Eight-Part Series on Opium/Heroin Production in Afghanistan

By Expat98 · May 14, 2008 · ·
  1. Expat98
    Part I - Afghanistan's opium dilemma

    View attachment 4707
    Afghan opium addicts. The Taliban tax all
    aspects of the drug trade, from cultivation
    to processing and distribution. They also
    earn money by providing protection for
    opium fields, heroin labs, drug shipments,
    and narcotics traffickers.

    By JAMES EMERY (Middle East Times)
    Published: March 26, 2008

    Afghanistan's annual opium crop is expected to rival last year's record yield to exceed a staggering 8,000 metric tons, or more than 90 percent of global production, according to a U.N. survey released in February, with the bulk being grown in Taliban strongholds.

    (This is the first of an eight-part series)

    Afghanistan grew 8,243 metric tons in 2007, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its winter assessment survey. Its forecast for 2008 suggests a flattening out of production, however, following hefty increases in each of the last two years in the war-torn country.

    It takes about 10 kilograms of opium to make one kilogram of heroin. However, due to improved quality and higher morphine content, Afghan opium has been converted at a seven to one ratio the last three years. During 2007, 58.4 percent of Afghan opium (8,243 metric tons less 156 tons consumed locally and 105 tons seized) was refined to morphine or heroin, creating 666 tons for export.

    Five predominantly Pushtun provinces, Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Nimroz, and, Farah, which are Taliban strongholds, were responsible for 77.7 percent of Afghanistan's opium cultivation last year. Helmand province alone produced 53 percent of the nation's total crop. Opium cultivation in Helmand is projected to stabilize this year following a 48 percent increase in 2007 and a 162 percent increase in 2006 after the Taliban regained control of the region.

    When NATO forces pressed against Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, many fled to the provinces of Nimroz and Farah, where they regrouped. The combined opium cultivation in these two provinces increased 121 percent during 2007 after the Taliban began using them as sanctuaries. Their yields will increase again during 2008, especially in the Khash Rod district of Nimroz province.

    "It is quite obvious the Taliban are involved in the drug trade, particularly in the southern provinces," said Dr. Thomas Pietschmann, of the Research and Analysis Section of the UNODC in Vienna, Austria. "We also have information that the farmers were told by the Taliban to grow opium," he added.

    The Taliban tax all aspects of the drug trade, from cultivation to processing and distribution. Many of these taxes are paid in drugs, which the Taliban sell. They also earn money by providing protection for opium fields, heroin labs, drug shipments, and narcotics traffickers.

    The average wholesale price in 2007 for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of Afghan heroin was $4,500 in Central Asia, $3,206 in Pakistan, and $3,000 in Iran. A kilo of opium was $325, $175, and $600, respectively, in these areas.

    Afghan poppy cultivation is a tale of two regions, the narco-terrorists' provinces controlled by the Taliban, and the rest of the country that is significantly more stable and is responding favorably to reconstruction efforts and eradication programs. This trend will continue in 2008. If the five problem provinces are factored out, the other 29 provinces of Afghanistan had a collective 32.4 percent decrease in opium poppy cultivation last year. Twelve provinces are now opium free and eight more are close to eradicating all of their opium.

    The anti-opium programs funded by Western governments and supported by reconstruction and humanitarian projects are working and should be continued. The explosion in poppy cultivation is occurring in Taliban dominated provinces. If Western countries seriously want to eradicate this opium, they are going to have to allocate the troops and resources necessary to stabilize and secure these provinces.

    Poppy cultivation is much more likely to take place in areas that lack security, as noted by the fact that 85 percent of the villages in southern Afghanistan grow opium, compared to just 1 percent in the central region of the country.

    "The vast majority of southern Afghanistan is closed to U.N. operations," said Hakan Demirbuken, who ran the UNODC opium surveys in Afghanistan for several years. "U.N. people are only in the city centers," he added. "They cannot go to the villages. It is very dangerous."

    Due to the lack of security, most of the non-governmental organizations shut down their southern operations or they operate only in the major cities. The Taliban have killed staff and aid workers of relief agencies who attempt to travel to rural villages.

    "There is obviously a link between instability and opium cultivation," said Jen-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC's chief of Europe, Central Asia, and West Asia. "The linkage between terrorism and opium cultivation is one of agricultural tax as well as protection money in those areas where the Taliban would be a dominating factor."

    Poppy cultivation and heroin refineries also strengthen the Taliban's ties with the Afghan population, because so many of them are employed in the drug trade.

    NATO troops in Afghanistan, referred to as the International Security Assistance Force, generally avoid any involvement in eradicating opium. Fighting the Taliban is a full-time job and they are concerned that destroying poppy fields will alienate the population, making it more difficult to gain the cooperation necessary to root out insurgents.

    The United States wants to implement aerial eradication, which is done by spraying the poppy fields with chemicals. This is one of the most effective methods to destroy opium, but the Afghan government won't allow it for fear that airborne chemicals will drift onto humans and livestock and contaminate the water supply.

    It would also antagonize farmers unless alternative sources of income are in place, which is not likely to happen while the Taliban are in control. If opium crops are eradicated, economic desperation will force many farmers to join the primary employer in the region, the Taliban.

    Cannabis cultivation is expected to increase again this year, making Afghanistan one of the world's leading suppliers of hashish. Cannabis production in 2007 was 70,000 hectares, a 40 percent increase over the previous year.

    Most of the Afghan cannabis is processed into hashish. "In some areas, growing cannabis is as lucrative as growing opium poppy," Pietschmann said, adding, "Cannabis yields about twice the quantity of drugs per hectare as growing opium."

    The Taliban and narcotics traffickers are killing Afghanistan. Regardless of what else is accomplished in 29 provinces, the "cancer" in the remaining five will consume and destroy the nation unless it is removed. Security is the single most important factor in eradicating opium. The Taliban must be soundly defeated. In order to achieve this, a significant influx of troops and supplies is needed. Destroying the drug trade will eliminate the Taliban's primary financial source, seriously diminishing their ability to wage a protracted insurgency.


