Poppy pods procured from Kandahar City. They were lanced six times each, indicating a slightly above average extraction of raw opium. Photo by Matt Dupee.
“I’ve been in this business a long time, but it really disturbs me when I see the opium workshops in Mawand that are completely run with children labor.” This is how Suleiman, a thuggish drug trader from southern Afghanistan, described Afghanistan’s narcotics industry to me when I was in Kandahar this past June. “They would line up around the compound each morning, just hoping and praying they would get picked to work for a wage that’s less than 40 Pakistani rupees [less than $1] a day. They become instant addicts cooking the opium in large vats.”
Sadly, Suleiman’s story is not uncommon. According to UN statistics, nearly two-thirds of all Afghan opium, some 6,900 tons last year, is converted into morphine-base or heroin in grubby workshops like those he described before being smuggled out of the country. That’s enough opium to make well over 600 metric tons of heroin. Keep in mind that the United States and Canada, with a combined population exceeding 330 million, consumes approximately 22 tons of heroin annually.
Afghanistan’s unparalleled narcotics industry has produced over 90% of the world’s illicit opium and heroin for six years in a row. International efforts to dismantle the Afghan narcotics machine have been insufficient, and only recently has the picture begun to improve slightly. The Obama administration overhauled the US counternarcotics strategy this year, removing forced eradication measures and stepping up interdiction, drug seizures, and attacks on clandestine drug refinement labs across the country. The revised strategy, along with the increase in interdiction activity that was begun late last year, is apparently having an effect. According to the UNODC, during the first half of this year NATO and Afghan operations destroyed over 90 tons of precursor chemicals used in the production of illicit drugs, 450 tons of opium poppy seeds, 77.5 tons of narcotics, and 27 laboratories.
Although interdiction is a step in the right direction, not nearly enough is being done to target the essential precursor chemicals smuggled into Afghanistan that augment the capabilities of drug refinement workshops. While 90 tons of precursor chemicals sounds like a lot, consider that Afghanistan annually uses nearly 14,500 tons of such chemicals to refine opium into a usable substance. Last year, less than 68 tons of precursor chemicals were interdicted. This year, during my travels north of Kabul in late June, I saw dozens of heavy transport trucks carrying shipments of precursor chemicals likely to have been acetic anhydride, the key ingredient used to refine opium into morphine base and heroin. The trucks traveled on main thoroughfares, and their drivers made no effort to conceal their illicit cargo. Political protection for these types of convoys is said to be traceable to the highest levels of the Afghan government. In areas controlled by insurgents such as the Taliban, commanders are providing the necessary protection for drug shipments and precursor chemicals under the guise of “transit-taxes,” earning insurgents well over $75 million annually in protection fees.
Afghanistan’s narcotics industry continues to erode security and stability initiatives, entrenches corruption deep within the Afghan central government, and feeds a growing generation of heroin addicts across South Asia. Meanwhile, diseases like HIV/AIDS continue to spread at unprecedented rates due to the increase in intravenous drug use, a relatively new phenomenon in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s narco-problem will not simply go away by itself. In order to even begin to turn the tide against this robust and entrenched industry, corruption must be fought and security established, long enough to allow for meaningful agricultural assistance; the core infrastructure must be developed, such as creating cold-storage depots and improving roadways; and micro-financing must be made available for farmers. In addition, it will be essential to target the nexus between drug producers and traffickers, on the one hand, and government officials and insurgent commanders on the other. Unless Afghanistan’s narcotics problem is properly addressed, the country will be consumed by its own corruption, bad governance, and a thriving insurgency fueled by narco-profits and criminality.
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