The narco-politics of Afghanistan

Print edition : September 14, 2002

The West's indifference towards opium cultivation in Afghanistan has ensured that narcotics, with their money-earning potential, will continue to play a dominant role in that country's politics.

BEFORE the assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan began, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, on October 2, 2000: "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy." That is precisely the aspect that was ignored. Britain's 300,000 or so heroin addicts will continue to have the opportunity to spend each year about $3 billion to buy about 30 tonnes of heroin, 90 per cent of which comes from Afghanistan. This news will also make the 600,000 or so addicts in the United States breathe easier. They will spend some $6 billion.

Working on the poppy-head, the seed capsule of a poppy plant.-KONTOS YANNIS/GAMMA

Was this an opportunity wasted or just a case of traditional collusion so that narcotics money could continue to finance Afghan politicians? Polite noises and cosmetic actions will be made only to show that the powers-that-be care. A willing press will continue to regret the passing of the Taliban, which, according to their sources, had stopped illicit opium cultivation in Afghanistan in early 2001.

Abdul Rashid, the oft-quoted Pakistani author on the Taliban had, at an international seminar on narcotics in London in June 2001, asserted confidently that the Taliban-imposed ban on opium poppy cultivation was so successful that the price of illicit opium had jumped to $3,000 in Iran! Had it really, this writer asked him. If so, how was it that the price of 1 kg of heroin, which requires 10 kg of opium to produce, was still $5,000 in Turkey - almost unchanged for the past 14 months? He did not have an answer. All through July and August heroin prices in Turkey kept plummeting. Enforcement officials were wondering why. Then came 9/11. In late September 2001, in a seizure in the Van province of eastern Turkey, about 250 kg of heroin was seized and the rate was still a phenomenally low $2,000 a kg. It was realised then that the Taliban was dumping heroin in order to get as much money, as soon as possible. By now it had become a fashion to despise the Taliban. But the misinformation lauding the Taliban for not allowing the cultivation of opium in 2000-2001 persisted.

It has small holes through which poppy-seeds are released when mature.-KONTOS YANNIS/GAMMA

To expect the West suddenly to deny its earlier attempts to deal with the Taliban was impossible. The Taliban militia was condemned for attacking the U.S. but there had to be some good points to justify the earlier attempts to deal with them. A helpful press kept praising the Taliban for imposing a successful ban on opium cultivation. But this ban was a mythical one.

The Taliban used to collect a "tax" amounting to 15 to 30 per cent on the value of the opium sold depending on whether it was a good year or a bad one. This meant an earning of at least $15 million annually (from 3,000 tonnes of opium) if the cost of the opium was $30 in the farmer's field. The Taliban's annual budget for Afghanistan was $80 million or so and this annual revenue from opium was too tempting to be given up for the sake of principle. It would certainly not give it up for the paltry total of $5 million that had been promised by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) for alternative development for several years. The UNDCP's survey for 2001 was designed to create the impression that efforts to convince the Taliban not to produce opium had succeeded.

The survey estimated that 7,606 hectares came under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, 91 per cent less than the previous year. Of this 6,342 ha was in Badakshan, which was under the control of the Northern Alliance and not part of the deal the UNDCP had brokered with the Taliban. Thus, the survey conveniently showed that most of the opium had been grown in Badakshan against a previous high of 2,458 ha. How it arrived at these precise figures has never been questioned. The UNDCP's surveyors (trained over three whole days) get most of the yield and area figures by merely asking questions of three farmers per village (of 30-100 houses). They then visit the fields mostly for visual surveys. And despite that constraint, precise figures (like 171 ha cultivated in Farah) are obtained. This is implausible and laughable. This way they supposedly measure about 80,000 to 90,000 ha in a few weeks. In India, about 800 narcotics officers take about two months to tape measure about 30,000 ha where nearly all the fields are connected by motorable roads. In Afghanistan, getting there is also a huge obstacle, and yet all this work is done in a few weeks. Most of these estimates are prepared by getting answers to a two-page questionnaire. And reams of figures are trotted out, which an unsuspecting world laps up.

IMAGE A: A commercially obtained satellite picture made on April 10, 2000, shows area (in yellow) under poppy cultivation in Achin, Nangarhar-

Then, although the number of hectares under cultivation is given in unbelievably precise detail for each district in 18 of Afghanistan's provinces, the amount of opium produced - the most important aspect of this exercise - is not mentioned. Not even the total produced in each province is mentioned. A total quantum produced is somehow arrived at. This selectivism frustrates analysts and misleads laymen.