    Part II - The Taliban opium connection

    View attachment 4708
    A poppy harvest in Afghanistan. The Taliban
    get around the Koran’s ban on dealing in
    mind-altering substances by claiming it does
    not say anything specific about heroin. They
    ignore the fact that heroin was not discovered
    until more than 1,200 years after the Koran.

    By JAMES EMERY (Middle East Times)
    Published: April 01, 2008

    Many people still mistakenly believe the Taliban were opposed to the drug trade due to the ban they placed on opium cultivation during their last year in power. However, even prior to capturing Kabul on Sept. 27, 1996, the Taliban made deals to allow opium cultivation and processing in return for political support and a cut of the profits.

    (This is part 2 of an 8-part series.)

    "This was being done in territory controlled by the Taliban," said Dr. Thomas Pietschmann with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "It was very clear that the people who worked there had to have contacts with the authorities, which meant the Taliban."

    Opium cultivation increased significantly each year under Taliban rule until they issued decrees in July 2000 banning poppy cultivation. The ban became effective after that year's crop was safely harvested. The Taliban took no steps to apprehend drug traffickers or seize stored opium, precursor chemicals, morphine, or heroin. Instead, the Taliban were selling their own opium at newly inflated prices and allowed others to sell, process, and transport drugs, with the Taliban taking their usual fees in taxes and protection money.

    The ban that eliminated the 2001 crop had nothing to do with curtailing the drug trade. Heroin labs remained active and shipments and seizures of heroin coming out of Afghanistan actually increased compared to the year before the ban, although some of those shipments came from areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, who were also deeply involved in poppy cultivation.

    The United States Drug Enforcement Administration said the ban was probably an attempt to increase the price of opium, which declined following a series of bumper crops. The Taliban also hoped to gain international recognition of their government beyond Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

    Before the Taliban banned cultivation in 2000, the farm-gate price for dry opium was $30 to $100 per kg. The ban caused a surge in opium prices that topped at $700 per kg in September 2001, about a year after the ban was enacted. This created a windfall of millions of dollars in additional profits for the Taliban and their associates who had been strategically stockpiling up to 60 percent of the opium crop for several years prior to the ban.

    The price of opium plummeted during the U.S. attack on the Taliban which began Oct. 7, 2001. Wholesalers dumped their stock, flooding the markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and driving down prices of opium to approximately $100 per kg. Afghan traffickers said they were concerned about their opium being destroyed by American bombs. Opium prices recovered by December 2001, climbed significantly during 2003 and 2004, and have recently softened again due to bumper crops in 2006 and 2007. The average price in Afghanistan for 1kg of dry opium was $106 in January 2008.

    Both before and after the U.S. invasion, the Taliban made their money by levying taxes of 10 percent on opium cultivation and up to 15 percent to 20 percent on processing, trade, smuggling, and distribution. These taxes were in addition to other financial agreements they made with regional and international drug traffickers to provide protection for opium fields, heroin processing labs, drug shipments, and narcotics smugglers. In many cases, taxes were paid to the Taliban in drugs, which the Taliban sold or stored for future sales.

    The Taliban taxes on cultivation and processing are based upon the Islamic charity taxes of "zakat" and "usher." Zakat, also referred to as alms or purification, is the third of the Five Pillars of Islam. It requires individuals to share 2.5 percent of their wealth with those in need. Usher literally means "tenth," and refers to the tax paid on the harvest for the benefit of the poor.

    The rate of Taliban taxes on the drug economy exceeds Islamic tradition. Furthermore, most of the money collected by the Taliban goes to fund the insurgency, instead of helping the poor and needy as directed by the Koran. In districts where the Taliban are dominant, they impose usher and zakat against everyone, in addition to taxes on the drug trade.

    During the Taliban years of 1996 to 2001, when income from drugs was the Taliban's sole source of foreign exchange, they made $30 million to $50 million a year. These sums, while substantial for a regional group of narco-traffickers, are dwarfed by what the Taliban have made the last five years. The Taliban's income from narcotics began growing during 2003 and 2004 when opium prices and production soared.

    The Taliban garnered additional financial benefits from the explosion in cultivation and processing between 2005 and 2007. "They earned much less when they governed the country because the price of opium was much lower," said Dr. Pietschmann, of the UNODC. "I calculated they are making $250 to $300 million dollars per year over the last three years." All told, the Taliban have made between $1.0 billion and $1.6 billion dollars the last 10 years. Their quest for power may be fueled more by greed than ideology.

    Some of the Taliban get around the Koran's ban on dealing in mind-altering substances by claiming it does not say anything specific about heroin. They ignore the fact that heroin was not discovered until 1874, 1,242 years after the final Surahs of the Koran are said to have been revealed to Muhammad.

    A number of sources have linked Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida directly with the drug trade. One report states that prior to the defeat of the Taliban, bin Laden served as a middleman for Afghan opium traders, using his commissions to buy weapons and provide funding for his training camps.

    "Al-Qaida and the Taliban are terrorists," said Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. "They work hand-in-hand so we really don't differentiate between them. Narcotics are one source of funding for al-Qaida."

    While al-Qaida has attempted to keep a low profile regarding their involvement in the drug trade, they have without question, actively supported the Taliban's drug-related activities for many years. Al-Qaida operatives also accompany Taliban forces in protecting heroin shipments and drug traffickers.

    The Taliban are, and have always been, drug traffickers who made alliances with opium cultivators, heroin processors, narcotics smugglers, and an increasing number of regional and global criminal organizations. Should they ever regain control of Afghanistan, the Taliban will turn it into a brutally repressive, narco-terrorist state that would be a threat to the region and a scourge on humanity.


