Afghanistan’s Drug Problem Requires An International Solution

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 68

A British parliamentary panel issued a report in late July calling attention to Afghanistan’s political fragility. The report warns that “Afghanistan could implode with terrible consequences,” unless security is improved and resources provided. The report concludes that there is “little if any, sign of the war on drugs being won (CNN, July 29).

This stark evaluation echoes statements made earlier by Afghanistan’s Interim President, Hamid Karzai, about the dangers of increasing drug production and the armed militias it sustains. On two consecutive days, Karzai issued statements that reflect an unprecedented toughness towards the drug traffickers and the warlords. If his resolve were acted upon, it would have significant consequences for Afghanistan’s struggle for stability and security. Aside from the remnants of Taliban and their al-Qaeda supporters, illegal drugs and armed militias are the two main problems that have plagued Karzai’s government.

Karzai called on the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the Directorate of Intelligence to identify government officials involved in poppy cultivation, drug production, trade and trafficking, or who directly or indirectly support the illegal drug trade. Karzai’s statement is likely a reaction to a speech by his interior minister, Ali Jalali, who said the drug trafficking problem reaches far into the government up, even to the cabinet level. He said he has a list of perpetrators and threatened to make the list public if they do not cease their involvement in illegal drug trade and serve their country and the international community (Hewad, July 19).

Jalali was also quoted as saying that if these people do not want to be remembered as “warlords, opium-lords, or heroin-lords,” they should come clean. He also said that the government would step up its efforts to destroy poppy fields. However, only about 10% of the poppy fields have been reclaimed so far. During the past six months more than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of land have been used for poppy cultivation in 32 provinces (RFE/RL, July 16).

Great Britain has taken the lead in eliminating illegal drugs in Afghanistan. Early in July, Britain announced a £100 million fund to combat the “explosion” in illegal narcotics in Afghanistan. Furthermore there has been a change in ” the rules of engagement” for the international peacekeeping forces to allow them to destroy poppy fields and confiscate drug consignments. The result of this new peacekeeper mandate is yet to be seen (Independent, July 9).

Officials in Iran blame Britain and the United States for the bumper poppy crops in Afghanistan. Tehran says that last year it seized 3 tons of heroin, 72 tons of hashish, and 111 tons of opium. Government officials also allege that this quantity is only 10% of the actual amount smuggled into their country. Iran even has proposed cooperation with “any country to defuse this dangerous phenomenon” (Tehran Online, June 28).

The United Nations reports that Afghanistan now produces 75% of the world opium volume. Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says that the problem is not so much drug cultivation as it is the drug economy. He says eradicating the poppy fields is much easier than eradicating the culture of drug money (Tehran Online, June 28).

This two-pronged character is precisely what makes the Afghan problem so complicated. Although the Afghan interim government tries to combat the drug problem and it destroyed 9 tons of opium and hashish at the end of June, this is only a fraction of what is circulating through Afghanistan. Nor is it even close to Karzai’s announced goal of destroying 25% of the opium cultivation across the country. He also called for a Jihad (holy war) against opium in Afghanistan. However, based on various estimations, between 80,000 and 100,000 hectares of land are under drug cultivation in 32 provinces and about 90% of the heroin consumed in Europe is believed to originate from Afghanistan (Tehran, Online June 28).

Mr. Karzai’s call for Jihad on opium faces obstacle on at least two fronts. First, the Taliban insurgency is effectively financed by drug trade. In the regions where they hold sway, it is a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. The locals get the protection they need from the Taliban and the money they desire from the lucrative drug cultivation. The Taliban get the cash and the constituency they seek. For the Taliban there is an added bonus, namely, that the heroin trade creates headaches for the central government and its Western supporters. The other, and perhaps more serious, problem is that the Afghan government lacks enough muscle to clamp down on drug production.

The Afghan government needs time and a commitment by the Western countries to rid the country of this menace. It has a small and overstretched army of about 12,000 men. If Western Europe and Russia are to be free of the opium menace, they need to do more to help Afghans eradicate the problem. Short-term involvement will pay higher long-term dividends to both Afghans and their Western supporters.