Afghan opium crop set for record high, says the latest report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Opium cultivation has risen 7% year on year to 224,000 hectares, and production in 2014 may reach 6,400 tons – a 17% increase.
Compare it to the UN report published a year ago in November 2013: “For the first time over 200,000 hectares of Afghan fields were growing poppies”, said the UN's Afghanistan Opium Survey for 2013.
Opium production has been growing rapidly since the Taliban seized power in 1996. It fell in 2001 after the Taliban leader Mullah Omar declared opium to be un-Islamic. However, since the start of the US-led counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan in 2001, followed by the Taliban’s exit from Kabul, opium growth has been steadily rising – though the coalition forces claim they have been struggling to contain the poppy spread.
Says Professor Dr. Conrad Schetter, Director for Research, Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC):
First, I have to say that opium is produced in Afghanistan for many centuries. But as we would observe, at the time of the Taliban for the first time the opium production rose enormously, up to 80% of the global market. However, the Taliban was also able to stop the opium production for one year. When the international community started its intervention in 2001, the war against drugs was high on the agenda. They’ve put a lot of billions into this war and one has to resume, in the end it didn’t achieve anything.
Today the drug harvest is as high, as 15 years ago. We can observe a much stronger differentiation of production, also including hashish. We can observe a much stronger organizational structure of the opium production. So, one can say that what was done by the international community so far was a fight against the windmills.
How do they send the drugs over the globe? What are the main transit routes?
Dr. Conrad Schetter: I think there are many transit routes. You have one avenue going through Pakistan. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is quite open. The same is true for Iran. And we have to consider that both countries – Iran and Pakistan – are the largest consumers of opium from Afghanistan. Moreover, we also have the routes going via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. For example, the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan is a port and a crossroads for drug economy. So, there are many roads and this makes it so difficult to fight the drug economy in Afghanistan. It is like a balloon; you can squeeze it on the one side, but the air will go to the other side. It’s got so many routes out of Afghanistan which are very hard to control.
And where is the production concentrated?
Dr. Conrad Schetter: We’ve got very strong concentrations in the southwestern part of Afghanistan – the part which is also mostly covered by the Taliban. However, we have to say that here the drug production, I feel, it is the main political economy, not the Taliban. This means that there are the drug lords who have the say and who have got their own forces, and if you are not with them, then you have got two problems and you are really under a threat.
The southwest is the main hub, but we also got it spread around in many other parts. For example, in the northern Afghanistan it now becomes more popular to produce hashish instead of opium. And we have to think that more than 100 000 people are involved in the drug production in Afghanistan. So, it is a very huge business in the country and the most productive one.
So, do I get it right that it is one of the main sources of income for the agricultural population?
Dr. Conrad Schetter: It is particular for the Pashtuns, but we also have many places where the Khazars and Tajiks live, which are also involved in the drug economy. Of course, many other ethnic and social groups are profiting from it. You can say it more or less goes through all the structures of the social fabric of the Afghan society. There are poor farmers involved, large traders, businessmen, politicians, of course, since some call Afghanistan a narco-state. So, it touches all the parts of the Afghan society.
And finally, would it be a bit too idealistic and naïve to discuss ways of countering this problem at this particular point?
Dr. Conrad Schetter: Over the last 15 years I think we could observe many attempts to fight the drug production in Afghanistan. They all more or less failed. And I think the main problem was that from the beginning there was a strong discrimination of the poor farmers who are producing these drugs. And this has led to a situation of the criminalization of these farmers and to the building of cartels for the drug economy. And if you once have this strong mafia structure, as you can also observe in the countries like Mexico of Brazil, then it is getting more difficult to fight the war against such illicit economies.
In my eyes, at the beginning the main mistake was not finding the other ways to bring the farmers into a legal sphere. For example, the idea that Afghanistan could have become one of the producers of legal opium, such as Turkey or France. I think this wasn’t touched from the beginning and this had been the way out of this crisis in Afghanistan”.
Ahmed Quraishi, Senior Research Fellow of the Pakistan Federal Reorganization Program ‘Project For Pakistan In 21st Century’:
I think it is an embarrassing moment for the international community, and specifically for NATO, and more specifically for the US that 13 years down the road in Afghanistan we have this record opium production. And it is even more embarrassing because of the fact that the Afghan Taliban that ruled that country before the Western intervention succeeded in a large way to eliminate opium production. And as a matter of fact, when the US military landed in Afghanistan in 2001 there was almost no opium production at commercial levels in Afghanistan. It had almost ceased production and the trade had almost been disrupted.
Now, 13 years down the road, when you look back, first of all, obviously it is a failure of the Afghan Government – the Government of President Karzai. It is also a failure of the NATO and American-backed administrations that ran that country. But I think 13 years down the road it will not be enough for us just to assign blame to the Afghan Government or Afghan warlords and politicians, and NATO and the US military. I think we need to have a serious sustained debate about how was it possible for Afghanistan to reenter the opium international market after the Western intervention, when it had almost exited this market in the year 2000.