    Part III - Afghan opium – The farmer's perspective

    View attachment 4709
    A five-year-old farmer’s daughter cleans
    the mud from her hands after working in
    the poppy fields in Ghanikhel, Afghanistan.
    If her father takes a cash advance from
    one of the wealthy drug lords and later
    becomes unable to repay it, he may have
    to sell his daughter or his land to cover the debt.

    By JAMES EMERY (Middle East Times)
    Published: April 08, 2008

    In Afghanistan opium poppies are much more likely to be grown in areas where security has broken down and power is wielded by the Taliban, who encourage farmers to grow the crop. It does not take a lot of prodding, since farmers can make about 10 to 20 times more money growing poppies than they can make on wheat, corn, cotton, fruit, or other legal crops. But, opium has increased expenses, including additional labor for harvesting and bribes to avoid eradication.

    (This is part 3 of an 8-part series.)

    According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium cultivation generates approximately $5,385 per hectare, while irrigated wheat generates $575 per hectare and rain-fed wheat approximately $282 per hectare. Growing opium can make a farmer rich by Afghan standards, where estimates of the average annual per capita income is less than $1,000 and over half the population lives below the poverty line.

    About a year ago the average annual cash income of farmers growing opium poppy was $3,933, 42 percent higher than the $2,279 average for non-opium poppy growing farmers.

    About 80 percent of the Afghan labor force works in agriculture, the other 20 percent are split evenly between industry and services. UNODC surveys of Afghan farmers show that poverty and financial considerations, such as obtaining a loan for food, clothing, and other essentials or financing a wedding or medical procedure, are the primary reasons given for growing opium. In most of the world's poppy growing areas, traditional banking and alternative methods of finance are unavailable.

    In Afghanistan some prosperous merchants and opium traders provide credit, known as "salaam", to farmers who are dealing with an acute financial crisis or chronic poverty. The amount of money advanced is generally half the current market value of the crop that is being offered as payment.

    Opium is the crop of choice for lenders because the demand and price are more consistent than wheat; they'll make a better return on their investment. An Afghan farmer who wants a loan to grow legal crops will probably leave empty-handed. The agreed upon quantity of opium will be delivered promptly to the lender upon harvest.

    Poverty stricken farmers often sell their entire crop prior to harvest for 50 percent of its potential market value, using the money to buy food, clothing, and other essentials, including additional laborers to help in harvesting the opium.

    A recent UNODC survey of villages growing opium showed that about one-third of them received cash advances on their crop, enabling wealthy drug lords, who ignore the Koran's ban on "riba", the charging of interest in exchange for a loan – to effectively earn 100 percent interest on their money. If the farmer is unable to deliver the crop for any reason, they may have to sell their land or their daughters to cover the debt.

    Poppy cultivation can be up to 10 times more labor intensive than growing wheat. Individual poppies ripen at different times and each pod must be lanced several times to gather all of the opium. This requires workers to make several passes over the same fields, working long hours under the hot sun. In a country where one-third of the workforce is unemployed and another third, underemployed, poppy farming provides much-needed jobs, including rare opportunities for women to earn money by working the fields.

    According to the UNODC, about 3.3 million Afghans work in poppy fields, 14.3 percent of Afghanistan's 23.8 million population. There are also Pakistanis working in the Afghan opium fields, in addition to Afghans working in other facets of the drug trade.

    Poppy laborers in Helmand and other volatile provinces can earn $15 a day, about twice what they make in stable areas. The combination of high wages and increased cultivation has attracted migrant Afghan farmers from neighboring regions. Opium cultivation also offers the opportunity for thousands of Afghans with little of no land holdings to earn a living by sharecropping fields. These desperate souls are exploited by wealthy landowners who typically take one-half to two-thirds of the opium crop in spite of the fact that the labor, which is approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of the cost of growing opium, is provided or paid for by the sharecropper and his family.

    It is imperative to wean the population from drug traffickers by supplying sustainable alternative sources of agriculture, employment, and loans. Securing the country and rebuilding the infrastructure is essential to future stability, which is why the Taliban have attempted to destroy or disrupt every humanitarian program and construction project that helps the people of Afghanistan.

    Price supports should be initiated for several years to encourage farmers to grow legal crops by guaranteeing a fair and stable price. These artificial price increases should not be so high that they encourage Pakistani and other contiguous state farmers to bring their crops into Afghanistan to obtain additional profits.

    Establishing a national banking system that provides low cost loans to farmers is one of the single most important steps that can be taken to help eradicate opium poppy. These loans would be available to farmers who agree not to grow opium, soundly breaking their primary ties to drug traffickers and the Taliban, the salaam system.

    "You realize the importance of replacing the salaam system," said the UNODC's executive director, Antonio Maria Costa. "Micro lending is a very powerful instrument promoting development, and in the case of Afghanistan, it will help the farmers break the bonds of the traffickers."

    Low-cost loan programs would vastly improve the plight of the poor and raise their overall standard of living. Government loans would enable poverty-stricken farmers to be paid for their entire crop, instead of giving half of it in interest to drug lords. This program would firmly establish President Hamid Karzai as the true authority figure, protector, and benefactor of the Afghan people, while relegating drug traffickers and the Taliban to the status they deserve, criminals, predators, and spoilers.

    For opium bans to work at all, they must be backed up with fully developed sustainable alternative crop programs, resources, and markets. The poor are easy prey, and eradication comes down the hardest on those least capable of surviving the blow – poverty ridden farmers, sharecroppers, and field laborers.

    Sources of income at a similar level of earnings to opium must be readily available, along with the infrastructure to support them prior to eradication. Hundreds of Afghan farmers have suffered the consequences from voluntarily switching from opium to alternative crops, only to find that the development assistance and support programs they were promised never materialized or were insufficient to sustain them.


