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Afghanistan's Opium War

Antonio Maria CostaAntonio Maria Costa is Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

by Antonio Maria Costa

When NATO leaders meet for their summit in Riga at the end of this month, there will be a ghost at the feast: Afghanistan’s opium. Afghanistan is in danger of falling back into the hands of terrorists, insurgents, and criminals, and the multi-billion-dollar opium trade is at the heart of the country’s malaise. Indeed, NATO’s top general, James Jones, has called drugs the "Achilles heel" of Afghanistan.

This year’s record harvest of 6,100 tons of opium will generate more than $3 billion in illicit revenue – equivalent to almost half of Afghanistan’s GDP. Profits for drug traffickers downstream will be almost 20 times that amount.

Opium money is corrupting Afghan society from top to bottom. High-level collusion enables thousands of tons of chemical precursors, needed to produce heroin, to be trucked into the country. Armed convoys transport raw opium around the country unhindered. Sometimes even army and police vehicles are involved. Guns and bribes ensure that the trucks are waved through checkpoints. Opiates flow freely across borders into Iran, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries.

The opium fields of wealthy landowners are untouched, because local officials are paid off. Major traffickers never come to trial because judges are bribed or intimidated. Senior government officials take their cut of opium revenues or bribes in return for keeping quiet. Perversely, some provincial governors and government officials are themselves major players in the drug trade.

As a result, the Afghan state is at risk of takeover by a malign coalition of extremists, criminals, and opportunists. Opium is choking Afghan society.

Within Afghanistan, drug addiction is rising. Neighbors that used to be transit states for drugs are now major consumers, owing to similar dramatic increases in opium and heroin addiction. Intravenous drug use is spreading HIV/AIDS in Iran, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union. In traditional Western European markets, health officials should brace for a rise in the number of deaths from drug overdoses, as this year’s bumper opium crop will lead to higher-purity doses of heroin.

What can be done? First, the veil of corruption in Afghanistan must be lifted. Afghans are fed up with arrogant and well-armed tycoons who live in mansions and drive top-of-the range Mercedes limousines – this in a country where barely 13% of the population have electricity and most people must survive on less than $200 a year.

It is time for the Afghan government to name, shame, and sack corrupt officials, arrest major drug traffickers and opium landlords, and seize their assets. Donors have trained police and prosecutors and built courts and detention centers. Now it is up to the government to use the judicial system to impose the rule of law. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to re-establish confidence in the central government. Putting major drug traffickers behind bars at the new maximum-security prison at Pul-i-Charki, near Kabul, would be a good start.

Of course, Afghanistan does not bear sole responsibility for its plight. The heroin trade would not be booming if Western governments were serious about combating drug consumption. It is a bitter irony that the countries whose soldiers’ lives are on the line in Afghanistan are also the biggest markets for Afghan heroin. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s neighbors must do more to stop insurgents, weapons, money, and chemical precursors from flowing across their borders into the country. Coalition forces should take a more robust approach to the drug problem. Counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics are two sides of the same coin. Improving security and the rule of law must include destroying the opium trade. Allowing opium traffickers to operate with impunity gives them a free hand to raise money to pay for the arms and fighters battling the Afghan army and NATO forces.

The United Nations Security Council has authorized the International Security Assistance Force to take all necessary measures to fulfill its mandate. NATO troops should be given the green light to help the Afghan army fight opium – destroy the heroin labs, disband the opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys, and bring the big traders to justice. And they should be given the tools and manpower to do the job. There is no point in trying to win the hearts and minds of major drug traffickers.

Farmers are a different story. Forced eradication risks pushing farmers into the hands of extremists, and thus will not lead to the sustainable reduction of opium fields. Indeed, as we have seen in some Andean countries, it can be counter-productive. Therefore, security and development must go hand in hand.

To achieve this, Afghanistan needs more development assistance. International support so far has been generous, but it is still well below per capita equivalents for other post-conflict situations – and the need is much greater. Farmers will be weaned off opium over the long term only if they have sustainable livelihoods. At the moment, Afghanistan’s drug lords are prospering, and rural communities are suffering. That situation needs to be reversed. We must punish the traffickers and reward the farmers.

We cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan. Recent history has given us graphic evidence of what would happen if we do. But any solution in Afghanistan depends on eliminating its opium.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.


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A Costly Mistake

It was reported that the Taliban, when in control of Afghanistan, reduced opium production significantly. After the West removed the Taliban from power opium production rose dramatically once again. Maybe it would have been best to leave the Taliban alone; after all OBL is still a free man in spite of the billions of dollars spent trying to find him and dealing with his protectors.

Mr Costa informs us the 6,100 tons of opium will generate $3 billion dollars of illicit funds. He also states that “Opium money is corrupting Afghan society from top to bottom.”  I would argue that opium is only one of the things that is corrupting Afghan society and in fact, as others have inferred, Afghan society has always been “corrupt”; this is they way they do business. Much like us.

