Afghanistan’s opium problem will keep growing

$7.6 billion later, Afghanistan’s dependency on the opium trade continues to expand.

Farmers did not receive the right incentives to abandon opium cultivation, writes Mir [EPA]

The US inspector general for Afghanistan has concluded that their $7.6 billion counter-narcotics strategy is failing – badly. This should come as no surprise.

According to the latest report, Afghan opium poppy crops yielded nearly $3 billion in profits in 2013 – that’s $1 billion more than the harvest of 2012.

With a new Afghan president on the scene, there is an opportunity to inject new momentum into the fight against narcotics, but past mistakes must be recognised and addressed.

Countering opium cultivation and drug trafficking in Afghanistan has been a serious dilemma for the international community during the past decade. Despite serious joint efforts in curbing drug production in the country, Afghanistan has remained the major producer of opium at the global level.

In fact, the first major anti-drug policy in Afghanistan was developed and funded by the British authorities, which has failed despite a large budget of more than $160 million. Consequently, the United States has taken the lead in the counternarcotics strategy since 2004 by increasing the budget by more than ten fold.

Bad governance and corruption in Afghanistan became a major hindrance for curbing drug production in Afghanistan. Drug money is considered an important source of bribery in the country, which has affected the highest levels of the Afghan state…

The counternarcotics policies were based on studies and analysis on Afghanistan’s drug economy highlighting insurgency, poverty, lack of rule of law, administrative corruption, weak government and warlordism. However, they ignored the nature and prominence of illicit and contraband business in the region, which dated back to pre-Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Even before the start of conflict and the former Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan had been a prominent producer of opium among the “Golden Crescent” including Iran and Pakistan. However, after the intensification of conflict in early 1990s the opium production significantly increased in the country while Iran and Pakistan were able to curb it.

Nevertheless, the structure of opium trafficking and contraband remained intact at the regional level and has further developed over time. The biggest innovation in 1990s was the transformation of opium into heroin in laboratories inside Afghanistan, which led to a significant increase in revenue for local drug lords.

Over the years, the share of opium in the Afghan economy had increased and with the outbreak of the civil war after the fall of the communist regime in 1992, drug producing and trafficking became the biggest contributor to the Afghan GDP. This is how drug traffickers gained prominence and political power inside the country, which led to a collusion for control of power between warlords and drug lords.

Afghanistan’s drug production and trafficking is a multibillion dollar business, which provides a major source of income for the Taliban, terrorist groups, organised criminal groups, and corrupt government officials. There are even some allegations about the involvement of state-sponsored agencies in drug trafficking, particularly in Pakistan and Iran, which could provide them with a great source of money for their covert operations.

The US and British have concentrated their counternarcotics policies on law enforcement within Afghanistan and on some small economic development projects through “alternative likelihood” for farmers in affected regions.

The strategy failed on both fronts, because the Afghan government didn’t have the needed political will to go after prominent drug lords, and farmers did not receive the right incentives to abandon opium cultivation in the most unstable provinces.

In fact, bad governance and corruption in Afghanistan became a major hindrance for curbing drug production in Afghanistan. Drug money is considered an important source of bribery in the country, which has affected the highest levels of the Afghan state from top officials to parliamentarians and judges.

Afghanistan forgotten drug addicts

In the past decade, except for low and mid-level drug traffickers, the Afghan government was unable to arrest and prosecute any major drug lord.

Meanwhile, the Afghan parliament passed the Anti Money Laundering Law in June, which is still unsatisfactory in the eyes of international experts.

In addition, the old mechanism of drug trafficking and contraband at the regional level has strengthened, and it has been further extended to Central Asian Republics after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The government authorities have been unable to contain this new phenomenon mainly because of tremendous financial incentives from the drug mafia.

Also, Afghan drug lords have enjoyed safe havens in neighbouring countries particularly in Pakistan, where they could easily get access to national ID cards and passports.

The combination of tremendous income from drug trafficking and the lack of transparent government systems in these countries has allowed Afghan opium to reach the global market through a complicated mafia network made up of both state and non-state actors.

In order to defeat this drug mafia in Afghanistan, US and UK authorities must review their strategy in Afghanistan. They will not be able to curb drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan without the cooperation of other countries in the region and without eliminating the political influence of drug lords in the corrupt Afghan administration.

Indeed, the new Afghan National Unity Government, with a strong political will to reduce corruption and fix the government, represents a unique window of opportunity to create a new momentum in the fight against narcotics.

President Ashraf Ghani has already started the fight on corruption and he needs the support of the international community to tackle the drug issue before it constitutes a major source of income for other international terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

Haroun Mir is an Afghan analyst in Kabul and founder of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). He served as an advisor to late Ahmad Shah Massoud from 1993-99.