Afghanistan's Other Narcotics Nightmare

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    Afghanistan's Other Narcotics Nightmare

    On the morning of June 9, 2008, U.S. drug enforcement agents alongside NATO military personnel and Afghan commandos raided a suspected drug weigh-station in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province near the border with Pakistan. Code-named Operation Albatross, the counternarcotics mission was the result of a tip from a government official in Kandahar and led to a seizure of mind-blowing proportions: 262 metric tons of dried hashish, equivalent in size to 30 London-style double-decker buses. The raid was the world's largest drug seizure ever conducted by law enforcement authorities. But there is little reason to celebrate.

    Afghanistan's narcotics industry has become a familiar news story recently, but most of the media's attention has focused on poppy crops. Agricultural production of the plant needed to fabricate opium and heroin has indeed skyrocketed since the U.S invasion, with the country supplying over 90 percent of the world's illicit opium and heroin for six years in a row. It was no surprise, then, that many observers welcomed the U.N.'s latest report on Afghan opium, published in early September, which documented a 22 percent decrease in cultivatable hectares of poppy last year.

    Less notice was given to the report's observation that Afghan farmers have begun to plant hardier variants of poppy and allegedly used smuggled fertilizer from Pakistan to help increase the typical amount of opium extracted from a hectare of poppy crop. Compared to places like Myanmar and Laos, where poppy farmers typically collect around 10 kilograms of opium per hectare (2.2 acres), poppy farmers in southern Afghanistan last year collected an astounding 56 kilograms of opium per hectare. So despite the decrease in fields devoted to poppy, Afghan farmers still produced 6,900 metric tons of opium, representing just a 10 percent decrease in actual yield compared to last year's harvest.

    All the attention given to Afghanistan's poppy problem, however, has obscured the problems caused by another illicit crop: cannabis. According to the U.N.'s World Drug Report 2008, Afghanistan was second only to Morocco among the world's largest sources of cannabis resin, or hashish, producing 1,603 metric tons in 2006. And a pending report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is likely to find that Afghanistan has since surpassed Morocco as the No. 1 producer. In areas of Afghanistan that have become secure enough to initiate alternative livelihood programs and agricultural assistance -- such as the northern provinces of Balkh and Samangan -- Afghan farmers have simply scrapped poppy cultivation for the equally lucrative and illicit cannabis.

    The trend has continued throughout Afghanistan in 2009, with initial U.N. estimates suggesting that 20 out of Afghanistan's 34 provinces now cultivate "substantial" amounts of cannabis, compared to 14 provinces that are known to still cultivate poppy. Exact figures about how much land is dedicated to cannabis cultivation are difficult to come by. Unlike the U.N.'s abilities to measure the levels of coca and poppy cultivation, based largely on advanced satellite technology, there is no similar method to locate and survey cannabis cultivation without dedicated field research.

    The narcotics problem in Afghanistan -- whether poppy- or cannabis-related -- is largely fueled by insecurity, deplorable economic conditions, and an infrastructure destroyed from decades of warfare. It represents one of the most challenging obstacles currently facing the international community's effort there. As part of their new approach to the "Af-Pak" situation, the Obama administration and NATO allies implemented major changes to their counternarcotics strategy earlier this year. Poppy eradication measures were almost entirely abandoned to avoid alienating Afghan farmers. NATO and coalition forces have instead begun targeting insurgent-linked narco-traffickers and drug convoys. Clandestine drug refinement workshops are also targets, and the interdiction of the vital precursor chemicals needed to convert raw opium into morphine and heroin has been prioritized.

    According to the UNODC, military operations against narcotics-linked targets have made an impact. 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. Most of the effort, though, has focused on opium, and although the initial results are encouraging, they remain a drop in the bucket. Consider that for the 90 tons of precursor chemicals interdicted, an estimated 14,500 tons were used to refine Afghanistan's poppy yield into opiate derivatives.

    Meanwhile, hashish production has quietly become Afghanistan's next-generation narcotics nightmare. There is reason to suspect that hashish smuggling is every bit as lucrative as poppy cultivation and opium production. With prices consistently hovering around $110 per kilogram, hashish fetches a higher price than opium, a relative bargain at around $64 per kilo, according to U.N. estimates and field research.

    The international community's focus on Afghanistan's unparalleled cultivation of poppy has kept the country's soaring rate of cannabis cultivation in the shadows. But a "poppy-free" policy is not the same thing as a "drug-free" policy, an error that has plagued the bungled counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan from the beginning. The continued failure to approach Afghanistan's narcotics problems holistically will only guarantee that the war-torn country becomes the world's biggest producer of not one, but two illicit narcotics.

    Matthew C. DuPee is a research associate for the Program of Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he studies the Afghan insurgency and the narcotics industry. He recently returned from a two-month research trip to Afghanistan.

    MATTHEW C. DUPEE | 01 OCT 2009

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