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Drugs in the Anti-Terrorism Campaign

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Updated On: April 13, 2002
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Drugs in the Anti-Terrorism Campaign

There are clear indicators that the new war on terrorism will be heavily linked with the war on drugs.  The Terrorism Project - Center For Defense Information (CDI) issued this report on the role of illicit drug production and distribution in the war on terrorism.  This report discusses the history of the Taliban in the production and sale of illicit drugs and the role that the Northern Alliance has played and probably will play in the future.  

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Drugs in the Anti-Terrorism Campaign
The Terrorism Project - Center For Defense Information (CDI)
November 2, 2001

<Read It On the CDI Website>

Now that countries around the world are ordering their banks and charity organizations to freeze all terrorist assets, the Taliban may be turning to another lucrative financial source to fund their activities: drugs. Since the launching of U.S. attacks in Afghanistan, there have been reports that, against Taliban edicts, Afghan farmers have once again begun to prepare the soil for poppy cultivation. Rather than plowing the soil flat, as wheat growers do, farmers are apparently tilling in the special wave pattern required for growing opium poppy. Furthermore, recent reports from Europe, the biggest market for Afghan-produced heroin and opium, claim that narcotics prices there have been falling since Sept. 11 — a possible indication that Afghan drug dealers are dumping their stockpiles on the drug market to pay for weapons.

As the United States steps up its military operation in Afghanistan, progress Washington has made in the past several years in America's war on drugs may become one of the major unintended casualties of the anti-terrorism war. This is because, amidst the worldwide condemnation of the Taliban's socially oppressive regime, the organization has accomplished one commendable feat in the past year: the near total obliteration of poppy production in areas of Afghanistan under its control. According to the United Nations' annual survey on opium poppy, production of raw opium in Afghanistan this year fell 94 percent from last year, and 96 percent from the record-high yield in 1999.1 This is a significant achievement for a country whose poppy-farming culture dates back to the time of the British Empire.

With enforcement of the ban on poppy cultivation now likely pushed to the margins of the Taliban agenda, however, Afghan farmers may seize the U.S. military campaign as an opportunity to resume poppy production in areas untargeted by the air strikes. At the same time, the Taliban may already have begun selling its hoard of opium in neighboring countries before it perishes in the air raids. Such a move has consequences not only for the Taliban, who will have the cash needed to purchase arms, but also for Western countries as they continue their decades-old battles against drug trafficking.

 
Taliban and the Drug Trade

When Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar banned poppy cultivation in June 2000 in the name of the Koran, and with the hope of gaining more international diplomatic recognition, the move marked a dramatic reversal of existing Taliban tactics. Until they imposed the edict, the Taliban had relied on taxes and tariffs on poppy production as a major source of profit. Through a 10 percent tax on poppy growers and an Islamic tax of as much as 20 percent on opium traders and transporters, the Taliban reaped an estimated $40 million to $50 million every year. The organization's backing of opium production is well reflected in figures: in 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to 57 percent of the world's supply of opium; by 1999, the figure had soared to nearly 80 percent. The Taliban used the inflow of cash from drugs to help finance their activities, including acts of terrorism.

Whereas the United States directed its attention on Colombia and Mexico at the height of its war on drugs, it did little to combat the drug trade in Afghanistan. This may have been logical, considering that only 5 percent of the heroin in the United States comes from Afghanistan. U.S. aid of $3.2 million for Afghan farmers between 1995 and 2000, and even the $43 million set aside for farmers after the 2000 ban on poppy, pale in comparison to the $893 million the United States spent last year fighting drugs in Colombia. With the broader objective of fighting terrorism, however, the United States may now need to give renewed focus to the Afghan drug trade as one of the major sources of terrorists' survival and success.

 
War, Drugs and the Northern Alliance

While the Taliban effectively wiped out poppy cultivation from the more than 90 percent of Afghanistan they ruled, the Northern Alliance, which claimed most of the remaining territory, continued to depend on poppy production as a vast financial reservoir. In fact, according to the recent UN report, the only region where opium production increased notably last year was Badakhshan, a province under the rule of the Taliban opposition. Even with the successful toppling of the Taliban regime, the Afghan drug problem will thus prove to be enduring if the Northern Alliance maintains its grip on drug production.