    Part IV- Afghan drugs and regional addiction rates

    View attachment 4710
    An Afghan farmer, who did not want to be
    identified, searches through dried poppy pods
    for seeds. In Iran, officials artificially raise and
    lower their drug usage figures to reflect
    improvements that don't exist. Apparently
    they're at it again, showing that President
    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing a fine job.

    By JAMES EMERY (Middle East Times)
    Published: April 16, 2008

    The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report includes a section on the annual prevalence of abuse for opiates, cannabis, and other drugs as a percentage of the population aged 15 to 64 for each respective country monitored. These rates reflect the percentage of people who used the drug in the 12-month period prior to the survey. Morphine use is typically very small and included in the number of heroin users.

    (This is part 4 of an 8 part series.)

    During the previous year, an estimated 434,000 Afghans used hashish, 130,000 used opium and 41,000 used heroin, according to the UNODC. Some agencies report higher numbers, but this may be due to their failure to adjust the population base. While the population of Afghanistan is officially listed as 31.8 million, the UNODC figures are based on the figure of 23.8 million people who currently live in Afghanistan. The other 8 million, including refugees in Pakistan and Iran, live outside of Afghanistan.

    Much of the drug problem in Afghanistan today can be traced to the refugee camps in Pakistan. Some refugees took up the habit of smoking opium or heroin while in Pakistan and upon returning to Afghanistan continued the habit and began cultivating opium to feed it. Thousands of Afghan refugees were smoking hashish while in Pakistan, but this was a habit most of them had initially acquired in Afghanistan. Some Afghans in Iran have had similar experiences, acquiring heroin and opium habits that followed them back into Afghanistan.

    A flood of Taliban heroin swept through the Islamic countries of Asia and the Middle East during the last 10 years. Additionally, Afghan opium and hashish is being distributed regionally in Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics. Over 10 million Muslims in Asia and the Middle East have used Afghan drugs, leading to the economic and social ruin of millions of families.

    Pakistan, the country most responsible for the origin and resurgence of the Taliban, has been flooded with drugs, creating a surge in addiction rates during the last 12 years. According to the UNODC, 640,000 Pakistanis used opiates in the last year, of which 515,000 used heroin and 125,000 used opium. It's estimated that about 10 percent to 15 percent of Pakistani heroin addicts inject the drug, the rest smoke or inhale it. As with most countries in this region, some addicts use heroin and opium. A 2004 survey out of Karachi found that 20 percent of injection drug users were HIV positive.

    In addition to opiate abusers, there are also 3,564,000 Pakistanis who've used hashish, most of which is coming from Afghanistan. Several years ago, it was widely reported that Pakistan had 3 million heroin addicts, but this exaggerated number had originated from surveys that lacked anthropological methodology and statistical safeguards.

    In recent years, some drug researchers and reporters claimed that Iran has over 3 million people using heroin or opiates. I believe this is another case of flawed methodology and careless reporting that lumps opiate and cannabis users together.

    During the last year an estimated 371,000 Iranians used heroin, 928,000 used opium, and 1.9 million used hashish. Clearly, there are over 3 million Iranians who have used drugs during the previous 12 months, but only about 1.3 million of these used opiates, and most of that is opium, not heroin.

    The exact numbers are unknown because the UNODC has not been active in Iran since 1999. For years, Iranian officials were said to be artificially raising and lowering their drug usage figures to reflect improvements that didn't exist. Apparently, they're at it again. Recent reports released by Iranian government agencies have shown sudden and dramatic decreases in the number of drug abusers.

    These figures have been dismissed by the international community as being propaganda meant to show that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing a good job. As in years past, the large decrease in addicts is only on paper; it has nothing to do with the real numbers. According to sources involved in the drug rehabilitation centers operating in Iran, there has been no decrease in the number of addicts seeking treatment. Furthermore, sources state that unemployment rates are significantly higher than reported by the Iranian government and that the drug epidemic is causing a breakdown in social mores as addicts become dealers, thieves, or pimps to support their habit.

    The misery and despair of addicts and their families is another facet of the drug trade. Addiction rates have also increased in the Central Asian Republics and the Islamic countries of Asia and the Middle East. In Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, up to 90 percent of drug addicts are HIV positive and 90 percent of new HIV cases are coming from drug addiction. Substantial increases in crime and corruption have followed the path of Afghan opiates. Transit countries showed a significant increase in heroin usage at the same time it was declining in Europe.

    Globally, the rate of heroin addiction stands at about 0.3 percent for people between the ages of 15 to 64, the most commonly used sampling group. It is almost five times that in Afghanistan (1.4 percent) and more than twice the average in Pakistan (0.7 percent) and the Central Asian Republics (Turkmenistan 0.5 percent, Uzbekistan 0.8 percent, Tajikistan 0.5 percent, Kyrgyzstan, 0.8 percent, and Kazakhstan 1.0 percent).

    Iran is believed to have an opiate addiction rate of 2.8 percent, nine times the global average. In 1975, prior to the Islamic Revolution, Iran only had 30,000 known heroin users. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, and other Islamic countries have also seen an increase in heroin addiction and the numerous social, medical, legal, and economic problems that accompany it. Thanks to the Taliban, the vast amount of Afghan heroin flowing into Muslim countries has significantly lowered the price, making it affordable to the middle and lower classes.

    The Islamic world was unprepared for the devastating effects of opiate addiction. They are further hindered by cultural norms that prevent many addicts from seeking help, especially women, who are unable to obtain treatment without the permission of their husband or other male guardian. Programs to combat the drug trade in Afghanistan and other countries should include extensive prevention, education, outreach, and rehabilitation services.


    Part V- Afghanistan's myriad drug smuggling routes

    View attachment 4711
    APPEARING EVERYWHERE - Russian frontier
    guards find 150 kg of raw opium at the
    Afghan-Tajik border. Nigerian criminal groups,
    who appear to be everywhere, have been at
    the forefront of developing and expanding heroin
    distribution routes in Asia and other parts of the
    world. But that's old news ... the new is they’ve
    now found huge new markets.

