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Analysis: Afghanistan And Iran Confront Their Drug Problem

By Bill Samii and Amin Tarzi

The international community will mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse on 26 June. Global opium cultivation is down, but increased cultivation in Afghanistan and higher opium yields led to a 5 percent increase in illicit global opium production between 2002 and 2003. Indeed, Afghanistan leads the world in opium production, and Iran leads the world in seizures of opiates, according to the "World Drug Report 2004" released on 25 June ( Therefore, the fate of the world heroin market depends on events in Southwest Asia.

Since the collapse of the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan has improved in almost every aspect except in the area of stemming opium poppy cultivation. Initially the Taliban used the income from opium to finance its regime and production rose steadily from 1996, peaking in 1999 to an estimated 4,600 tons. By 2000, Afghanistan was responsible for 70 percent of the global production of illegal opium. But in July of that year, having been hounded by the international community, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a decree banning opium cultivation in the country but not its trade (likely a gesture to gain international recognition for the Taliban regime). According to the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP), opium production in Afghanistan was reduced greatly following the ban from 3,300 tons in 2000 to just 185 tons the following year.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the creation of the Afghan Interim Administration, Chairman Hamid Karzai in January 2000 banned both the cultivation and trade of opium poppies in the country. However, with the central authority's influence being limited to Kabul and a few main cities and the international military forces concentrating on the war on terrorism, drug dealers and their supporters found a good opportunity to exploit the situation.

According to UN estimates, Afghan farmers produced 3,400 tons of opium in 2002 compared to 185 tons the preceding year -- an alarming increase. The numbers have continued to worsen. In 2003, a year in which three-quarters of the global opium supply originated in Afghanistan, production increased by another 6 percent to 3,600 tons. It is projected that cultivation will increase yet again in 2004. The UN's most recent report asserts that the potential farmgate value of global opium production in 2003 is about $1.2 billion; more than 85 percent of this output was made in Afghanistan. It is estimated that 7 percent of the Afghan population -- 1.7 million people -- is directly involved in opium production. More than two-thirds of the farmers told the UN that they intend to increase poppy cultivation.

Also worrisome is the fact that opium cultivation has been introduced to regions of Afghanistan that traditionally have not grown the crop and an increasing number of Afghans are becoming addicted to heroin -- a fact that has translated into an increase in HIV cases in the country through the sharing of needles. The officially AIDS-free Afghanistan recently announced the first case of death from the disease.

UNODCCP Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa warned recently that the international community faces critical decisions, adding that if counternarcotics commitments to Afghanistan are not translated into lower levels of opium production, there is a "risk of [the] opium economy undermining all that has been achieved in creating a democratic modern Afghanistan." Costa also warned the International Conference on Counternarcotics, held in Kabul from 8-10 February, that "fighting drug trafficking equals fighting terrorism."

Costa then asked for the resources to increase the number of operations against drug laboratories and that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) also be involved in combating drugs in Afghanistan. However, NATO has so far been reluctant to commit itself to tackling this issue. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently stated that counternarcotics operations were not the main responsibility of the NATO-led international force. In November 2003, outgoing NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said the alliance was "going to Afghanistan because" it did not want Afghanistan to come to Europe, "whether it be in terms of terrorism or drugs." It seems that once NATO actually went to Afghanistan, Robertson's message was lost in the political shuffle, giving the drug dealers and various warlords in Afghanistan the upper hand in this dangerous game.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno said last week that his country is planning to be more aggressive in an effort to curb opium poppy cultivation in the country, but conceded that U.S. troops will not actively destroy the crops, Reuters reported on 17 June. Barno cited a "finite force" whose "primary focus continues to be counterterrorist operations."

International forces and local authorities have an immense challenge ahead of them: to stop the cultivation of opium poppies, to stop the trafficking of drugs, and to destroy the laboratories that process the opium into heroin.

Indeed, the level of international involvement in dealing with Afghan narcotics is a major Iranian grievance. Iran does not, furthermore, believe that its counternarcotics activities get sufficient attention or credit from the West, the ultimate destination of most opiates originating in Afghanistan. In a 1 June meeting with a visiting Kuwaiti official, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said Iran cannot afford to wait for Western help, IRNA reported. He complained about the extent of opium cultivation in Afghanistan despite the presence of military personnel from Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Iran leads the international community in intercepting the opium, morphine, and heroin that originate in Afghanistan, according to the UN ( Tehran reports that approximately 2 million people in the country abuse drugs. Poor relations with the Taliban regime meant that Iran made little headway in persuading its eastern neighbor to curtail opium production. It therefore relied mainly on interdiction efforts.

Relations with Kabul now are friendly and Tehran is involved with the promotion of crop substitution plans. Iranian Deputy Agriculture Jihad Minister Gholamreza Sahrain visited the Afghan capital on 12 June to discuss these activities, IRNA reported. In a meeting with Agriculture and Livestock Minister Seyyed Hussein Anwari, the Iranian official noted that so far Tehran has provided $10 million in aid for opium eradication.

Iran is also working closely with other states that neighbor Afghanistan in an effort to create a "security belt" that will stop the narcotics shipments. In late May and early June, Ali Hashemi, head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters (DCHQ), visited Uzbekistan. He met with his Uzbek counterpart, Kamal Dustemov, on 1 June and they discussed the necessity of regional states closing ranks in the drug control campaign, IRNA reported. The two officials expressed the belief that peace and stability in Afghanistan would be matched with reduced narcotics production. In the following days, Hashemi met with Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov and Public Health Minister Feruz Nazirov.

In the latter meeting, Hashemi noted that there are 350 centers in Iran that treat drug addicts. Treatment and demand-reduction are receiving more and more attention in Iran. Citing a figure of 214 billion rials (about $27 million), Hashemi said in Tehran on 26 May that more than 36 percent of the country's drug control budget is allocated for prevention programs, IRNA reported. This money will go to education for young people, cultural centers, mosques, and other nongovernmental organizations. A total of 600 billion rials (about $76 million), he said, will be used for prevention and interdiction.

Hashemi's earlier comments about the success rate in treating drug addicts were not very encouraging. He said at a 12 May meeting of the drug control planning department in Rasht that 10-15 percent of the addicts are treated successfully. He added that 200,000 people in Iran are addicted to heroin and 64,000 are infected with AIDS.

Unless the Iranian government can provide the professional and social opportunities that will discourage people from abusing drugs, the addiction and HIV infection figures will probably worsen. And until opium cultivation in Afghanistan is eliminated, Iran will continue to be a consumer of these products.