The June 15 meeting between US President George W. Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai failed to seriously address the upsurge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan and its role in fuelling insurgency and instability in that country.
Discussing that meeting, Robert Weiner, the former Clinton administration’s spokesman for the Office of National Drug Policy from 1995 to 2001, noted that the eradication of poppy cultivation failed to appear on the list of initiatives that Bush announced that day. All that was said about the subject in the Rose Garden press briefing was in Karzai’s comment: “The Afghan government is adamant, the Afghan people are adamant to fight this menace, to end it in Afghanistan and receive your help in that.” (AP, Reuters, Washington, June 15).
But the reality on the ground, however, is that Afghanistan’s illicit opium production accounts for nearly three-quarters of the world’s consumption, netting Afghanistan millions of dollars. This “black” money is used to finance not only the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgency but also to sustain warlords, who are supposed to be allies of Karzai’s narrow-based government in Kabul. Afghan authorities fear that this year’s record poppy harvest is specifically benefiting Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists. Counter Narcotics Directorate chief Mirwais Yasini named two “millionaire” smugglers in southern Afghanistan, who were close to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and who are now openly supporting the Taliban insurgency there. One of the smugglers is related by marriage to Khalid Pashtun, who is spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. Pashtun believes that his smuggler relative is supplying the Taliban with ammunition and satellite phones.
The United Nations (UN) estimates the narcotics business in Afghanistan at over $2 billion. The money is divided between farmers, smugglers, mafia-style gangs, and “terrorists.” Afghan officials said that in northern Afghanistan much of the opium is refined into heroin in backyard factories and smuggled through Tajikistan by the Russian mafia. In southern Afghanistan, the opium is smuggled through Pakistan and Iran. Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, believes smugglers are “taxed” by terrorists at a rate of 13-15 percent per shipment. This form of taxation called “osh” is levied whenever smugglers with their convoys of opium run into insurgents or paramilitary checkpoints manned by warlords (The Australian, Kandahar, May 31).
Speaking at the end of his 10-day visit to Afghanistan, Costa said he had not seen any results from Karzai’s “war on drugs,” and urged the Afghan government to develop a stronger counter-narcotics program. He said the government has made progress in stamping out the illicit drug industry but its efforts have been “fragmentary and ineffective,” particularly against “terrorists” funded by narcotics trafficking. Costa noted that the Taliban has become more deeply involved in the cultivation of poppy, with poppy farmers moving from the lowlands to the mountains, where there are “permanent Taliban settlements.” Describing it as a “perverse interaction,” Costa said farmers need protection from government interdiction, while the Taliban needs cash (The News, Kabul, June 8). Earlier, Costa met with the leaders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to discuss the problem of narcotics trafficking in the region (Bloomberg.com, New York, May 28).
Pressure on the Karzai government to curb poppy production is also coming from his neighbors. Following a regular meeting of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said at a May 28 press conference in Astana, Kazakhstan that “no solution can be found” to counter drug trafficking in the region “until this problem is resolved in Afghanistan itself” (Interfax, Astana, May 28).
At the same press conference, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov said, “Some member-states of the antiterrorist coalition in Afghanistan say their job is to eliminate bin Laden and Mullah Omar, while drug contraband is not their problem. This is a mistake, because the prime source for financing terrorism and extremism is the production of drugs.” However, Karzai’s government and the Bush administration are reluctant to upset the status quo in Afghanistan, especially in the crucial months before the planned September elections. Any serious move to stop opium production and trafficking would require intervention in areas controlled by warlords in northern Afghanistan who have so far maintained a quid pro quo relationship with Karzai.