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Third anniversary of 9/11

Rise of fascism and drug trade

Dr. Ikramul Haq

THREE years after the wanton attack on New York’s twin towers, symbols of America’s economic might, the world is a changed place. And it has changed for the worse. In the name of fighting terrorism certain proponents of “peace”, “democracy” and champions of human rights are colonizing oil and mineral rich countries, conspiring to topple some “unwanted” governments and lending support to drug trade and mass acceptance of fascism in the name of reforming the world.

The Taliban regime of Afghanistan, according to a report in The Economist (August 16-22, 2003), had clamped down on poppy growing with an iron fist, and banned it completely in 2000. Production collapsed from its peak of over 4,500 tonnes in 1999 to 185 tonnes in 2001. However, the ban did not cover trade, and opiates kept on flowing into Central Asia. After demise of the Taliban, poppy cultivation re-appeared with a vengeance, in spite of a fresh ban issued by U.S.-installed Hamid Karzai’s government. According to UN estimates [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] production increased to 4,500 tonnes in 2003. Afghanistan once again dominates world production of opium, with almost three-quarters of the total annual global yield. Afghanistan is a marginal country. About 80% of Afghans depend on what they can grow. But Afghanistan lacks water and cultivable land. Even in the halcyon 1970s, less than 5% of the land was irrigated. The war halved that. Then during the seven-year-long drought in some places, most of the livestock died and staple crops failed. In the south and south-west of the country, water-tables are dangerously low. Even with the best possible governance, that part of Afghanistan is a poor proposition.

Drought was a much-needed ally of the Taliban. They could not have pushed north without picking up farmers along the way who, having lost their wheat and goats to drought, thought to earn something by shouldering a gun. Rebuilding the irrigation system would help a bit: creating reservoirs in the mountains of the central Hazarajat region could do more: both would be immensely costly. But the U.S was not interested in rebuilding Afghanistan. Its plan of colonising Afghanistan had three motives: to attain strategic supremacy over China by holding key points in South Asia, use of the Afghan Card against Central Asian States if they refused to toe U.S policy interests and control drug-for-arms trade. Three-quarters of the world’s opium and nearly Europe’s entire heroin, originate in Afghanistan. Drought is now an ally of opium traders. Pushtun herders used to move livestock around the country. Now they move opium; buying, selling and trading. They use the economics of the old North Sea herring trade, locking in farmers by paying advances on next year’s harvest. Afghanistan and Britain – the lead donor for counter-narcotics – say they have evidence that drug money is funding terrorism in southern Afghanistan. It is happening in the presence of U.S forces in the country that earlier used high-tech instruments to locate and kill Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. One wonders why they do not intercept huge drug consignments moving freely from Afghanistan to neighbouring Central Asian States, Iran and Pakistan. With the ousting of Taliban regime, opium production in Afghanistan, by far the world’s biggest producer, shot back to mid-1990s levels in 2002, within one year’s of tragic 9/11 incident..

On September 11th 2001 the western world was brutally reminded about Afghanistan, it also had its memory nudged about Central Asia. In the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen resisting Soviet occupation had received generous American support. But in 1989, when Russian troops packed their bags and went home, American interest in Afghanistan waned. Once the Central Asian countries had become independent from the former Soviet Union in 1991, America concentrated its attention in the region on Soviet nuclear leftovers, the decommissioning of which it hailed as a great success. When the Taliban took over in 1996, the Americans did not seem overly concerned that the bearded rulers and their al-Qaeda friends were supporting radical Islamic groups in Central Asia.

The threat of terrorism from Islamist extremists is also a powerful argument for Russia, America and China to maintain an interest in the region. The continuing instability in Afghanistan remains an important risk factor for Central Asia. But the spectre of the Talibanisation of the whole region probably never had much substance. Central Asian politics are shaped more by tribal and ethnic allegiances than by ideology, so Islamic movements in the region are likely to remain fragmented. During the civil war in Tajikistan, for example, mullahs from the Kulab region supported the government, whereas former communist from the Gharm region overwhelmingly joined the IRP-dominated UTO. Moreover, there seems to be little genuine popular support for setting up Islamic states in the region. However, the ground for religious extremism remains fertile.