    By JAMES EMERY (Middle East Times)
    Published: April 22, 2008

    Heroin, morphine base, opium, and hashish are carried out of Afghanistan along traditional and newly developed smuggling routes that cross its porous borders. Some is hidden under truckloads of produce, while small quantities are concealed in luggage, on the body, or in the stomach of international air passengers who traveled to the country for the sole purpose of bringing out a few grams, or a few kilos, of heroin.

    The bulk of the drugs is simply transported out along unchecked smuggling routes by caravans of trucks. Some of the heroin moves through Pakistan to the ocean to be loaded onto boats for delivery to the Gulf states and other regions.

    (This is part 5 of an 8-part series.)

    Most international drug monitoring agencies rely on the number of seizures to determine not only the outgoing flow of drugs transiting specific borders, but also the origin of drugs entering a particular country. This method is complemented by the analysis of trace chemicals found in heroin that can help law enforcement determine the regional origin, similarity and batch association, and sometimes even identify specific manufacturing processes or markers that are unique to particular labs.

    The downside of this is that the percentage of drugs exiting across specific borders can be skewed by increased law enforcement efforts of one nation and the lax border security of another contiguous neighbor.

    After comparing transit reports from several sources and agencies, I believe this is what happened in Afghanistan. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) routing figures for drugs originating in Afghanistan during 2007 indicates that 30 percent of the heroin and morphine and 79 percent of the opium went into Iran. The figures were 51 percent and 13 percent for Pakistan and 19 percent and 7 percent for the Central Asian Republics, respectively.

    These figures, which were updated for a UNODC presentation given in Vienna, Austria on March 3, reflect a more accurate picture of narcotics distribution. Previous export routing estimates generated by various agencies, understated the amount of heroin transiting Pakistan and overstated the amount going through Iran and the Central Asian Republics.

    The trafficking shift attributed to Iran reflects the sizeable increase in seizures the last few years. Iran has been plagued by the social, economic, and political ramifications of a full-blown opiate epidemic. Responding to the crisis, Iran increased military patrols and interdiction efforts along their 936 kilometers. border with Afghanistan, resulting in a significant increase in seizures. The Central Asian Republics have also stepped up interdiction efforts.

    At the other end of the spectrum, the 2,430 kilometer border with Pakistan has historically been little more than an imaginary line dividing vast stretches of remote wasteland and rugged mountains along the untamed province of Baluchistan, the Waziristan tribal areas, and Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The Durand Line, as this is commonly called, was drawn through the middle of Pushtun tribal areas in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of British India. In many respects, the area has changed very little in appearance and culture since the line was drawn.

    These areas are dominated by the Taliban, al-Qaida, and an assortment of nominally independent, historically fierce, Pushtun tribal groups. The tribal areas have traditionally been off-limits to Pakistani military and government officials. Pakistani customs officers and military forces are relegated to a few designated border crossings and are generally reluctant to venture much beyond them. This means that smugglers wishing to avoid scrutiny can simply pay off tribal militias and move anything they want across unregulated areas that make up over 90 percent of the border.

    The recent addition of 100 Frontier Corps Outposts in Pakistan to monitor the border is not expected to have much of an impact. Traditionally, Pakistani border troops in these regions, who are outnumbered by insurgents and tribal militias, are stationary and complacent. Smugglers will simply avoid them.

    It appears the bulk of the 1,330 tons of acetic anhydride used in the processing of heroin shipped into Afghanistan during the last year came in by way of Pakistan. To move that much weight in one year requires hundreds of trucks snaking across the border in caravan-like fashion on a regular basis. To use an American trucking term, I doubt they "deadhead" back, meaning they are not coming back empty, but are probably filled with heroin, opium, morphine base, and hashish, reinforcing the theory that the percentage of drugs exiting Afghanistan by way of Pakistan may be understated.

    The fact that the Pakistanis have been unable to rack up any measurable seizures of precursor chemicals during the opiate explosion of recent years doesn't mean these phantom truck lines are not operating, it merely indicates they are not being seized, at least not in Pakistan.

    The Taliban and other heroin smugglers have hooked up with Nigerian drug traffickers, which in itself is old news as Nigerian criminal groups have been operating in this area for well over 30 years. What's new is that the Nigerians have uncovered ripe markets for Afghan heroin in China and Southeast Asia to make up for the void left by successful opium eradication programs in Myanmar.

    Much of the surplus Afghan heroin is being diverted to Asia and onward to Australia and North America, with Pakistan being the logical transit country. Nigerian criminal groups, who are widely diversified and appear to be everywhere, have been at the forefront of developing and expanding heroin distribution routes in Asia and other parts of the world.

    During 2006, Pakistan seized 3 tons of heroin, 9.8 tons of opium, 127 tons of cannabis resin or hashish, and 36 tons of morphine base coming out of Afghanistan, but no precursor chemicals destined for Afghanistan. The morphine base was for heroin labs that have been operating in Baluchistan for many years.

    Only since June 10, 2006, when eight mobile labs were destroyed in Baluchistan by Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force have Pakistani government officials even acknowledged that heroin processing is taking place in their country. The eight labs were considered an isolated case. For years, Pakistani authorities steadfastly maintained that there was no evidence of opiate laboratories operating in Pakistan. Like the phantom truck lines of precursor chemicals, they didn't exist, so there were no seizures.

    Some of the Pakistani heroin is sent back into Afghanistan to be transshipped into Iran, where drug traffickers can make more money on it. On occasion, local Afghan heroin producers have given police officers information about shipments coming out of Pakistan so the police could seize the drugs and diminish the "foreign" competition.


