Taliban forces and Afghan drug lords are facing a pincer movement against their strongholds by Iranian forces massing along the border in the south and the large-scale allied offensive closing in from the north.
The current actions could see a rare partnership between Iran and the United States in the regional conflict, as the US-led force strives to defeat the Taliban, and Iran aims to halt cross-border drug smuggling.
“The message is clear,” said Antoni Maria Costa, executive director of the Untied Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “In order to further reduce the biggest source of the world's deadliest drug, there must be better security, development and governance in Afghanistan.”
Prof. Sultan Barakat, Head of the Postwar Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York, said the matter needed to be thought of within its international context.
“It must be recognized that both Iran and Pakistan have the potential to influence the trajectory of stabilization in Afghanistan significantly,” he told The Media Line. “The economic interests of all neighboring countries, China included, need to be seriously considered and their incentives understood.”
“Moreover,” he added. “From these countries’ perspectives, military expansion of coalition forces could be seen as a direct threat — in the case of Iran in particular.”
This weekend’s offensive by some 15,000 US, British and Afghan government forces marks the largest ever assault against Taliban insurgents since the war began in 2001.
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The forces are targeting the cities of Marjah and Nad Ali in the southern Helmand province, known to be a Taliban stronghold and a major drug producing area. One of the secondary goals of the offensive is to disrupt the large-scale opium trade estimated to make up between 87 and 93 percent of the worldwide market and finance Taliban rule.
Some doubt the allied military offensive will have a significant effect on the drug trade.
“The military forces that are going into Helmand now are not specifically targeting the drug trade, they are focusing on the insurgency,” Martine van Bijlert Co-director, of Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, told The Media Line. “Although the narrative they use is that the insurgency benefits a lot from the drug trade and that, by implication, they want to deal with that, it will probably not have that much impact.”
“Even if the insurgency would be pushed back in Helmand, it would not necessarily impact the drug trade because there are also a lot of non-insurgents involved.” she said
Code-named Moshtarak, meaning ‘together’ in Dari, the offensive has seen little firefight as Taliban insurgents have fanned out in the countryside against their bulked foe.
Roadside charges have been slowing the offensive further.
On the other side of the border, Iranian officials have announced that $108 million will be spent on sealing its Afghani frontier. The nearly 1,000-kilometer long border is one of the main Afghani exit points for opium and heroin destined for the international market.
“Border posts have been constructed in the southeast of the country, new crossings have also been established,” Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar was quoted by the official FARS news agency. “Wide, deep canals, concrete walls and embankments have been created to seal off eastern boundaries.”
According to the semi-official Iranian news agency Press TV, Iran aims to spend a total of $3 billion on anti-smuggling drives.
Some 3,300 Iranian soldiers and policemen have been killed along the border trying to halt smuggling in the last thirty years.
Official figures for the number of drug users in Iran stand at 1 million, but some sources claim actual numbers might be ten times higher.
UNODC assessment claimed that almost 80 percent of villages considered to have very poor security conditions grew opium, compared to 7 percent among villages deemed unaffected by violence.
“This is further proof of the overlap between high insecurity and high cultivation,” said UNODC’s Costa.
Van Bijlert argued the drug trade is fixed into Afghan society in a way that will be very difficult to uproot.
been very hard for the government to control the cultivation and
smuggling of drugs anywhere in the country,” she said. “There are also
people within the government or linked to the government who are
involved or benefit from it. It does not necessarily follow that if an
area comes under increased government control, there will be less drug
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