If one was serious about solving this drug problem then would it not be more cost efficient and humane to pay the Afghani farmers $3 billion dollars to grow potatoes? If the west can spent a trillion or so dollars slaughtering innocent people in Iraq to achieve nothing, then spending a measly $3 billion dollars to ensure the Afghan farmers have a livelihood and to keep dangerous drugs of the street and to mitigate corruption seems like a good deal.

This won’t happen, for as Mr Costa stated opium money is corrupting Afghan society, however, what he omitted to mention is that drug money corrupts all societies, the international benefactors of this corruption will not surrender their trade unless it is well worth it.

One thing for sure (and history teaches this well) the west will, as they have done in the past retire hurt from Afghanistan. Afghanistan will just be another costly mistake from which we will have achieved nothing and learnt nothing.  

Mostly nonsense and counterproductive to boot

I don't have a great  problem with Costa's observations on the effect of opium on Afghanistan but his points function within a political ly biased ideological crock, one coming from the policy aims and presumptions of Western governments, especially but not only, the USA. 

Afghanistan does not look viable as a country or an economy.  Opium will be part of the solution, it will provide revenue to give some economic sustenance to poor farmers and it will fund fighters whose effects will be to defeat the allied troops and break the country up.

Of course if the West didn't have such stupid attitudes to drugs the process could be a lot more humane. Instead the Afghani people are subjected to the end logic of the "outlaw drugs" madness. The entire country ends up being treated as criminalised and a free fire zone between rival gangs and between gangs and high tech equipped Western soldiers. And the sort of garbage being put out by Costa provides a veneer of respectability to the whole thing.

Solutions cannot be imposed

Afghanistan is yet another classic example of why 'solutions' cannot be imposed upon 'problems.' Elements which will contribute toward an ultimate solution can be introduced into a situation but the real factor, and healer, is time.

The modern democratic world evolved and it took a long time. We now seek to bring a country like Afghanistan into this 'modern' world quickly, and of course it cannot be done. The reason why it cannot be done is that the social structures which support the modern democratic world do not exist and so whatever is imposed will merely 'sit' upon the old structures and be drawn into the old social order as opposed to changing that social order.

Yes, you can change things from the top down but only to a degree. Any organisation re-structuring is dependent upon co-operation from the top to the bottom and back again from the bottom to the top.

This is what you will not get in places like Afghanistan, even more so when that 're-structuring' is being imposed by infidel foreigners. Whether we admit it or not the Afghans regard their government as a Western stooge, a puppet in the hands of the American 'devil.'

The problem is not opium per se:, that is merely an expression of the problem. The problem is foreign intervention, foreign presence, foreign dominated government, a traditional tribal structure, a mysoginistic patriarchy, a fundamentalist religion and a backward country ..... and those problems are not listed in order of importance.

Even without foreign interference an Afghanistan would struggle because so much energy goes into controlling people instead of developing people. Any nation which essentially 'imprisons' and subjugates half, or more than half of its population, it's women, is denying itself most of its energy because energy is wasted controlling women and energy is undeveloped in the women themselves.

Fundamentalist religion also expends and wastes enormous amounts of energy in seeking to control the thoughts and actions of the citizens. Any tribal, patriarchal and fundamentalist religious nation is virtually doomed to remain backward.

The West developed in leaps and bounds once Church and State were separated; a sense of community developed which transcended family and tribe, and women were recognised as something approximating equal human beings and became educated.

Corruption is not something peculiar to the undeveloped world, as we know from the recent AWB scandal, but it is more destructive and more prevalent in the undeveloped world.

Like Jenny, I know from experience in India, Africa and Russia, that in some countries nothing happens without the palm of someone else being greased. I was most horrified to learn that even a bedpan in an Indian hospital required a 'bribe' to be presented which is why patients are always surrounded by a horde of family members who can ensure some sort of care is available.

Corruption is present when people do not trust the system to look after them. America is a more corrupt country than Australia or the UK for instance because America does not have an adequate welfare safety net in the same way that the other two nations do.

Corruption is no more than a means of making money when you have no way of making enough money by honest means or you are so fearful for your future, and that of your family, that you must get money in any way that you can to protect yourself.

Take away the fear and you diminish the capacity for corruption. You only have to read the history of Australia or England for that matter to see how corruption diminishes as government and social responsibility increases.

Corruption is contagious and it quickly becomes entrenched particularly in power pyramids like tribalism and patriarchy. In these societies power dictates the amount of freedom that you have because freedom, in non-democracies, is not a given.

Blaming the problems of Afghanistan on opium is no more than a distraction. The Americans have failed miserably in their efforts to 'control' South American drug growing and any such efforts in Afghanistan are equally doomed to fail.

Afghans grow opium because they can, because they are told to, because they are forced to. At least under the Taliban the opium trade was halted.