    Part VI - Converting Afghan opium into heroin

    View attachment 4712
    Map locating Afghan opium cultivation.
    Most of the processing labs are located
    in southern Afghanistan, close to opium
    sources and under the protection of the
    Taliban. Smaller refineries, including mobile
    abs, are scattered around other parts of
    the country.

    By JAMES EMERY (Middle East Times)
    Published: April 30, 2008

    Acetic anhydride is the essential precursor used for converting opium into morphine base and heroin. It looks and smells a lot like vinegar. Its sole use in Afghanistan is in drug refineries that have increased their annual demand from about 200 tons to 1,330 tons during the last six years.

    None of the precursors are manufactured in Afghanistan. In all, some 11,000 tons of chemicals were required to process opium in Afghanistan during 2007.

    (This is part six of an eight-part series.)

    The chemicals are smuggled into Afghanistan from China, India, Pakistan, and the Central Asian Republics. Sometimes they're labeled as cleaning solutions or industrial chemicals, but most of the time they're simply trucked into Afghanistan without inspection or detection on either side of the border. There have been no significant seizures of precursor chemicals in any of the countries bordering Afghanistan since 2001. The lack of seizures during the last two years, when record levels of Afghan opium and heroin were being produced, is especially troubling.

    "Over 1,000 tons of acetic anhydride is needed to process all of this opium into heroin," said Hakan Demirbuken, regional monitoring expert with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "Last year more than 90 percent of the precursor seizures were at the eastern part of Afghanistan in the provinces of Nangarhar, Khost, and Paktya near the Pakistan border." There are virtually no seizures across the border, in spite of the fact that the majority of precursor chemicals arrive by way of Pakistan.

    "Precursor chemicals are another area where we see there must be the involvement of organized criminal groups," said Andrea Mancini, an Afghan specialist with the UNODC. "They are the same as the anti-government elements or at least are working with them, especially in the south and along the border." The Taliban, having aligned and identified themselves with all aspects of the drug trade, are providing protection and assistance to criminal groups smuggling precursor chemicals into Afghanistan and drugs out of it.

    Most of the processing labs are located in southern Afghanistan, close to opium sources and under the protection of the Taliban. Smaller refineries, including numerous mobile labs, are scattered around other parts of the country, with many located near border areas for easy transit of the refined heroin. Most small labs consist of little more than a heating device, raw opium, and a few drums of chemicals.

    The main opium markets in Helmand province are in Musa Quala and Sangin. Musa Quala district is in northern Helmand province and has seen heavy fighting this year. Sangin district is directly southeast. Each of the two districts has numerous heroin labs. "The Taliban provide security for the labs," said Demirbuken. "There are a lot of heroin labs in southern Afghanistan in Helmand province, Nimroz province, and Uruzgan province controlled by Taliban people. They are very powerful."

    Prior to the arrival of the Taliban in 1996, there were considerably more processing labs located in Pakistan's tribal areas, but most of them moved into Afghanistan, where they could operate openly under the protection of the Taliban. Increased interdiction efforts by Afghan authorities the last few years have driven some Afghan heroin labs back into Baluchistan, on the Pakistani side of the border.

    You simply can't make heroin without precursor chemicals and the fact that over 1,300 tons of acetic anhydride was delivered into Afghanistan during the last year by phantom truck lines that nobody saw is unacceptable. The recently established Precursor Control Unit within the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan should be expanded to form a Regional Precursor Task Force to look into all aspects of this issue, beginning with the manufacturers in China and India who appear to be supplying most of the precursors used in Afghanistan.

    Plausible deniability and shoddy recordkeeping only goes so far. It does not excuse the fact that these manufactures are well aware of what is boosting the sudden demand for their chemicals. The United States should insist on support from the governments of China and India in precursor investigations that will curtail production levels to exclude chemicals destined for Afghanistan. A review of the invoices may disclose some information regarding buyers and transporters of these chemicals, but most of the records will be fraudulent or destroyed.

    "Certainly blocking the import into Afghanistan of precursor chemicals will choke the trafficking of heroin and morphine," said Mr. Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UNODC. "About 15 years ago Afghanistan was exporting about 75 percent of its opium; the other 25 percent was refined [to morphine or heroin]. Now it's the other way around. They export about two-thirds as heroin and morphine and only one-third as raw opium." Afghan criminal groups are processing opium at about almost three times the rate of 1992, increasing profits through value-added efforts in exporting refined product.

    Globally, heroin is often categorized by grades. A kilogram of number 4 grade heroin is significantly purer and more expensive. It is usually injected. A kilogram of number 3 grade heroin is less pure and costs less. It is typically smoked or burned with the addict inhaling the vapors. In Afghanistan, you don't hear about heroin grades, you have white heroin and brown heroin. The white heroin, which requires additional processing, is more pure and more expensive.

    Most of the heroin coming out of Afghanistan is brown heroin. It's being cut by Afghan and Pakistani traffickers at somewhat inconsistent levels, affecting the purity and value of the product, but appears to be running at 50 percent to 60 percent purity.

    Crystal heroin or crack heroin are new terms being used in Afghanistan and Iran for the high quality heroin being produced in the region. It's probably white heroin, what would be called number 4 grade in the West, which is typically 85 percent to 95 percent pure. A few reports put the white Afghan heroin at 70 percent to 80 percent purity, but this may simply be a guesstimate as a significant sampling has not yet been analyzed.

    Pakistan's chemical control program is not working. Joint Western and Pakistani military and police operations using a combination of random maneuvers, human and scientific intelligence, and lucrative incentives for informers, could be put into place to apprehend or destroy caravans of precursor chemicals transiting Pakistan. Every truckload of precursors captured or destroyed is less money and fewer weapons being funneled into Taliban coffers and armories.


