Illicit and ongoing

Despite millions of dollars invested into counternarcotics operations, Afghanistan’s opium trade shows no sign of abating – and the country remains the world’s biggest opium producer

An Afghan policeman destroys poppies during a campaign against narcotics in Kunar province, 2014. REUTERSParwiz  (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Afghan policeman destroys poppies during a campaign against narcotics in Kunar province, 2014. REUTERSParwiz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite large amounts of money invested in counter-narcotics operations by the Afghan government and the United States, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer.
A recent report published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) indicates that Washington contributed roughly $8.62 billion to eradicating poppy farming in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2017.
However, a spokesperson within the Afghanistan Ministry of Narcotics told The Media Line it could only confirm a US expenditure of $300 million.
According to the SIGAR report, opium production in war-torn Afghanistan increased by 164% from 3,400 metric tons to 9,000 metric tons over the same period.
The report also claims that the Afghan drug trade has undermined the country’s reconstruction efforts, reforms aimed at eradicating government corruption and national security, given the financing of insurgent groups through the trade.
Analysts who have examined the SIGAR report claim that counter-narcotics programs have not led to lasting reductions in poppy production. These programs were often too short-term and failed to provide sustainable alternatives to poppies, the country’s largest cash crop.
Muhammed Zareef Khan, a former leading poppy cultivator and local warlord from the southern Helmand province, home to an estimated 80% of Afghanistan’s opium poppies, explained to The Media Line that there were about three million farming families in Afghanistan dependent on the product.
He explained that most of these farmers live in remote villages in Afghanistan where opium provides a reliable source of income that is not possible with other crops. Farmers are paid about $160 to $180 for a kilo of the black raw opium extracted from poppy seed pods.
Without suitable alternatives, eradication efforts would be fruitless.
“When I discovered that poppy cultivation is haram [a forbidden act in Islam] because it is mainly used in making narcotics, I immediately abandoned this work and started an export/import business of dried fruits and vegetables from Pakistan and Iran. The new job is tough, but my family is satisfied now,” Zareef Khan conveyed to The Media Line.
Rebecca Hodge, a coordinator at Afghanaid, a British humanitarian and development organization working in Afghanistan for over a decade, has been collaborating with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to provide rural Afghans with alternatives to the production of poppies.
“These alternatives entail legal employment opportunities for local farmers and producers,” Hodge told The Media Line. “By creating an alternative livelihood for these poppy producers, we are reducing their dependency on illegal crops.”
Khalid Wahdatyaar, a senior Afghan journalist who lives in exile, stressed to The Media Line that Islamic State and some Taliban groups were earning up to $500m. annually off the opium trade.
Wahdatyaar, who served in the Afghan Ministry of Information under former president Hamid Karzai, said that before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the poppy fields had been eradicated by the Taliban. After the Taliban-backed government was toppled, poppy growers returned and are now producing 90% of the world’s opium.
Opium is a highly lucrative business, with an annual global profit estimated at $65 billion. As Afghanistan’s production of the drug increased, trafficking routes out of the country have become increasingly coveted.
The Islamabad chapter of the UNODC published a recent report indicating that Pakistan is the main exit point for opium products leaving Afghanistan.
The long border between the two countries is impossible to control and provides plenty of routes for smugglers.
The Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) is the prime drug law enforcement agency in Pakistan located in Rawalpindi, a short distance from the general headquarters of the Pakistan Army.
Riaz Soomro, director of the ANF, told The Media Line that his agency is working hard to counter drug trafficking throughout the country and internationally.
“This year alone, the ANF has already registered 561 cases, arrested 673 people, including 22 foreign nationals involved in drug trafficking, seized 59.84 metric tons of drugs and 14.48 metric tons of prohibited chemicals, and has broken up five domestic and two international drug trafficking organiza- tions,” he related.
Soomro added that sharing a 2,611km.
border with Afghanistan presents the agency with many difficult challenges.
The ANF, he asserted, was “doing all it can to counter poppy opium trafficking across the border.”
Soomro concluded that drug smuggling across the border would be greatly reduced if fences or a barrier would be erected. “A day will soon come when there will be no transit route for narcotics traffickers via Pakistan.”
In early 2017, the Pakistani army began constructing along the border a fence that was projected to cost $505m.
So far, only 160 km. of the fence has been completed, while another 400 km. is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018. Officials hope the entire fence will be constructed by the end of 2019.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official from Pakistan’s Ministry of Narcotics Control revealed to The Media Line that Afghanistan’s drug trade culture has made deep inroads into Pakistan.
The most alarming effect, the official added, is the rapid increase in drug use among college and university students.
“Drug use is also very common in Pakistan’s urban centers, including the capital Islamabad. Drug users tend to be students who belong to the elite families,” he added.
The official claimed, “Drug suppliers, who are very organized, are working right under the nose of local police because they’ve established connections with the law enforcement agencies, as well as powerful politicians.”