Home .Development Why development in Afghanistan is so important?
Why development in Afghanistan is so important?
Sunday, 25 October 2009 09:55


Afghanistan is a mess.  The government is corrupt and incompetent, and controls very little of the country.  The Taliban insurgency is making strong advances.  The recent presidential election was a fiasco.  Western public support for military intervention in Afghanistan is waning.  The US generals are asking Obama for more troups.  He is holding back, waiting to see if the government really deserves his support.


But as a recent United Nations report details, we are all paying the price of Afghan chaos.  While Afghanistan might be the world’s quintessential failed state, it is very good at one thing, producing opium.



Afghanistan has the world monopoly of opium cultivation (92%), the raw material for the world's deadliest drug - heroin.  Some 900 tons of opium and 375 tons of heroin are trafficked from Afghanistan every year along the Balkan and Eurasian drug routes, all the way to Europe, Russia, India and China.  The world's deadliest drug has created a market worth $65 billion, catering to 15 million addicts, causing up to 100,000 deaths per year, spreading HIV at an unprecedented rate and, not least, funding criminal groups, insurgents and terrorists.


While we sit around and debate the pros and cons of stabilizing Afghanistan, this country which is miles from nowhere, and seemingly irrelevant to our own countries, is proving to be “systemically significant”.  There are now more deaths at home in Western countries (from drugs) than on the battlefield (from bullets).  The human cost of addiction in consuming countries is higher than the number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan's poppy fields. The number of heroin addicts in Russia has gone up by a factor of ten in the past decade, to the point that more Russians die every year from Afghan drugs (more than 30,000 according to government figures) than the total number of Red Army soldiers killed during the 10-year Afghan war. In NATO countries, the number of people who die of heroin overdoses every year (more than 10,000) is five times higher than the total number of NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in the past 8 years. Iran faces the world's most serious opiate addiction problem, while injecting drug use in Central Asia is causing an HIV epidemic.


In Afghanistan, there are high volumes of opium flows, but low volumes of seizures.  Approximately 40% of Afghanistan's heroin (150 tons) is trafficked each year into Pakistan, around 30% (105 tons) enters Iran, while 25% (100 tons) flows into Central Asia.  The root of the problem lies in Afghanistan where corruption, lawlessness and uncontrolled borders result in an insignificant 2% interception rate of the opiates produced, compared to one third (36%) in Colombia for cocaine. In the south and east of Afghanistan, smuggling prospers because of centuries-old Pashtun and Baluchi cross-border tribal links, the violence and chaos caused by insurgency, disregard of international obligations in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the violation of the trade transit agreements with neighbours.  The Afghan/Pakistan border region has turned into the world's largest free trade zone in anything and everything that is illicit - drugs of course, but also weapons, bomb-making equipment, chemical precursors, drug money, even people and migrants.


World-wide, only 20% percent of Afghan opiate shipments are being intercepted, compared to twice as much for cocaine from the Andean countries.  While Iran intercepts 20% of the opiates crossing its territory and Pakistan 17%, Central Asian states intercept just 5%, and Russia a meagre 4%. Faring even worse are countries of South Eastern Europe, including EU Member States like Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania that intercept less than 2% of their opiate trade. This, despite the fact that Europe consumes 88 tons of heroin per year, and Russia 70 tons.  The value of the drugs doubles with every border crossed: a gram of heroin worth $3 in Kabul may reach $100 on the streets of London, Milan or Moscow.  Seizing Afghan opium where it is produced is infinitely more efficient and cheaper than trying to do so where it is consumed.


The Taliban is making more money from drugs now than ten years ago, when they were in power.  A decade ago the Taliban earned $75-100 million per year by taxing opium cultivation: the only source of foreign exchange available to their regime.  Since 2005, Talibs and other insurgents in Afghanistan have derived $90-160 million per year just from taxing opium production and trade (a tithe known as ushr). This drug money increases substantially by adding the charges insurgents impose on labs and precursor imports, as well as the taxes on economic activity in the districts they control. Furthermore, the Taliban and al-Qaeda inspired groups take a share of the $1 billion opiate market in Pakistan.  This allows the Taliban to fund a war machine that is becoming technologically more complex and increasingly widespread.  Many of these drug barons, with links to insurgency, are known to Afghan and foreign intelligence services, but their names not been submitted to the UN Security Council.


Sometimes forgotten is the double nature of the Afghan drug flows.  There are the physical quantities (tons of opium and heroin), that cause health havoc in consuming nations:  law enforcement concentrates on these flows.  Then there are the value flows, the money made around Afghanistan by the drug trade in the hands of criminals, to be sure, and also insurgents, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Party of Turkmenistan, and the East Turkistan Liberation Organization. The perfect storm of drugs and terrorism, that has struck the Afghan/Pakistani border for years, may be heading towards Central Asia.  A big part of the region could be engulfed in large-scale terrorism, endangering its massive energy resources.


Anomalous, yet broadly known, is also the fact that, since 2006, much more opium has been produced in Afghanistan than is consumed in the world at-large. The report confirms that there is now an unaccounted stockpile of 12,000 tons of Afghan opium - enough to satisfy more than two years of world heroin demand.


"The numbers are scary", said Antonio Mario Costa, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "Even more frightening is the fact that governments have not recognized that they can only tackle this threat by addressing all links in the chain: assistance to farmers to reduce supply, drug prevention and treatment to curb demand, and law enforcement against intermediaries”.


What to do?  We are all part of the Afghan drug problem, and we all must work for its solution by addressing all links of the drug chain: (i) assistance to farmers to reduce supply; (ii) drug prevention and treatment to curb demand; and (iii) law enforcement against intermediaries.  These intermediaries are not only shady characters linked to international mafias.  They are also: (i) white collar Afghan officials, who take a cut by protecting the drug trade, and (ii) the religious fanatics and political insurgents who do the same to finance their cause.


Regrettably, benign neglect, incompetence and corruption enable narcotics to move from one of the poorest (landlocked) countries in the world, to the main streets of the richest streets of the richest nations in Europe and (growingly) Asia





Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: The transnational threat of Afghan opium, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.




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