    Part VII - Winning the Afghan opium war

    View attachment 4713
    A U.N.-Afghan nationwide survey in 2006
    found nearly 1 million addicts of about 30
    million people, including 60,000 children under
    age 15. Drugs of choice range from hashish,
    opium and heroin to pharmaceutical medicines.
    Some 5,000 children are addicted to opiates,
    and the remainder take cough syrup and other
    drugs, the survey found. The actual numbers
    are probably much higher, especially for children
    and women, the report said.

    By JAMES EMERY (Middle East Times)
    Published: May 06, 2008

    According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the export value of Afghanistan's opium production was about $4 billion last year, of which 24 percent went to those working at the lower to middle end of the opium chain. The bulk of the money goes to regional and international trafficking organizations that have ties with the Taliban, terrorists, and multinational criminal organizations.

    "Counter-narcotics is one of the key challenges," said Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. "I think that unless we resolve the narcotics problem, it can undo many of our achievements, especially the governance and the rule of law. Narcotics traders are corrupting everyone that is not paid well; the police primarily, but also the judicial system up to institutions that constitute the face of the government."

    (This is part seven of an eight-part series.)

    The prevalence of corruption, combined with the severe lack of resources and the initiative to investigate it, make bribery and other forms of corruption a minimal risk venture. With Afghanistan facing an uncertain future, many officials are looking out for their own interest; at the lower levels, they are simply trying to survive. There is little chance of getting caught and a general lack of hard evidence and cooperative witnesses.

    The ranks of police and government officials are littered with unsavory warlords and undesirables who paid a bribe to gain their appointment. Failing to expunge these powerful felons from government is equivalent to leaving a heroin addict in charge of drug seizures.

    The task of eradication has been assigned to provincial governors, some of whom have a vested interest in the drug trade. In June of 2006, members of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan raided the offices of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who was then the governor of Helmand province, seizing nine tons of opium that was being stored there. Opium eradication has been plagued by tribal issues and corruption. Reportedly, a $200 bribe to the police or the government eradication teams will generally save your opium crop.

    It would be advisable to have a frequent rotation of provincial governors and other government and police officials involved in overseeing opium eradication and counter-narcotics efforts in their respective province or district. The large drug traffickers buy officials as a form of investment for the help they can provide with future sales and profits. If these administrators are not going to be in place for a reasonable period of years, it makes the cash outlay to bribe them a costly, short-term investment, which is not in the trafficker's interest. The criminals will have to decrease the size of the bribes, making corruption less appealing to government bureaucrats.

    Officials will also have more reason to fear exposure if they know their term of office will be short and that their unrelated, newly trained, law and order replacement is able to claim a lucrative bonus by exposing the corruption of his predecessor. Some replacements should come from the ranks of the Western-trained, Afghan narcotics force.

    The training of Afghan police officers by the DEA and other international agencies is paying dividends in the war against drug traffickers. However, a good deal more effort is needed, including substantial pay raises and benefit packages that include medical care for the officers and their families. These should be made available to all police officers, with added remuneration, bonuses, and perks for the esteemed officers assigned to elite narcotics units.

    Currently, one of the primary incentives for many Afghan police officers, who are grossly underpaid, undertrained, and underequipped, is graft from drug traffickers and criminal gangs, along with self-serving, slight-of-hand maneuvers to increase their earnings. It's been reported that many of the cops double as delivery agents, using their police cars to transport drugs.

    "The police are local with the people," said Haidari, "so the police are critical to the legitimacy of the government." Corruption undermines law enforcement efforts and the credibility of the government. It also plays into the hands of the insurgency, providing them with complicit cops and propaganda points in the battle for Afghan hearts and minds.

    Afghanistan is a collectivist culture with family ties and responsibilities that go well beyond the norm of Western countries. The average Afghan household may be eight to 10 people or more, including the married couple, their children, the husband's parents, and occasionally, other relatives. The average wage for an Afghan police officer is about 3,000 Afghanis a month, or $60. Most of the women in Afghanistan do not work outside the home, leaving police officers and government officials with the huge burden of supporting the clan on their small salaries. It makes them vulnerable to criminal influence and corruption.

    If a policeman has to choose between duty to the state or survival of his family, there is no question what he will do. While excessive greed is a motivating factor in the corruption of Afghan cabinet members and higher officials, for most of the cops, it's basic survival. Unlike the warlords, most police officers are not buying Land Rovers and satellite dishes; they're buying food, clothing, and medical care.

    One of the best investments in the future of Afghanistan is to train, equip, pay, and motivate all Afghan police officers. Most of the current police force is salvageable. Those who aren't should be imprisoned or terminated. After boosting their wages, they should be told that bribery and corruption will no longer be tolerated and if they cross that line, they will do jail time; no exceptions. The same rules and incentives should be implemented for all Afghan government officials and civil servants.

    These salary increases and benefit programs can be paid for by aggressively targeting the middle and upper tiers of drug trafficking organizations and passing a law that mandates the seizure of all assets, in Afghanistan and abroad, of anyone involved in the drug trade. When these people come out of prison, the only thing they should own is their prison issued wardrobe and some prayer beads.

    The Afghan population currently believes that large traffickers and complicit government officials are untouchable. Just the opposite should be true. If you want to destroy a rabid dog, you don't cut off the tail, you cut off the head. The same goes for drug traffickers. The top people, along with everyone involved in their operations should be taken down, regardless of family ties or political alliances.


    Part VIII - Delivering the fatal blow to Afghan opium

    Almost 80 percent of Afghanistan's opium
    cultivation takes place in five Taliban infested
    provinces that lack governance. Al-Qaida is
    but an annoyance; it is the Taliban that must
    be defeated and destroyed. This means taking
    out the traffickers and the labs and intercepting
    shipments within the country.

    Published: May 14, 2008

    "First and foremost, the goal is to reduce opium cultivation," said Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. "It has reached historical levels unheard of in the past 150 years." One way to eradicate opium is to destroy the market for it.

