The US-led war against terrorism and subsequent reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have failed to stem the flow of narcotics out of the country. A new United Nations report finds that trafficking in Afghanistan surged in 2002. At the same time, neighboring Central Asian states are expressing alarm about growing security risks from drug addiction and skyrocketing HIV/AIDS cases.
Following a ban on production by the Taliban regime that reduced opium output to relatively insignificant amounts in 2001, Afghanistan produced 3,400 tons last year, reclaiming the title of the world's largest producer.
Efforts to control the Afghan drug flow by both the international community and President Hamid Karzai's interim administration have so far proven ineffective, despite an extension of the Taliban-era ban on production in January 2002. Karzai's anti-drug strategy has focused largely on law-enforcement activities.
UN officials are critical of this approach. In the UN report, titled "The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, urged that more attention be paid to addressing the root causes behind poppy cultivation.
"Dismantling the opium economy will be a long and complex process," Costa wrote in the report, released February 3. "It [poppy eradication] cannot simply be done by military or authoritarian means. That has been tried in the past, and was unsustainable. It must be done with the instruments of democracy, the rule of law, and development."
The study looks at the economic impact opium cultivation has had not only on Afghanistan, but on the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan and the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
In Afghanistan from 1994-2000, opium sales brought in about $150 million per year or $750 per family involved in its production. By 2002, gross income had risen to $1.2 billion or $6,500 per family, the report says.
The drug trade in the Central Asian republics has netted traffickers about $2.2 billion. More than three-fourths of the opium sold in Europe, and nearly all sold in Russia, now originates in Afghanistan.
"From a purely commercial point of view, the success of illicit Afghan opiates as a global commodity is remarkable," the report notes, adding that the crop leaves subsistence farmers at the "mercy of domestic warlords and international crime syndicates that continue to dominate several areas in the south, north and east of the country."
To develop an Afghan economy that is not dependent on the drug trade, the report calls for a balance between the short-term and long-term initiatives. This includes a gradual reduction of emergency food programs which, while needed to prevent starvation, also present barriers to other forms of agricultural development.
"Given the current opium prices within Afghanistan, it is clear that no other crop can compete with opium poppy as a source of income," the report says. "This considerably hampers alternative development interventions."
Last October, Karzai established in Kabul a Counter-Narcotics Directorate to coordinate the drug-fighting efforts of government ministries, local officials, foreign anti-narcotics agencies and the United Nations. Despite the attempt at improved coordination, Costa said the surge in opium production raised "nagging questions" about current enforcement efforts.
"Why is the international presence in Afghanistan not able to bring under control a phenomenon connected to international terrorism and organized crime?" he asks in the preface to the report. "Why is the central government in Kabul not able to enforce the ban on opium cultivation as effectively the Taliban regime did in 2000-01?"
Russia is a major transit point for Afghan opium and heroin making its way from Central Asia to the lucrative markets of Western Europe, and Russian officials have repeatedly complained about the continuing drug trade in Afghanistan. Russia has more than 10,000 border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border to prevent drug and weapons smuggling.
In a January 28 interview with the Itar-Tass news agency, the chief of staff of Russia's Federal Border Guard Service, Nikolai Reznichenko, said that Moscow was anxious to stop trafficking. However, he indicated that Russian interdiction efforts are lagging, in large part because of the Afghan government's inability to curtail poppy cultivation.
"No serious measures are being taken to destroy opium poppy crops or laboratories in Afghanistan," Reznichenko said.
More than 60 percent of global opiate seizures take place in the countries bordering Afghanistan, with Iran making the most seizures, followed by Pakistan and Tajikistan.
In late January, Tajik and US officials signed a cooperation agreement to enhance border patrol and interdiction programs. Under the agreement, the United States will provide Tajik border guards with equipment and training. Despite such US aid initiatives, Central Asian anti-trafficking efforts struggle to keep pace with the rising volume of the drug trade, local observers say.
Central Asian officials in recent months have voiced increasing concern about the destabilizing social impact of trafficking. For instance, the HIV/AIDS infection rate in Central Asia is increasing at the fastest pace in the world. The UN report draws a direct link between the regional HIV/AIDS crisis and the Afghan drug trade. Opium production contributed to a 600-fold increase in AIDS cases in Central Asia from 1994 to 2001, of which 88 percent were related to injected drug use, the report states.
Aziz Yoldashov, who heads the government's anti-trafficking effort in Uzbekistan, told the Interfax news agency January 9 that a rise in Afghan opium production is prompting increased drug addiction in neighboring states. He said there were over 24,000 registered addicts in Uzbekistan. "And this is not the full picture," he added.
Todd Diamond is a freelance writer who covers the United Nations.