For a couple of years before 9/11 some sections of the world press began increasingly to promote toleration for the Taliban. Perhaps it was felt that they would be ruling Afghanistan indefinitely. Aversion towards them for inhuman and barbaric acts was not being mentioned. Why? The reason could be only commercial interests. For a long time the developed nations had been trying to tap the immense gas resources of Turkmenistan. A pipeline through Iran was impossible and the Caspian Sea route was full of tensions. Bringing gas through Afghanistan and Pakistan was the most profitable solution. So this pipeline would not be a far-fetched reason. This interest is uppermost in some minds. Soon after the Taliban was deposed, the Afghanistan administration's interim chairman, Hamid Karzai, and Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov flew down on May 30 to Islamabad to sign a pact with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to build a 1,500 km-long pipeline through their countries to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar on Pakistan's Makran coast. For merely allowing the pipeline to pass through its territories, Afghanistan would earn $300 million. This mega project needed financing by several interested developed countries. In July 2000, no one had foreseen that Taliban rule would end by early 2002. That is why the donor countries were anxious to legitimise the Taliban so that gas and oil could flow smoothly. The biggest hurdle was that Afghanistan under the Taliban had become the largest opium supplier in the world - 4,581 tonnes, 3,276 tonnes, and 185 tonnes in 1999, 2000 and 2001 respectively - according to the UNDCP figures. To give an idea of the accuracy of these figures, according to U.S.' calculations, the yield was 2,861 tonnes, 3,656 tonnes and 74 tonnes respectively.)

A way had to be found to increase their acceptability in the world. Never mind their terrorism potential, their crimes against women, their only source of income being narcotics, their destruction of the Bamian Buddha, and their suppression of human rights. Everyone associated the Taliban with narcotics, and if the world could be convinced that it had given up opium cultivation, multinational oil companies would profit immensely, sooner than later.

Several officials from the UNDCP and the U.S. visited Afghanistan, and the July 2000 ban was born, anointed by none other than the present day fugitive Mullah Omar. From April 23 to May 4, 2001, a band of knowledgeable souls from the donor countries, such as Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Belgium, assembled in Islamabad and after a briefing by the Pakistan Secretary of the Narcotics Control Division were escorted by Pakistani and Taliban officials to the provinces of Nangarhar, Helmand, Zabul, and Kandahar. The spots they were taken to did not have any sign of opium cultivation. That was to be expected. An unprecedented second year of drought had destroyed a lot of agricultural produce in Afghanistan. This widespread natural destruction was ignored and the low opium yield was credited to the Taliban upholding its ban. Yet, there was no doubt that the Taliban had sown opium but could not harvest it only because of the drought. The fiction of a successful ban had a convenient base. But elsewhere in the country crops were not similarly devastated. There were some areas, especially in Nangarhar, where many opium crops survived. The total production was much more than the stated 185 tonnes. Only that can explain the many tonnes of opium and heroin and morphine seized from the adjacent countries.

IMAGE B: Taken on April 4, 2001, this image shows a decline in the area under cultivation.-

What upset this certification was that seizures of Afghan heroin and opium shot up in the bordering Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan. From just .3 tonnes of heroin seized in 1998, more than four tonnes were seized in 2001; that is the year that was supposed to reflect the effectiveness of the Taliban ban. In Pakistan, about seven tonnes of heroin and morphine were seized in 2001. Thus almost 25 tonnes of morphine and heroin were seized from the countries surrounding Afghanistan. In a single seizure in Kurgan-Tjube in Tajikistan in July 2001 about 2.2 tonnes of opium was seized. This place is opposite the then Taliban stronghold of Kunduz. The operation continued in 2001. Where could all this opium, morphine and heroin come from, if, according to the UNDCP, opium production in Afghanistan was down by almost 90 per cent? In April 2002 Turkey seized about 7 tonnes of morphine near Istanbul. There were significant seizures from Iran and Pakistan as well. Pakistan has more than 3 million opium and heroin addicts and they continue to consume about 500 tonnes of opium annually (at the improbably low rate of .5 gm per head a day). Where do they get their daily doses from?

Pakistan, according to the UNDCP, is another success story of its alternative development programme and that country does not cultivate much opium now. By an internationally recognised thumb rule, only 10 to 15 per cent of narcotics present is seized at best in a year. Another point worth noting is that all the large seizures in Tajikistan were made from the provinces of Kunduz and Takhar controlled by the Taliban, and not across Badakshan. This province is now blamed for having doubled its opium production.

INDIA had in past years been receiving heroin through Pakistan and it was concerned about international reluctance to acknowledge that it too was affected by the increase of illicit opium cultivation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. About 80 per cent of the opium production came from the Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Helmand. The tribes occupying these provinces were the same in the contiguous areas of Pakistan, where until 1994 large swaths were under opium cultivation. Then, with the Taliban taking over Afghanistan that year and a massive influx of funds from the UNDCP (more than $20 million for Dir district in Chitral of northern Pakistan alone) opium cultivation increased correspondingly in Afghanistan. Heroin markings continued to be that of famous Pakistani brands. Refining facilities were best in Pakistan's frontier areas.

India had started a project to estimate through satellite imagery the extent of opium cultivation within its territory. To do this, a signature to recognise opium has to be perfected by removing interference by wave-lengths of similar broad-leafed plants. (India has a large area under legal cultivation of opium poppy. It also has a few areas of illicit opium poppy cultivation in the northeastern region.) This technique was used to analyse opium cultivation in Afghanistan. It was convenient as lancing in India takes place only a month earlier than in Nangarhar and Helmand. By using this method several areas of opium poppy under healthy cultivation in Nangarhar (Achin) were found in 2001. These had somehow escaped the hawk-eyed donors during their visit in April-May 2001. In Helmand, while 95 per cent of all crops had been destroyed by drought, some traces of opium survived in its Zamindwar district.