And I think a logical and a reasonable answer for that would be the role of, in particular, I would specially pinpoint the CIA. I think we have a huge body of work in the US, large debates that have taken place both within the US Congress and in the American media about the times in history where the CIA had been involved in narcotics trade to finance its own operations. And I think a tremendous investigative work and research work has been done on what the CIA did back in the 1980’es in the South America.
I think the CIA once again has had a very huge role in the Afghan adventure of NATO and the US military. Personally speaking, as a person who has been following the Afghan war since 2001, 13 years down the road I have no hesitation in laying a large portion of blame at the doorsteps of Langley for this opium trade that has crossed all the previous records now.
So, I think it will be appropriate at this stage for all of us to move beyond simply assigning blame to the Afghan politicians and Afghan Government, and also move beyond simply saying that this is the failure of NATO and the US military, to actually talking about what… for example, let me refer you to the NY Times report that was published earlier this year that talked about several of the Afghan warlords who are part of the Afghan Government, who are involved in opium trade and who are on the CIA’s pay list in Afghanistan.
Of course, once this report was published by the NY Times, the CIA and the people close to the US Government explained this by saying that it is important to have some warlords on the payroll in order to run the country and secure the country, and secure the US military operations in that country. But I think it is not just that. I think we are looking at something more than that. And I think it is very disturbing when we have the Afghan warlords whose bread and butter is opium trade, and who are hand and glove with an important agency of the US Government, and that is the CIA.
So, I think the links here are very clear. And I think the CIA and the US Government needs to take a lot of the blame for this flourishing opium trade in Afghanistan.
What exactly could be the CIA’s goals in this situation?
Ahmed Quraishi: This is a very good question – why would the CIA be involved in promoting narcotics, or turn a blind eye to it. I'm sure you know that there are a lot of divisions in Washington DC as to how long the US should stay in Afghanistan. And it is quite clear that the CIA had been on the side of the people who had been advocating a long-term US presence in Afghanistan. And not everyone in the US politics agrees with this vision. The CIA has a certain budget that it can run in Afghanistan, but it is quite clear that the American ambitions and the US military’s ambitions in Afghanistan exceed the political goals that had been assigned by the US Government.
So, how do you finance the gap between the budget that has been given to the CIA by the US Government and the plans that the CIA has in this region. Of course, here I'm presupposing that the CIA is interested not only in Afghanistan itself, but it is also interested in the neighborhood. The CIA has tremendous interests in the neighboring Pakistan, it has tremendous interests in neighboring Iran and has tremendous interests in the Central Asian republics – the backyard of Russia. These are all very important regions to the CIA. And Afghanistan is a pivot and a listening post for the CIA to watch and observe all of these regions, of course, not to forget China as well.
So, to finance this project would mean that the CIA would have to ask for a much larger budget than it has already been given. So, I think the gap here is being fulfilled through these indirect means. And this is not a conspiracy theory, we are not running ahead with our imagination, this is something that the CIA has been doing in Latin America back in the 1980’es, and did so also in Africa, if some of the reports are to be believed.
But I think there is a tremendous work that has been done within the US, great investigative stories that have been exposed by the American media itself and within the US Congress, that have shown what the CIA has been doing in the Latin America. And I have no doubt that we are seeing a repeat of history right now in Afghanistan.
And once again, the flourishing opium trade is not just a function of simply a few Afghan warlords. There is no question that these warlords are the ones who are running this trade, but there is the whole infrastructure – political and security – that is providing protection to these Afghan warlords. And that political and security infrastructure is firmly in the American hands. So, we need to ask these tough and difficult questions.
So, finally, who do you think could challenge the CIA’s role in Afghanistan right now?
Ahmed Quraishi: The good news is that the things did not turn out for the CIA in Afghanistan the way the CIA really planned. We all know that the American plans in Afghanistan went in a really bad way. And many of the political and military plans that were put in place back in 2002-2003, have not really played out the way they really wanted them to play out. And I think the CIA has seen a backlash. I think we've all seen, for example, how even the Afghan soldiers and the Afghan police that were trained by the American military started attacking their own trainers and so forth.
So, I think things did not work out for the CIA the way it wanted. And the regional countries have been paying attention to all of this. In Pakistan, for example, I know that we have been paying very close attention to what the CIA has been doing so far. The Iranians have been doing the same thing as well. So, I think most of the neighbors of Afghanistan have been quite aware of the disturbing role and the disruptive role that the CIA has played in Afghanistan over the 13 years, and that disruptive role, once again, was not just only in the realm of intelligence and the military, but also in the realm of the way the Afghan warlords have been groomed by the CIA and put on its payroll, and allowed to move on with this opium trade.
I think all of the countries in the region are struggling right now with the narcotics trade. And I think with the instability in Afghanistan, with the continuous rebellion of the Afghan Taliban and since the civil war continues all of the countries will face difficulties in containing this narcotics trade. I'm afraid all of these countries will have to wait until we see a dramatic and visible reduction of the American role in Afghanistan for the Afghan people to fully take charge of their country, for them to stop the grooming of the Afghan warlords who are involved in the opium trade, and for the neighboring countries to finally be able to cooperate with a strong central Government in Kabul that can be an actual partner in combating the opium trade.