Poverty, lack of political freedom, ignorance about Islam that is exploited by ruthless outsiders, and money from the drug trade make up an explosive cocktail. Most of the region’s economies have still not fully recovered from the collapse of the Soviet system. Poverty is widespread in all the countries, especially in rural areas, and the gap between rich and poor is widening. For many local politicians, such economic factors, along with natural disasters and border problems, constitute far bigger headaches than Islamic radicalism. Opposition forces in Central Asia, together with human-rights activists, argue that the Islamic threat is being exaggerated to crush all forms of dissent, religious or otherwise. But even those who think that Islamic radicalism and terrorism are real dangers criticise the governments’ heavy-handed methods of controlling religion.

Central Asia has become a main transit route for opium and heroin from Afghanistan to the streets of Europe. The UN reckons that about a quarter of all heroin coming out of Afghanistan passes through the region. Traditionally, Afghan opium was trafficked through Pakistan and Iran. Both countries remain important export routes, but a northern alternative via Central Asia developed rapidly in the early 1990s, partly because of Pakistan’s and Iran’s efforts to crack down on the traffic and partly because Russian border guards were withdrawn from most of the region when the Soviet Union collapsed. The civil war in Tajikistan in 1992-97 also proved beneficial to the drugs trade.

The Afghan plague

For many Afghans living in rural areas, producing opium is the only way to survive. Before the 2000 ban, prices had slumped to $35 a kilo, or $1,100 a hectare, an income close to that for legal crops; but since then prices have risen again, making poppy cultivation correspondingly more attractive. At the end of 2003, farmers could get $640 a kilo, or over $18,000 a hectare, which no other crop could rival. In 2003, opium production in Afghanistan generated up to $1.8 billion, or almost 25% of GDP. The number of drug users in Central Asia as a whole is thought to be close to 400,000, having increased six-fold in the 1990s, one of the highest growth rates in the world, according to the UN. Almost 1% of the population over 15 years of age uses opiates, three times more than in Western Europe. Most addicts are hooked on heroin and use needles. HIV/AIDs, which remain largely unmeasured, are believed to be spreading uncontrollably. Addiction has also been feeding petty crime and prostitution across the region.

The neighbours of Afghanistan are making profits from the windfall: criminal groups from Central Asia, says the UN, made profits of $2.2 billion from the trafficking of opiates in 2002, equivalent to 7% of the region’s GDP. Tajikistan is by far the worst affected by the drug plague, thanks to a combination of history, poverty and geography. During the civil war, drugs were a valuable source of cash for buying weapons. Although the conflict officially ended in 1997, warlords and officials continued to draw on this source of income.

In the late 1990s, drug trade was believed to be a source of finance for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group which had bases in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. After the war in Afghanistan, the IMU lost most of its influence, but the drugs trade continues, with organized criminals taking the place of political or religious activists. In a survey conducted by the Open Society Institute, eight out of ten of those polled said, hardly surprisingly, that the main reason to turn to drug trafficking was to make big money. Geography also contributes to Tajikistan’s drugs problem: at 1,400km, the country’s border with Afghanistan is longer than its Central Asian neighbours’, and commensurately more difficult to guard. Afghanistan’s north-eastern province of Badakhshan, an important poppy-growing area, is close to the border with Tajikistan. From there, most narcotics move to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (where Osh has become a hub of trafficking) before continuing to Kazakhstan and onwards to Russia.

The nature of traffic is changing. Before being shipped out of Afghanistan, opium is increasingly being processed into heroin, which has a much higher value and is easier to conceal and move around. Traffickers have also learnt to move it in smaller and more frequent shipments. Heroin first appeared in Central Asia in the early 1990s. In 2001, close to five tonnes were seized, but the amount actually getting through is probably 10-20 times bigger. The quality is getting better, too.

