On Sunday, while 250 Afghan and international delegates were meeting in Kabul to discuss the problem of heroin production in Afghanistan, word came of a drug-related fight between warlords in an outlying province. The International Herald Tribune reported that Afghan government forces intervened to stop a four-day battle between two rival warlords fighting for control of an unofficial road tax imposed by the warlords on the illegal opium trade in the area. The fighting left seven people dead and eight wounded.
The clash was a reminder that the influence of opium and heroin production over almost all facets of Afghan political and national culture is deep rooted and growing, and that Afghanistan runs the risk of dissolving into a lawless narco-state. As President
Hamid Karzai told the conference on Monday, "The problem of poppy production and the production of heroin and other drugs which are produced from poppies are the major problem of Afghanistan."
Afghanistan supplies 75 percent of the worldís opium, and heroin production generates an estimated $2.3 billion annually in economic activity ñ an amount equal to half of Afghanistanís GDP. An estimated 1.7 million Afghans depend on opium farming for their livelihood, the average farmer earning nearly $4000 last year, ten times the per capita income of $200. This drug money permeates the entire economy: opium farmers earned about $1.5 billion last year but traffickers, middlemen and processors made at least that much in refining poppies into opium and heroin and transporting the goods around and out of Afghanistan.
The enormous trade in narcotics has the potential to exacerbate and prolong some of Afghanistan's already grave problems. Regional warlords increasingly rely on drug money to finance their ongoing struggle for power and territory in Afghanistan's outlying provinces where the central government and coalition forces based in Kabul have little real authority; Al Qaeda and the Taliban are suspected of benefiting as well.
A recent statement by the House International Relations Committee, which is trying to pressure the Pentagon into taking action against the drug trade, puts it starkly:
This production, and associated crime, undermines security, finances terrorism and poses a grave potential for massive, drug-related, corruption at all levels in the fledgling government in Kabul.
The Chicago Tribune
reported on Monday that drug experts and diplomats aren't sure know how much of the drug business is finding its way to the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups, but that they're "certain that all three groups are profiting to some degree and that drugs are playing an increasingly important role in fueling the resurgence of terrorist networks that U.S. forces came to Afghanistan to dismantle." The Tribune quotes one diplomatic source as saying, "Any operation that Al Qaeda or the Taliban could conceive of could be funded right now.
According to intelligence reports, the Taliban pay their foot soldiers as much as $17 a day and the market price for planting a car bomb is $25,000 -- money that could only be supplied by drug trafficking in Afghanistanís anemic economy. For any who had forgotten, the Taliban is still alive and well in Afghanistan, as the American military reminded us all recently when it announced plans for a new spring offensive on the Taliban.
But perhaps even more ominously, drug money may soon provide the impetus for new and even more adaptable enemies. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs the security analyst Jessica Stern wrote about the difficulty of defeating or even understanding new "protean enemies" (PDF) who may begin as terrorists with political or ideological motives but soon devolve into common criminals, motivated by the same greed for money, power and status that drive drug traffickers in other regions of the world. The presence of so many warlords and terrorists in an environment so ripe for illegal drug trading and all its profits makes it inevitable that some warlords will "transform themselves into profit driven organized criminals," further contributing to the instability, violence and lawlessness that already exist.
Afghanistanís warlords, equipped with arms, men, authority and all the opium they need for financing, have the potential to create instability for Afghanistan and the entire Central Asia region for years, if not decades, to come. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch warned:
Much of this trade and the money it generates is under the control, or at least the influence, of various major and minor military commanders, who use this money to increase their military capability and gain independence from the central government and any international troops working with them.
The Afgan Government has set a target of eliminating poppy production within 10 years. That seems unlikely at the curent level of engagement. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated the production of opium in 2003 at 3,600 tons, an increase of 6 percent increase over the year before. And a new "2004 Farmersí Intentions Survey" stresses the risk of a further increase in cultivation this year.
Although the drug problem in Afghanistan is getting increasing international and media attention, including the International Conference on Narcotics being held this week in Kabul, there is no consensus on how best to combat the problem. The Chicago Tribune reports:
[T]he U.S. military is deeply reluctant to become entangled in a Colombia-style drug war that would divert resources away from the hunt for terrorists..."Our resources here are finite," said Lt. Gen. David Barno, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "Our focus has to remain on security.
Without bringing the drug trade to heel there will be no prospect for security in Afghanistanís outlying provinces even if Osama Bin Laden is found and the Taliban is eliminated. At the opening of the International Narcotics Conference in Kabul this week Afghan President Hamed Karzai said that "the problem of poppy production and cultivation should be dealt with in the same way in which we deal with terrorism," which is to say militarily and aggressively.
Under the Bonn agreement signed at the end of the war that unseated the Taliban, the British are in charge of drug interdiction efforts in Afghanistan. According to the Christian Science Monitor, they started out by trying to pay farmers to eradicate poppy fields, but the financial incentive only led new farmers to jump in. And no one has found an alternative crop that's as lucrative. So they recently created a 110-member Afghan Special Counter Narcotics Force to attack the problem militarily, with $128 million over three years pledged to the effort.
The BBC has reported that the International Conference on Narcotics meeting this week has established three working groups: a judiciary group, a group dedicated to curbing demand for drugs and a third group to look for alternative income sources for Afghans involved in the drug trade. Last week Russia announced plans to open offices in Afghanistan to fight the drug trade and proposed setting up "security belts" around Afghanistan to prevent the export of drugs.
And in the United States,
Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House International Relations committee has scheduled an oversight hearing this week examining links between terrorism and the heroin trade in Afghanistan. Committee members say the U.S. military has been too "hands off" about the drug problem and needs to engage more. The 10,000 U.S. troops in the country are focused on tracking down Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants, and don't go out of their way to intervene in the drug trade. The Pentagon might want to rethink that approach, said Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who accompanied congressional investigators on a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. "If we are to catch bin Laden and wrap up his organization, we must attack his new source of income -- heroin."
Some analysts are predicting that a good starting figure for the total cost of eradicating poppy cultivation might be more like $300 million but it is unclear if that kind of money, or the international resolve to match it will be forthcoming.
As the Chicago Tribune has pointed out:
With the drug economy so entrenched, it won't be easy to eliminate it, officials say.
"We're looking at the long haul, 10 years or more," said one Western Diplomat in Kabul. "But it's now clear that whatever else we do here, if we don't tackle drugs, we won't win the war on terrorism."