    Ideally, this would mean substantially diminishing the global usage and demand for heroin, a step that some Afghan and Pakistani government officials claim is the primary problem.

    Demand reduction is important, but under the best of circumstances, will take decades to accomplish.

    (This is the last of an eight-part series.)

    To have a more immediate impact requires a concentrated effort to eradicate opium, destroy heroin labs, seize shipments of drugs and precursor chemicals, and arrest and extradite the top narcotics traffickers, taking away all of their money and assets in the process. Successfully eradicating narcotics trafficking will eliminate the Taliban's primary source of income.

    The single most important issue to eradicating opium is security. The Taliban must be defeated and destroyed, not merely driven into other provinces where they will regroup. In order to decisively defeat them within a reasonable period of time, there needs to be a considerable increase in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by NATO. Otherwise, it is just going to be a perpetual stalemate, and in this case, the Taliban wins the ties.

    Almost 80 percent of Afghanistan's opium cultivation takes place in five Taliban infested provinces that lack governance. Every suggestion made in this and previous articles in this series regarding corruption, eradication, and income generating programs are useful in secure areas, but meaningless in Taliban controlled provinces unless security is achieved first.

    Providing governors and warlords with cash payments and other incentives for eradicating opium and overseeing alternative crop programs are good ideas, but the program should include bonuses for the destruction of heroin laboratories and the seizure of drugs and precursor chemicals transiting their regions. There should also be penalties if they fail to act on these critical issues.

    Paktya and Balkh are just two of the provinces that have become opium free, yet remain primary conduits for drugs and precursor chemicals.

    The integrity of a province should be judged by several measurable criteria, not solely upon the capacity to persuade farmers to quit growing opium, because the farmers are the weakest and most vulnerable link in the drug chain.

    One way to counter opium cultivation is to destroy the internal market for it. This means taking out the traffickers and the labs.

    Creating a well-publicized program of lucrative rewards or bounties for the capture of mid- to top-level drug traffickers could disrupt their operations and push some of them into hiding. It would make them viable targets for anyone in need of cash, which in Afghanistan, includes just about everyone.

    Additional rewards should be offered for information leading to the seizure or destruction of heroin labs, precursor chemicals, opium warehouses, and drug shipments.

    Taking out heroin processing labs will help curtail the market for opium. Last year, the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan destroyed several hundred heroin labs, but a laboratory is just a heating source, a tub, and a few barrels of chemicals. The problem is that there are still countless small labs operating in Afghanistan.

    Several narcotics analysts have said that military and police operations should work together to destroy labs and that if a ground operation is impractical, due to terrain or security issues, then air or missile strikes should be used to destroy the labs.

    ISAF does not want to get involved in opium eradication or the drug war for fear of alienating Afghan civilians. But the insurgency is funded by narcotics. Eliminating heroin labs, precursor chemicals, and drugs is a preventive measure that diminishes the capacity of the Taliban to fund their operations and pay for soldiers, weapons, and supplies.

    Afghanistan and other states stricken by drugs can strike back at traffickers by arresting and extraditing their top leaders to the United States or other countries where the drug kingpin's power and influence are negated. Criminals around the world fear extradition, and it's an essential tool in breaking up drug networks and criminal organizations.

    Another effective tool to counter drug traffickers is participation in multinational counter-narcotics conferences and organizations. One such program is Operation Containment, initiated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to facilitate regional cooperation and information among 19 countries impacted by the Afghan drug trade.

    In addition to disrupting distribution networks and money laundering operations, it's designed to seize precursor chemicals and drug shipments. This program has taken down a number of high-level drug traffickers.

    Narcotics trafficking and the insurgency feed off of each other. It is impossible to address or defeat one, without containing the other. It would be beneficial if military, police, governance, reconstruction, and humanitarian efforts worked together within a flexible grid to address the respective needs at provincial and district level.

    There is no set formula for success. Each province must be analyzed individually to assess security issues and humanitarian concerns so that the proper blend of resources can be allocated to ensure the long term objectives of stability and governance.

    The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's "Winter Afghan Opium Report," which came out in February, notes that a massive quantity of opium is being stockpiled for future sales. Even if the entire 2008 Afghan opium crop is eradicated, heroin labs will remain busy unless opium warehouses are located and destroyed.

    To address the multifaceted role that opium cultivation plays within individual households and communities requires a comprehensive understanding of Afghan culture, economy, history, and mindset.

    It also requires a long-term commitment from the highest levels of regional and international governmental and nongovernmental agencies to address the economic and political realities the government of Afghanistan is dealing with.

    Realistically, it is going to take many years to eradicate drugs and change the opium-based economy under the current environment. Some of the concerns are being addressed, but the key to everything is security. Al-Qaida is an annoyance, but it's the Taliban who are the real threat to Afghanistan and the region.

    Professor James Emery is an anthropologist and journalist who has reported on regional conflicts and the drug trade for over 20 years, including five years overseas. He's made several trips into Afghanistan, Myanmar, and other drug-producing and transit countries. Professor Emery lectures on Afghan and Arab culture and the use of applied anthropology in the occupation of Afghanistan, global terrorism, and the war on drugs.


    Part I - Afghanistan's opium dilemma

    Part II - The Taliban opium connection

    Part III - Afghan opium – The farmer's perspective

    Part IV - Afghan drugs and regional addiction rates

    Part V - Afghanistan's myriad drug smuggling routes

    Part VI - Converting Afghan opium into heroin

    Part VII - Winning the Afghan opium war

    Part VIII - Delivering the fatal blow to Afghan opium

    Share This Article


  1. Heretic.Ape.
    Great posting. Thanks.
  2. dyingtomorrow
    I hope the day comes when this destructive and arbitrary war against opiates is ended, and we return to the natural living condition of civilized humans for the past 7,000 plus years - using opium if we want to.
  3. majestic
    well said
To make a comment simply sign up and become a member!