The illicit opium trade has propped up the nation’s fragile economy for years, but it comes with a heavy price in the form of conflict and drug addiction.
As Secretary of State John Kerry negotiates with NATO and foreign ministers in hopes of persuading Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to let international troops remain in the war-torn country beyond 2014, is the U.S. also concerned with Afghanistan’s booming opium trade?
Despite years of U.S. and United Nations’ intervention, Afghanistan’s farmers produced record opium crops this year, according to a new U.N. study. The report revealed troubling news for the U.S., after investing $7 billion since 2002 to combat Taliban insurgency and the opium trade, it appears that many of the drug-eradication and counter-trafficking programs have had little or no effect.
The illicit trade of opium has been supporting Afghan’s fragile economy for several years, but this comes a cost. Afghanistan is paying a heavy price for its production of opiates. This black market trade has produced a huge population of Afghans addicted to heroin. But that is just part of the problem. This lucrative black market trade has fueled corruption in town and village politics and also help fund the Taliban insurgency.
The report highlighted the immense scale of the production of opium. This year Afghan provinces bordering Iran and Tajikistan reached a historic high yield of opium crops. The opium trade expanded into new provinces, such as Badakhshan, Baghlan, Ghor, Zabul and Nangarhar. Today, 19 of the country’s 34 provinces are now opium growers and the overall production of opium is up by almost half — 49 percent — from the previous year. As Afghanistan has been the world leader in the supply of heroin to Europe and Russia for many years, what will be the effects of this bumper crop?
The signs of the opium trade on Afghan population are apparent. In Herat province, which is held as a region of stability and progress, this border town showcases not a town on the edge of success, but rather in the throes of a drug addiction crisis. As the leading producer of opium, Afghanistan is now one of the world’s most addicted societies.
The number of drug users in Afghanistan is estimated to be as high 8 percent of the population, which is among the highest rates in the world. The U.N. survey on drug addiction shows that around 1 million Afghans from the ages of 15 to 64 are addicted to drugs. At 8 percent of the population, this rate is twice the global average.
According to U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the number of heroin users jumped more than 140 percent. Afghan officials are struggling to deal with the growing crises of addiction, and the additional problems of petty crime and violence that follows this drug.
In a country burdened by a long-running war and widespread corruption, drug addiction ranks low among national priorities, but the report predicts that heroin addiction in Afghanistan will continue to rise.
The U.S. has worked with Afghan President Karzai on stamping out the opium trade through eradication campaigns, or provided educational programs that discourage farmers from growing opium. But for many cash-strapped farmers scraping a living on soil suited to grow opium, they face even more dangers growing wheat or corn crops.
Many farmers complain that the roads are too treacherous to travel. Taking goods to the marketplace is a dangerous business, where they can be subjected to robbery, violence and caught in sniper crossfire, so it’s far easier for farmers to grow opium.
Farmers surveyed said they reap substantial profits from the high price of opium, according to the U.N. report on Opium Risk Assessment.
“The high sales price of opium” was the predominant reason (66 percent) given for growing opium (71 percent in 2012). Indeed, opium prices, albeit lower than in 2010 and 2011, were still at a much higher level than between 2005 and 2009, making opium cultivation financially extremely attractive for farmers. Ten percent of respondents mentioned the lack of government support, while slightly fewer cited “poverty” and “high income from little land” as the most dominant reason.
But farmers are just one facet of the drug trade. Afghan law enforcement agencies and U.S. troops have been locked in a continuous battle against drug smuggling, but with a diminishing U.S. troop presence in 2014, it is hard to see how the U.S. can win this battle.
With the U.S. reducing the number of troops from 68,000 to less than 30,000, it has left some provinces vulnerable to Taliban forces and some regions with little security. Much of the new and growing production of opium borders Tajikistan and Iran. The inherent difficulties in policing borders means that these areas have emerged as drug trading routes.
According to the U.N. report on drug trafficking, the Balkans provides a central hub to trafficking routes to Europe and Russia. Using the Tajikistan border, opiates are smuggled to either Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, where they’re transported to Kazakhstan and then to Russia. This northern route yields $13 billion a year. And on the Iran and Pakistan border, opiates are smuggled into Turkey, Greece and across to Western European, garnering profits of about $20 million.
The opium trade has yielded huge profits for criminal gangs, but it has also helped fund the Taliban, as it struggles to regain power in a fragile Afghanistan. As the U.S. negotiates to keep U.N. and U.S. troops within Afghan borders next year, a lot will depend on the pressure mounting on President Karzai to kick American troops out.