The war on drugs
By Jerome Starkey
NATO and the US are ramping up the war on drugs in Afghanistan. American ground forces are set to help guard poppy eradication teams for the first time later this year, while Nato’s defence ministers agreed to let their 50,000-strong force target heroin laboratories and smuggling networks.
Until now, going after drug lords and their labs was down to a small and secretive band of Afghan commandos, known as Taskforce 333, and their mentors from Britain’s Special Boat Service. Eradicating poppy fields was the job of specially trained, but poorly resourced, police left to protect themselves from angry farmers. All that is set to change.
Afghanistan is by far and away the world’s leading producer of opium. Opium is made from poppies, and it is used to make heroin. Heroin from Afghanistan is smuggled through Pakistan, Russia, Iran and Turkey until it ends up on Europe’s streets.
In 2008, in Afghanistan, 157,000 hectares (610 square miles) were given over to growing poppies and they produced 7,700 tonnes of opium. Production has soared to such an extent in recent years that supply is outstripping demand. Global demand is only about 4,000 tonnes of opium per year, which has meant the price of opium has dropped. In Helmand alone, where most of Britain’s 8,000 troops are based, 103,000 hectares were devoted to poppy crops. If the province was a country, it would be the world’s biggest opium producer.
In 2007, the UN calculated that Afghan opium farmers made about $1bn from their poppy harvests. The total export value was $4bn n or 53 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP.
There was a 19 per cent drop in cultivation from 2007 to 2008, but bumper yields meant opium production only fell by six per cent. Only 3.5 per cent of the country’s poppy fields were eradicated in 2008. High wheat prices and low opium prices are also a factor in persuading some farmers to switch to licit crops.
In Helmand, one of the most volatile parts of Afghanistan, production rose by one per cent as farmers invested opium profits in reclaiming tracts of desert with expensive irrigation schemes. Opium production was actually at its lowest in 2001. The Taliban launched a highly effective counter-narcotics campaign during their last year in power. They used a policy of summary execution to scare farmers into not planting opium. Many analysts attribute their loss of popular support in the south, which contributed to their defeat by US-led forces in late 2001, to this policy.
The Taliban control huge swaths of Afghanistan’s countryside, where most of the poppies are grown. They tax the farmers 10 per cent of the farm gate value of their crops. Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said the Taliban made about 50 million pounds from opium in 2007.
They also extort protection money from the drugs smugglers, for guarding convoys and laboratories where opium is processed into heroin. The UN and Nato believe the insurgents get roughly 60 per cent of their annual income from drugs. The Taliban and the drug smugglers also share a vested interest in undermining President Hamid Karzai’s government, and fighting the international forces, which have both vowed to try and wipe out the opium trade.
The vast sums of drugs money sloshing around Afghanistan’s economy mean it is all too easy for the opium barons to buy off corrupt officials.
When an Afghan counter-narcotics chief found nine tonnes of opium in a former Helmand governor’s compound, he was told not to burn it by Kabul — but he claims he ignored the order.
President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is widely rumoured to be involved in the drugs trade — an allegation he denies. The New York Times claimed US investigators found evidence that he had ordered a local security official to release an “enormous cache of heroin” discovered in a tractor trailer in 2004. Privately, Western security officials admit they suspect that a number of government ministers are drug dealers.
— © The Independent