In 2001 unhappy Russian customers returned some heroin to Afghanistan, but last year the buyers must have been content: the value of heroin being trafficked through Central Asia at least, trebled. Regional price variations in Afghanistan are disappearing, which means that the opium trade, once fragmented, may be on its way to becoming a single integrated market. In Central Asia, criminal networks are believed to be getting help from high-level officials in the security forces and in the government, and weak banking systems make it easy to launder money.

The problem is particularly acute in Tajikistan, where the state structures remain fragile after the civil war; and business opportunities are limited. As Shirin Akiner, an academic who specializes in Central Asia, observes: “In the past, prospective Tajik leaders lobbied Moscow for backing. Today, it is the criminal world within Tajikistan that provides support for would-be political actors.”

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a think-tank, reported that Tajikistan’s former ambassador to Kazakhstan was twice caught with drugs, on the second occasion with 62kg of heroin and a large stash of money, before being expelled. The country’s trade representative was caught with 24kg of heroin. Even if the law could be enforced effectively, the poverty that tempts so many to turn to drug-dealing in the first place still needs to be tackled. Foreign money can help. In Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, the Agha Khan Development Network’s assistance programmes, which are conditional upon a fall-off in narco-business, have led to a considerable improvement. The UN and other donors are helping the governments in the region to fight drug-trafficking. But the treatment and prevention of addiction still needs far more attention and resources.

In post-Taliban Afghanistan, drought, drugs and insecurity have started to feed off each other. Three of the country’s five big drug-producing provinces – Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kandhar – are unsafe and parched. Poppy cultivation is spreading to new areas, and with it insecurity. The nightmare is a new Colombia: a place where drug lords capture and wreck governments and the economy alike.

The drug trade in the post-Taliban Afghanistan is becoming institutionalized. Opium is now being processed into morphine and heroin inside Afghanistan. That means a lot more money for commanders on the ground, something made apparent by the switch to ever more expensive jeeps. Democracy plays into the hands of more sophisticated naro-enriched commanders. They are already thinking about ways to buy or muscle a vote which will protect their opium interests in this year’s election. “There’s no way we can compete with the cash these guys have,” says a morose UN insider.

The Afghan government has made some progress. Poppy-growing has been declared illegal. A new policy body, the Counter-Narcotics Department, or CND, has been instituted to direct drug policy in key ministries. Its goal is 70% eradication by 2008 and 100% by 2013. The CND is being bankrolled by the British government. But it remains woefully ill-equipped. Almost none of its 28 staff officers has any relevant experience. There is little money for communications or vehicles and nothing at all for intelligence gathering. “They’re expecting results for nothing,” says Mirwais Yasini, the director. If traffickers get hauled in, trying them is another matter. The country even lacks a laboratory which can identify whether shipments seized are contraband. If the stick is small, the carrot is smaller still. There is little money for alternatives which would allow farmers to grow viable money-earning crops such as saffron. Mr. Yasini reckons a basic scheme could cost $300m over three years. Again, the outside world could be doing much more to help. An attempt to buy out farmers last year only encouraged more areas to be planted with poppies, so something more radical and innovative is needed: the insertion of several hundred counter-narcotics police officers about the country, a kind of policeman’s ISAF. The narco-cops would need to eradicate poppy cultivation. They would have to be supported with EU-funded initiatives such as the purchase of wheat at above market prices and money for irrigation, husbandry and rural credit schemes.

America could have played a useful role by acknowledging and supporting the efforts of Iran – whose policy on drugs is in many ways more intelligent – and by cracking down on (rather than supporting) warlords and commanders, its special forces know to be, trafficking opium. However, the American stance is diametrically opposite. It is levelling baseless allegations against Iran. It unveils the hidden agenda of U.S in Afghanistan and elsewhere to promote drug trade, religious fundamentalism and mass acceptance of its policies of fascism for its own self-interests and economic benefits.


Dr. Ikramul Haq (irm@brain.net.pk) is author of many articles and books on global heroin economy and socio economic problems concerning our present day international society.

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