Afghanistan has become the world's leading exporter of opium, creating a flood of drugs moving through neighboring countries to Western markets. In the first part of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel and regional specialist William Samii look at the impact of the opium business on Afghanistan and new international efforts to contain it.
Prague, 20 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The growing of opium poppies -- the raw material for heroin -- is Afghanistan's biggest business.
Every year, more and more of the country's land is given over to poppy cultivation. UN drug control officials say that sometimes more and sometimes less of the crop is produced, but that depends only on the weather. The one certainty is that the flowers keep spreading -- covering 90,000 hectares by recent count, or 2.3 percent of all of Afghanistan.
Sando Tucci, spokesman for the UN Drug Control Program in Vienna, says that rural Afghanistan is economically reorienting itself around this single crop.
"The country has been in a situation of war forever, and one of the consequences is that there is no rural credit available because the infrastructure for rural credit is non-existent. So what does a farmer have to do in order to cultivate his piece of land outside his house? He has to go to somebody who gives him credit to buy fertilizer, to buy seeds, and to sustain his livelihood for the seven months until he gets to his harvest. Where does he go? He goes to an opium trader. The opium trader, who is simply a merchant, gives him credit at very tough conditions and buys his harvest once he harvests."
The merchant sells the harvest to syndicates, which partially refine it into opium, morphine base or poorly refined heroin and smuggle it across Afghanistan's borders, earning incomes other Afghans can only dream of.
UN drug experts estimate the opium trade supports 1.4 million Afghans as it earns some $69 million a year. The vast majority of the cultivation -- 96 percent -- is in areas controlled by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia. The Taliban taxes poppy cultivation and bans Afghans from consuming opium or heroin. But the Taliban has said nothing regarding the export of the drugs, and many experts believe it and other militias profit from the trade directly. They use the profits to buy weapons to pursue Afghanistan's now more than 20-year-long civil war.
For years, the UN Drug Control Program has tried to work with the Taliban in sponsoring projects to develop crop alternatives for Afghan farmers. But tensions between Kabul and the UN have bedeviled efforts to expand the efforts. UN member states -- at odds with the Taliban over its attitudes toward gender equality, human rights and drug trafficking -- have not provided the needed funding. Foreign UN experts today only fly into Afghanistan on brief visits for fear of their own security.
As opium poppies continue to inexorably spread over Afghanistan, the UN has shifted its focus over the last year from trying to contain poppy cultivation to trying to contain Afghanistan as a country devoted to exporting drugs.
Tucci says the UN Drug Control Program's goal now is to build what he calls a security belt around Afghanistan by strengthening the borders of the neighboring states through which most of the drugs are smuggled. Tucci:
"Frustrated with the fact that the Afghanis did not seem to respond to our requests and objectively considering that the money which would have been available for a complex, alternative development project in Afghanistan did not seem to be forthcoming, the [UN] organization thought that the next best thing to do was to try to reinforce the borders. That means mainly to reinforce the part of the border which goes from the southern part of Iran up to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan."
Containing Afghanistan's borders is intended -- as some UN experts say privately -- to leave the Taliban to drown in its own opium. The country produced some 4,600 tons of opium last year, more than twice the yield in 1998, and now produces three times more opium than all other areas of the world combined. Most of the opium moves to markets in the Arab Gulf states and Europe, while the rest fuels growing addict populations in Iran, Central Asia and Pakistan.
Tucci says that the Drug Control Program's new emphasis seeks to bring the political weight of the UN to bear on donor states, to provide funding for strengthening efforts by so-called frontline states --those that border Afghanistan -- to crack down on drug smuggling. Tucci:
"In Iran, we have been actively engaged in supporting the country and in mobilizing intervention from donor countries, particularly the European Union. Iran is making a tremendous effort to deal with the drug problem ... they have lost a lot of people [in battles with smugglers], they have spent a lot of money, they went through enormous problems of building obstacles to the traffickers who are coming from the north-western part of Pakistan or directly from Afghanistan."
"In Turkmenistan, we are now discussing with the government possible intervention to strengthen their drug control capability. In Tajikistan, we have gone a bit further: We have proposed and we are now in the process of assisting the setting up of a national drug control agency which reports directly to the president and [which] under the -- for a change -- honest leadership of Colonel Rustam Nazarov is doing its best to try to improve on seizures and to try to close the border traffic between Afghanistan and Tajikistan."
He says the effort considers Uzbekistan not as a frontline state but as a second chance to stop drugs moving further from Tajikistan. Tucci:
"Uzbekistan is a bit of a second stop, in the sense that they are not a frontline state. They are frontline with Tajikistan. We are also cooperating with Uzbekistan ... and we are actively working with their authorities to try to make the borders in general as little porous as possible."
Tucci predicts that Central Asia will be the next big growth area in terms of drug smuggling from Afghanistan because drugrunners increasingly see Central Asian borders as posing less challenges than Iran's. He says that as Tehran wages a vigorous battle to contain smuggling, Afghanistan's syndicates are shifting from the southern route westward to Europe via Iran to the northern route via Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
That flexibility to change routes makes it certain that efforts to contain the flood of drugs from Afghanistan will be a long and uphill battle with no certainty of success. UN experts estimate that, on the average, drug officials succeed in confiscating only some 15 percent of the smuggled drugs, leaving ample financial reason for Afghanistan to remain the world's leading opium producer for years to come.
(The second part of the series looks at the impact of the Afghan opium smuggling on Iran.)