Opium has for decades been part of the Afghan economy and, particularly in times of war and crisis, Afghan farmers and fighters alike have relied on stocks of opium to obtain cash. The anti-Soviet war in the 1980s is a telling example. When the CIA-backed mujahidin began capturing agricultural areas during the war, they encouraged Afghan farmers to grow opium poppy. Farmers willingly complied, as switching from wheat to poppy increased their income by two-thirds. When trucks and camels loaded with CIA arms arrived from Pakistan, they were reloaded with piles of opium and returned to Karachi. Such a sight became common and well known to the CIA, and was also reported in the Pakistani media. Taking the drug trade as an Afghan affair, however, the CIA kept its distance and allowed the mujahidin to continue to extract money from the trade.

It is now known that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of a mujahidin faction and chosen leader of the CIA's covert operation, eventually came to control at least six heroin refineries in Pakistan. All of this, unsurprisingly, had destabilizing consequences for Pakistan. The nation became home to one of the largest populations of drug addicts, with numbers exploding from 70,000 in 1983 and 1.3 million in 1986 to more than 4 million today. With such a vast consumer presence just next door, Afghans had all the reasons to produce poppy en masse. Today, Afghanistan is still the world's second largest producer of opium, with almost all of the supply being produced in Northern Alliance territory.

 
Current Challenges

Unless action is taken soon, there is no reason to believe that past patterns will not re-emerge during the present war in Afghanistan. With the Taliban edict on poppy cultivation now increasingly difficult to enforce amidst the war turmoil, farmers will once again turn to poppy production as a more reliable means of livelihood, and the various warring factions will once again be drawn to opium as a means of getting quick cash to purchase arms. According to The Washington Post, masses of opium and heroin have moved out of Afghanistan into Pakistan since Sept. 11, and the wholesale price for a kilogram of heroin has dropped to $4,800, or one third of the cost before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Furthermore, the irony of increased poppy production in Afghanistan becomes all the more acute in light of the fact that the country has now suffered a severe food shortage for four years. While many farmers are evidently preparing to plant poppy this winter, U.S. AID has just announced that it will spend $11.2 million to ensure massive wheat shipments for the millions of Afghans relying on foreign food aid.

As they draft the architecture of the new Afghan government, the United States and the world coalition are also considering ways to bring law and order to the post-Taliban period. One of the Taliban laws they would likely preserve is the ban on poppy cultivation. Here, the new government, as well as the international coalition, will face a sizable challenge: not only would the law be highly unpopular among the cash-strapped Afghan people, it would also be extremely difficult to achieve the level of effectiveness that the Taliban had attained. They had imposed the ban under the rubric of strict Islamic law, and people under its rule faced the threat of severe penalties, including death. While the new government can easily incorporate the poppy ban in its governance, how it will enforce the law remains uncertain.

Furthermore, Washington will soon have to come to terms with the fact that it is currently collaborating with a loose alliance whose factions have for years been dependent upon drug money. Turning a blind eye on the narcotics trade during the 1980s had, as one of its consequences, the effect of financially equipping various factions, including those that became the Taliban. This time around, attending to the Afghan drug trade would serve the U.S.-led coalition in its effort to attack terrorism at its roots.

Ultimately, it is in the U.S. and the international community's interest to rupture the narcotics network shooting out of Afghanistan. As the Taliban has proven capable of inflicting physical destruction and psychological insecurity on America, so it can create sociopolitical disruption through the massive sell-off of its opium stockpile. This is all the more true for Europe, where 95 percent of heroin reaching the continent comes from Afghanistan. For the international coalition as a whole, failure to address the drug problem is an invitation for a barrage of criticism in the future about the role of the present war in unraveling one of the few positive accomplishments of the Taliban regime. As the United States and its allies seek a viable political alternative to the Taliban, they can simultaneously take sound policy steps to tackle the narcotics network and thus seize the opportunity for a permanent economic and social turnaround in Afghanistan.

Opium Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan, 1994-2001

Source: UN International Drug Control Programme

 
End Notes

1  United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), Afghanistan: Annual Opium Poppy Survey 2001.

By Reyko Huang
CDI Research Assistant
rhuang@cdi.org

 

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