In Nangarhar, the damage was not as widespread as reported and in an area that had cultivated 7,140 ha in 2000, about 5,000 ha of poppy was ready for lancing in April 2001. According to satellite pictures, approximately half the crop survived. The satellite pictures also confirmed that while the rivers in Helmand were flowing at one-fourth their level, in Nangarhar the quantum of flow was only marginally lower. This indicated that water supply was adequate for opium in some areas. The Darya-e-Konar river does not show any significant change in the images of April 4, 2001 and April 10, 2000. What is strange is that in a year when there was almost no rain the UNDCP reports have shown a 276 per cent increase in rain-fed opium cultivation. They have attributed 72 tonnes of opium out of the about 185 tonnes that they say was produced in 2001. They have omitted to mention that rainfall in 2001 was much less than in 2000. Image A is a commercially obtained satellite picture made on April 10, 2000 and shows an area under poppy cultivation in Achin, Nangarhar. Image B was taken on April 4, 2001. Comparing them shows that opium cultivation had decreased by merely 30 per cent and not disappeared. This is the real reason why narcotics sourced from Afghanistan continued to be seized. The effectiveness of this satellite imagery was tested again in India this year when illicit opium cultivation was detected by this method in the Kulu and Kashmir Valleys and destroyed.

For these seizures of Afghan heroin and opium some of the Taliban supporters have a ready excuse: these were from the previous year's stocks. What a clever ruse this. Prepare a convenient base by showing high yields, give exaggerated figures of production and blame it all on the pre-promise past.

Then there is the question of yield. In India's licit fields each hectare requires 10 tonnes of manure and 500 kg of fertilizers and only then can a yield of more than 50 kg per hectare be achieved. In resources-strapped Afghanistan, the UNDCP has been citing this yield, only on the basis of hearsay, for years except in 2001 and 2002.

An anti-narcotics campaign message in Jalalabad reads, "stop growing poppies and make a position for yourself in the world".-KONTOS YANNIS/GAMMA

AFGHANISTAN was supposed to have produced 3,276 tonnes of opium in 2000. In 2001, only 185 tonnes was produced and most of it in the non-Taliban-controlled Badakshan province in northeastern Afghanistan. What happened to bring about this change? It was the unprecedented drought. But the UNDCP, which has been conducting these surveys since 1994 - the year the Taliban formally took over Afghanistan - has been giving credit to the Taliban in all its websites and publications. It claims that it was the promise made by the Taliban in July 2000 that was responsible for the cutback in opium production. Nothing could be more wrong.

All agricultural production in 2001 was affected severely by drought. In Helmand province more than 95 per cent of all crops (including opium) was destroyed. No credit is given to extreme water shortage in 2001. Although in the 2000 report, the UNDCP says, "severe drought brought production down by 28 per cent to 3,300 tonnes that year". In fact, in order to show indirectly that the weather was helpful, the UNDCP has in its Afghanistan Annual Opium Poppy Survey of 2001 written: "Whilst production on irrigated land has decreased by 96 per cent, it has increased on rain-fed land by 276 per cent from 26 to 72 mt."

Coming back to the present, one can see that a wonderful opportunity to destroy the illicit opium cultivation has been squandered by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. All of them make the right noises against narcotics. All of them, except Turkey, are also donor countries and have a huge domestic problem of narcotics abuse. Dropping bombs on civilians (in Oruzgan about 4,000 ha is annually cultivated) appears to be easier than directing enthusiasm towards destroying opium fields. In the article, "The massacre at Kakarak", (Frontline, August 16) the author mentions that the areas of Dehra Wud and Tirin Kot, which were also believed to be Al Qaeda hideouts, had often been bombed by the U.S. Each of these two districts cultivates more than a thousand hectares of opium every year. Destroying their opium fields could have cut off their money supply, but that is precisely what maybe some people do not want.

Eighty per cent of all opium fields were in Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar. A little bit more effort and the opium problem would have been over for at least one year. No need for surveys too. Instead, the West is now pretending to be surprised with newspaper headlines stating that about 3,000 tonnes of opium may be produced in Afghanistan. This indifference has ensured that narcotics will continue to play a dominant role in Afghanistan's politics because of its money-earning potential. Perhaps that, as is rumoured, was the reason behind the assassination of Afghan Vice-President Abdul Qadir in July.

Somehow despite the verbiage, narcotics in Afghanistan do not seem to get the attention it deserves, regardless of its undoubted connections with terrorism. Especially by the U.S. In the 1980s, when the Mujahideen were financed in their fight by drug money, the U.S. decided to cut its Drug Enforcement Agency staff in Pakistan from 22 to four. This only helped increase trafficking, the destination of which was mainly the U.S. This attitude has helped the traffickers. This year the rains were good and a healthy opium harvest was to be expected. But all eyes were looking for the Al Qaeda fighters and fingers were pressing bomb buttons to bother about opium and the terrorism that it helps maintain.

With such an attitude, opium production will never be as low (300 tonnes or so annually) as that registered during Najibullah's regime in the 1980s.

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