The only way to create an environment in which Afghanistan may stumble toward modernity is to remove all foreign troops and leave the Afghans to it. What could then be provided are incentives which would put pressure on any government, including a Taliban government which would again be most likely, to change. However long that change takes, and it would happen, just as it did with us, because we were also once where they are now .... the Afghans need support to bring themselves into the modern world.

Will it happen? No, because those with power do not actually care about the wellbeing of the Afghans. They just tut tut at the latest atrocity, whether it be ours or theirs, and turn back to check how much money they have made. The reality is that Afghans live in misery and some Afghans make enormous amounts of money, but foreign arms dealers, drug dealers and investors make huge amounts of money out of this misery.

It is disingenuous to say that opium money is corrupting Afghan society when the society has always been corrupt.  There have always been arrogant and well armed tycoons, with or without drugs. This is the way things are in tribalistic and patriarchal societies where power is ceded to men in general and a few men in particular. And it will always be corrupt until its people are able to drag themselves out of the past into the modern world. And they will, eventually, whether we help them or not, whether NATO stays or leaves, whether opium is grown or not ..... but they will do it faster if we pull our troops out of their country and look at ways to feed, house and educate them.

Memories, bribes, and where no law prevails.

Memories: It was Christmas Eve, 1969 in Peshawar, the northern Pakistani city on the border of the Pathan tribal lands of Pakistan, over which the then Pakistan military government did not attempt to assert its authority. Instead it manned customs checkpoints just outside the city. Beyond that point every man and boy carried a gun and tribal law and the rule of the gun prevailed. All manner of weapons were made in underground factories in the barren hills of the Khyber Pass. On top of the hills were fortified mud dwellings and holes in the hills indicated where the people lived underground. A dirt road wound through the treeless mountains to the border with Afghanistan and on to Kabul. The women looked out at the world through pin points in their veils.

Deep in the Pass was a smugglers' market where everything from fine silks to Japanese radios and every conceivable weapon could be bought, and no doubt drugs. The goods came over the mountains from China, from India, and across the border from Afghanistan. The temptation of fine cloths to three naive foreign girls was too great to resist.

We negotiated a taxi to take us the 5Okms or so up the Pass to the smugglers trading post. We had to bribe the driver well. Then we had to bribe the Punjabi custom official on the outskirts of Peshawar, to agree to let us through with anything we bought. Part of the deal was we would go out to dinner with him that night. He turned up where we were staying with a bottle of whisky and two other men. We reneged on the deal and an argument developed. He threatened to arrest us for smuggling.

An old Pathan tribesman appeared at the door of the small vacant university cottage we had managed to rent for a week. There was an angry exchange with the Punjabi who then left in a rage. Standing at the door behind him I saw two other tribal men with large rifles thankfully pointed toward the roof, and each had strings of ammunition hanging over their shoulders. The headman took out a revolver and beckoned me over. He filled the chamber with cartridges and snapped it shut and handed it to me saying:

"If anyone comes through that door tonight, shoot them. Because if they get in here then my men outside are already dead".

I took the gun, and never slept a wink. The next day we headed back to the safety of Lahore. That was my introduction as to how not to bribe. But I soon the learnt the tricks of bribery in order to survive for the year I was there. I bribed the postman so I could get my letters from home, I bribed the guard on the hostel to let me in if I was a tad outside the curfew, and I bribed him again not to report me.

That is how things are done in that part of the world. If you are not prepared to pay, then forget it. And it pays to pay the bribes in hard currency!

Any notion that the culture of that part of the world can be easily changed is naive in the extreme. Control of the border areas with Afghanistan is nigh on impossible. People, Illegal goods and drugs can pass freely across the porous mountain borders. Pakistan recognises that and the Taliban and their tribal supporters know that. They live in those hills; they would know every cave, every rock, every hiding place. The landscape blends into a heat haze of nothingness. Those unfamiliar with the landscape are like flies crawling over a bare hand, they can be seen from outposts miles away and by night the silence is broken only by the sound of gunfire as warring factions come out to settle new and old scores.

I will be very surprised if this vast barren landscape, where age old rivalries are played out on a daily basis, can ever be tamed. And Afghanistan is part of that landscape. Nothing much has changed since 1969. The resurgence of the Taliban and lawless elements is not surprising. It was inevitable. Can we afford to fail? I think we probably can and I think we probably will. The vast sums of money being spent trying to stabilize that country and stop the opium being grown may be better spent on apprehending the stuff on the seas, and at our own borders..

And in any case, the choice of drugs, as we are told daily, is changing dramatically. Heroin is being replaced with ice and like drugs. We need to concentrate our efforts on that, because if we don't then our societies will just rot from within. It is a truly depressing scene. These drugs are not produced by tribesmen in the barren hills of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan. They are made in our own backyards and they are far more dangerous than heroin.

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