The US and NATO led military intervention in Afghanistan is now well into its tenth year, and the situation in that country remains unstable and continues to deteriorate. The regional media provides insufficient explanations for this decline, often citing an aggressive Islam or a clash of civilizations and suggesting that the United States would intentionally destabilize the region in pursuit of their own selfish geopolitical interests. Such conspiracy theories suggest that the United States purposefully stirs up so-called “conflicts of low intensity” to secure their energy needs from the Middle East under the pretext of exporting democracy. A more robust analysis would focus on the role played by the sprawling terror network that is so well established in the region. Despite the expensive and largely comprehensive efforts undertaken to dissolve this network, it increasingly undermines the viability of social institutions in Afghanistan and its neighboring countries.
Although undoubtedly a major issue at the beginning of the Afghanistan campaign, terrorism has become a secondary concern in the country over the past nine years. At a hearing before the US Congress in October 2009, former national security advisor to President Obama, General James Jones, stated that there are now less than 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. They possess neither a military base nor any other means of carrying out large-scale terror attacks. What is more, according to the official, UN-supported position of the US and Afghan governments, the most prominent terrorist network, the Taliban, should be regarded as a political opposition movement, or at least as an insurgency with which other nations should try to negotiate. Since 2003, the primary problem in Afghanistan has transformed from terrorism into something that the international community still refuses to take seriously: the drug industry. Over the past few years, drug production in Afghanistan has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, there are more and more reasons to believe that, far from playing a minor role, Afghan drug production is at the root of international terrorism. The conventional wisdom that terrorists use the drug trade to finance their fight should therefore be reversed: drug production is also the root of terrorism.
That the production and trade of Afghan opiates have increased so dramatically has much to do with the military intervention, which has modified the structures and processes in Afghanistan in four key dimensions:
1) The local population’s increasing resentment has prompted the establishment of a broad political opposition spanning various parties and movements, in which the Taliban no longer plays a key role.
2) The armed resistance of this growing opposition has caused a major increase in military clashes, which has also resulted in a steady rise in organized crime.
3) The intensity of these clashes has destroyed the economic conditions Afghan farmers have used to grow traditional crops and, in turn, has significantly raised the profitability of poppy cultivation.
4) Over 4 million people have been displaced, creating a large pool from which numerous drug traffickers are easily recruited. Furthermore, the increasing number of drug addicts amongst Afghanistan’s youth is destabilizing its society.
It is safe to say that drugs have become a crucial issue in Afghanistan—not only for the Afghan government, but also for Russia and developed Western countries. Between Autumn 2001 and the end of 2007, the quantity of opium produced in Afghanistan increased 40 fold. And even though production in 2010 amounted to “only” 3600 tons—i.e. half of what was produced the year before—this was still 20 times more than was produced in 2001 under Taliban rule (185 tons). This year’s sharp production decline was not in any way caused by the success of an anti-drug strategy, but rather by weather conditions and a fungal disease that affected opium poppy.?
Congruently, the same report states that the surface area of cultivated poppy fields has risen from 82,000 to 123,000 hectares between 2000 and 2010, while the consumption of Afghan opiates has skyrocketed. Each year, Europeans consume 711 tons of opium, Russians 549 tons, and Americans 212 tons. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people die every year due to the use of Afghan drugs. This means that in the first decade of the new millennium, Afghan drugs caused at least one million casualties, 10,000 of which were in NATO member states.? The number of drug casualties due to Afghan drugs in Russia—40,000 per year—has also sharply increased, and the use of heroin and hashish is rapidly spreading throughout Russia, as well as the rest of the globe.
Exporting Instability and Terrorism
The trade in Afghan opiates is a major contributor to instability, extremism, organized crime, and terrorism both in Afghanistan and other states far from this hub of drug production. For example, the profits derived from the drug trade finance military clashes in the Fergana Valley, as well as the persistent terrorist attacks and international crime in the North Caucasus; Chinese intelligence services report that it was the Afghan heroin trade that financially supported the outburst of separatism and extremism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Kosovo, which lies at the heart of Europe, has turned into a central trafficking spot for Afghan opiates destined for Europe.
In their competition for power, influence, and markets, groups and cartels emerging from the drug trade infiltrate society, using political structures for criminal activity and spreading crime and terrorism in the process. This leads to the emergence of influential centres of power that—although anonymous and transnational—are financed by the drug trade and significantly undermine the sovereignty and power of states. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that the annual turnover of the drug trade is as high as 500 billion dollars—some 5 to 8 percent of global trade. By comparison, the steel and car manufacturing industries make up only 2.8 and 5.3 percent of global trade respectively, while oil and gas sit at 8.6 percent. Drugs account for a large majority (up to 78 percent) of illegal commercial operations, while the illegal arms trade accounts for only 7 percent, and human trafficking, prostitution, and illegal migration make up the remaining 15 percent.
