumed annually) only 40% can afford morphine.
In India, morphine is produced by the government and a 10 mg tablet costs about three cents (Rs.1.26), whereas the same tablet is sold for $60 by American and British multinational companies.
At least 140 tonnes of extra morphine is required to meet the current shortage. Once the system improves, the diversion could be restricted to around 30%, which is what it is in India.
Afghan opium has much higher morphine content than opium produced elsewhere.
If it is true that morphine consumption has reached saturation, as the International Narcotics Control Board says, why are the United Kingdom and the US growing opium in thousands of hectares surreptitiously?
They are buying less and less from India and Turkey on the specious excuse that there is no demand for morphine.
Meanwhile, with enforcement failing and with the Taliban getting richer, security in many countries far away from the region is being threatened.