The US-led campaign against terrorism faces a potentially devastating setback in Afghanistan, where an explosion of opium cultivation threatens to ruin stabilization efforts. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has appealed for more funds to combat the drug trade, but international opinion appears divided on how to respond to the crisis.
Both Karzai and Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), have warned recently that, unless immediate measures are taken to contain drug trafficking, Afghanistan stands to become a "narco-state."
"I don't think we can call it a narco-state now, but Afghanistan is obviously at a critical juncture," said Costa, who attended a February 8-9 conference in Kabul that explored solutions to the narcotics crisis. "It could go either way."
The ability of the Afghan government to address the narcotics threat has potentially profound ramifications for international efforts to contain terrorism. "The fight against terrorism will be more effective if drug trafficking [in Afghanistan] is interrupted," Costa said, adding that there is "mounting evidence of drug money being used to finance criminal activities, including terrorism."
At the Kabul conference, Karzai appealed for international assistance to fund a four-year, $300 million plan to reduce opium cultivation by 70 percent. Afghan officials also urged global donors to help develop programs that encourage farmers to grow crops other than poppies, which are the raw material for opium and heroin. Click to enlarge CND/UNOCD map of Afghanistan's heroin production
Despite a ban imposed by Karzai, opium production is booming in Afghanistan. According to UNODC, Afghanistan was responsible for producing about 3,600 metric tons of opium in 2003, a 6 percent increase over the previous year. The more than $1 billion generated by the narcotics trade accounts for close to half of the Afghan gross domestic product (GDP), and is possibly greater than the total amount of reconstruction funds devoted to Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in 2002. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
One UN report estimated that close to 1.7 million Afghans, in a country of around 28 million people, are directly involved in poppy cultivation. The report underscored the economic realities of the opium trade in Afghanistan, adding that raw opium can yield $280 or more per kilo. Experts add that Afghan farmers can make $15 or more a day cultivating opium, or up to $4,000 per year. The average salary in Afghanistan is around $30 per month. Karzai said a lack of "alternate livelihoods" has left many farmers with no choice but to produce narcotics.
The UNODC says that opium is now being grown in 28 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces, versus 18 provinces in 1999. The country supplies up to 90 percent of the heroin consumed in Europe, according to various estimates. Karzai also expressed concern about a rise in heroin and opium use inside Afghanistan a relatively new trend in the country.
Costa, the UNODC chief, indicated that foreign aid could not entirely solve Afghanistan's drug problem. Karzai, he added, faced "delicate decisions" in addressing government corruption. Costa explained that for many influential Afghans, especially the warlords who dominate outlying regions, the drug trade is a major source of their power. He added that warlords often use payoffs from drug traffickers to finance their private armies. Some officials also funnel trafficking-related bribes into private bank accounts.
"There are a number of authoritative people, whether in government, whether in Kabul, or whether in the provinces, or whether in the general business environment, who allow trafficking and cultivation," Costa was quoted as saying by the American ABC television network. "The collaboration and support with the opium economy received from these individuals needs to come to an end."
At present, Britain, acting under a mandate specified in the Bonn agreement on Afghanistan's reconstruction, is leading anti-trafficking efforts in Afghanistan. British advisors, for example, have helped train units of the Afghan police force in anti-narcotics tactics. British forces also reportedly led a January 2 raid that destroyed facilities used to convert raw opium into heroin.
US and British military officials have been quoted saying that a "spring offensive" against traffickers is in the offing. The opium harvest doesn't begin until April, or May, and from all indications this year's crop is going to top 2003's record production.
Some reports say that British and American forces are ready to use "slash and burn" tactics in waging their campaign to reduce drug production. Some expert warn that the use of such tactics would lay waste to Afghanistan's agricultural capacity, and potentially alienate millions of Afghans, making them more receptive to Islamic militant ideology.
It remains to be seen whether Karzai can attract all the international anti-trafficking assistance that he seeks. Top finance officials from G8 nations sent a muddled message following a meeting in Boca Raton, Florida on February 6-7. A G8 communiqué expressed a desire to further assist in Afghanistan's reconstruction, but it "insisted" that the country curtail opium production. Afghan analysts say the country now risks become caught in a vicious cycle, in which Afghanistan requires foreign aid to contain opium production, while the international community is reluctant to extend such aid unless the drug threat is first eliminated.
Some experts suggest the international community take a broader approach towards addressing Afghanistan's drug threat. The fastest way to stop drug production is to enhance Afghan security and foster economic development, said Barnett Rubin, director of studies for the Center for International Cooperation at New York University. "Nobody should be under the illusion that without security structures and economic development that the drug economy in Afghanistan will be halted, or even significantly reduced," Rubin said.
On February 2, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) launched an appeal for $25.5 million to fund alternative crop cultivation programs in Afghanistan. The five-year initiative will focus on agricultural development in four of Afghanistan's main opium producing provinces: Badakhshan, Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar.
"The opium trade is ruled by criminal gangs that operate on an international scale, also involving and fueling terrorism. That is why opium production threatens the restoration of law and order in Afghanistan," Angelika Schuckler, a farm management economist at UNFAO, told EurasiaNet.
"You have to tackle the root causes of why farmers grow poppy. We have identified a number a root causes, the main ones being poverty, indebtedness, unemployment and lack of governance," Schuckler continued. "Our approach is to rehabilitate the agricultural infrastructure, and to create short-term employment for the landless and the unemployed."
Schuckler says that -- provided initiatives are adequately funded -- it would take at least a decade to turn the Afghan economy away from its current heavy reliance on opium production. "Farmers need a variety of input for orchards, forestry, irrigation and livestock, as well as access to credit and training. Infrastructure, health and education services need to be restored," Schuckler said.
Mark Berniker is a freelance journalist specializing in Eurasian affairs.