Today, the main players in the drug trade are also actively involved in international financial markets and, as such, are some of the main players in the recent global economic and financial crisis. According to former UNODC head Antonio Costa, the global drug mafia compensated financial losses at the peak of the 2009 economic crisis by transferring 352 billion dollars to several banks in a number of major developed countries. This clearly demonstrates how pervasive drug-related investments have become. These transnational groups are aware of their economic power, and increasingly see themselves as political entities. Add religion to the mix and the result is a potential for aggression targeted at prosperous and peaceful developed nations.
Afghan drug production is the main source of revenue for these illegal networks. Our research shows that in the past seven years the Afghan drug mafia has grown and greatly consolidated, basically taking over Afghanistan’s still weak political institutions. In the past ten years, a fully-fledged system of drug cartels that strongly resemble those in Mexico has emerged in Central Asia. Beyond the individual, anonymous power hubs and a large number of powerful Central Asian drug cartels, there is also a “central command” responsible for preserving the current level of drug production. The financial gains of the trade are indeed substantial, amounting to 65 billion dollars annually according to UN data.? Interestingly, this same data suggests that the Taliban benefits from only a very small proportion of these profits—not even 0.2 percent. This indicates that the main beneficiaries of the drug trade are other players with no links to the nationalistic Taliban movement.
Given all this evidence, it is astounding that the fight against drug-related crime has all but stopped recently. Looking at the international community’s actions, we can surmise that the Afghan drug issue does not receive the appropriate attention and that the international community has not properly assessed the problem. This was evident in the conclusions of the January 2010 Afghanistan conference in London, which only briefly mentioned drugs in paragraph 27.
Afghanistan’s current situation is exemplified by Helmand province, where 65 percent of globally traded opium is produced. The anonymous power hubs mentioned above, however, are not controlled out of this area. Instead, they are run from further afield in Northern Afghanistan (where the drug labs are located) or outside the country. In the spring of 2010, NATO defined the first stage of “Operation Moshtarak,” an Afghan-led program implemented to establish government authority in Helmand province, as a success. Yet this has changed nothing for the insurgency! Drug production has not just remained stable; it has, in fact, increased. NATO’s decision to target drug labs instead of poppy fields has limited the efficiency of the new US strategy against Afghan drug trade presented by the late Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2010. Only 2000 hectares of poppy fields—a tiny portion of the total surface area—have been destroyed.
Russia received official data from Holbrooke on the status of Afghanistan’s drug labs, 13 of which were destroyed in 2008 and 25 of which were destroyed in 2009. At the same time, however, intelligence services were aware of the existence of 425 labs in 2010—up from only 175 two years prior. Clearly the drug labs are being created much faster than they are being destroyed.
… and International Cooperation
Russia is very concerned about the inefficiency of the current strategy. It is clear that Afghanistan’s massive drug production must be tackled with vigor and that both poppy fields and drug labs must be destroyed. It is high time to acknowledge the destructive potential of the international drug trade and to understand the very real threat it poses to the world. It comes as no surprise that the Organization of American States adopted a “Hemispheric Drug Strategy” on June 8, 2010, which identifies cocaine trafficking as a global threat. Another major step forward is the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1943 from October 13, 2010, which called the general situation in Afghanistan a threat to peace and security for the international community.
The Eastern hemisphere must eventually strengthen its own anti-drug strategy, perhaps starting with Russia’s plan to fight Afghan drug production: “Rainbow 2.” Developed analogously to the UNODC Rainbow strategy for Afghanistan by Russia’s Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics, “Rainbow 2” advocates, among other things, the full eradication of opium poppy fields and a better exchange of data between the intelligence services of the countries involved.
Russian and US authorities fighting against drug trafficking have already carried out a number of operations in Afghanistan. This dynamic must be supported at the international level by the likes of the United Nations, the G-8, the G-20, and other international organizations. If resolute and effective measures are not adopted now, the cancer of drug production will metastasize and ruin the prospects of a peaceful and constructive future for the international community.
VIKTOR IVANOV is director of the Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation.
1) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Afghanistan Opium Survey 2010 (September 2010).
2) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: The transnational threat of Afghan opium (October 2009).
3) http://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr/WDR_2010/1.2_The_global_heroin_market.pdf p. 37