UN Says Afghanistan Under Threat From Drugs, Insurgency
Presenting his annual report in Brussels today, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said Afghanistan now produced more narcotics than any other country since the 19th century, when China held that dubious distinction.
One hundred and ninety-three thousand hectares of opium poppies were cultivated this year, and the resultant crop is estimated by the United Nations drugs office at a record 8,200 tons. That's one-third higher than last year. The drug-based economy is half the size of the country's official gross domestic product.
Costa said his data showed the drugs trade was now inextricably intertwined with the Taliban insurgency in the south of the country.
"I would say that now we are reaching rock bottom, in [a] sense, with this understanding of the drug situation in Afghanistan as being fundamentally today a problem of insurgency," he said. "[The fact that] 78 percent of the cultivation [is] located in the provinces which are out[-side] of the control of the government shows clearly that we are not facing a narcotics problem, we are facing an insurgency problem."
Costa was speaking on the sidelines of a high-level international conference in Brussels where European and UN officials debated the problem. Afghanistan was represented by Second Vice President Karim Khalili.
The nexus of drugs and insurgency has become something of a hot potato. Afghan President Hamid Karzai caused consternation in Western capitals when he criticized NATO for being unable to rein in the rampant poppy production in Helmand and neighboring provinces. Britain, Canada, and other NATO countries have taken heavy casualties this year and have appeared reluctant to antagonize the local population further by getting involved in fighting poppy cultivation. Many NATO countries are under intense domestic pressure to leave Afghanistan.
Costa today showed a map, compiled with the help of local governors, showing large areas of southern Afghanistan that he said were outside Afghan government -- or NATO -- control:
"Those are districts in the five provinces which are under permanent Taliban control -- which means [a] permanent Taliban [presence]," he said. "Having asked the governors of these five provinces what happens and what it means when the government lost control, they told me they had withdrawn the police from those districts, [along with] any judicial presence, any educational presence, or any health presence. The judicial system being in force in these districts of these provinces is [one laid out on] Islamic principles by the Taliban themselves."
Helmand Province is at the root of the problem, accounting for more than half of the country's opium production. Neighboring Kandahar, Oruzgan, Farah, and Nimroz are the other lawless provinces that Costa mentioned where production is highest.
Costa also said 87 percent of the estimated 500,000 families involved in poppy cultivation were Pashtun. The Taliban is nearly exclusively a Pashtun movement.
Drugs Moving Freely
The report quotes surveys conducted among farmers. Their results suggest that poverty and hopes of financial gain are the main motivators for farmers who took up poppy growing.
Fear of eradication was cited by less than 1 percent of the farmers who had stopped growing poppy. More than half said they quit out of respect for the government ban or edicts issued by local elders. More than a quarter of those farmers who have not cultivated poppy say they do not do it because it is seen as un-Islamic. Yet a mere 1 percent of those who had given up poppy farming cited Islam as a reason.
Costa today suggested that the government was losing the fight against drugs on more fronts than the southern provinces. He said that for the first time since 2004, domestic opium prices were again converging across the country, indicating drug shipments can move around freely. Opium costs the same in the south and the 13 northern provinces where poppy is no longer cultivated.
Symbolic of the government's slackening control over the situation is a nearly 1,200 percent increase in poppy cultivation around the capital Kabul, admittedly from a very low base.
Costa said the Afghan government's eradication drive had been "ineffective and corruption-prone."
Afghanistan's ambassador at the United Nations, Zahir Tanin, today ruled out more aggressive measures such as aerial spraying.
"We don't want any measures towards eradication [to] alienate the farmers, alienate more than 3 million people who are part of this business," he said. "And this is why there is hesitation in the government to balance [or] to weigh up its acts in implementing the counternarcotics strategy."
Tanin said preserving stability in the country remained the government's first priority.
Tanin also lay some of the blame on European governments, in whose countries most of the heroin processed from Afghan opium ends up and whose consumption creates most of the demand for the drug.
Afghanistan: Karzai's Corruption Comments Could Lead To Cabinet Shakeup
A businessman ordering a truckload of electronics from Pakistan is told by customs officials that he must give them money under the table to avoid excessive customs duties.
A farmer is confronted by a local militia commander, with ties to a parliament deputy, and told that he must pay for "protection" or his crops will be destroyed.
Afghan citizens have been complaining for years about corruption at all levels of government, saying nothing can be done without paying bribes to officials.
This week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeared to take action, criticizing members of his cabinet and deputies in parliament for corruption. He said the problem is so widespread that it is setting back the reconstruction of the country.
But the Afghan president's comments may have deeper political implications. Political insiders have told RFE/RL that changes to Karzai's cabinet could be imminent.
Speaking on November 13 at a conference on rural development, Karzai said, "All politicians in this system have acquired everything -- money, lots of money. God knows, it is beyond the limit. The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen," Karzai said.
"The luxurious houses [built in Afghanistan in the past five years] belong to members of the government and parliament, not only in Kabul, but here and there. Every one of them have three or four houses in different countries."
Although Karzai did not mention any officials by name, he suggested that corruption is particularly rife among those officials who had fled the country -- or who had received support during the last three decades from neighboring Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.
"With the support of the world community -- money, aircraft, and their soldiers -- and with the full sympathy of the Afghan people, the Afghan politicians were able to return to their country," Karzai said. "Unfortunately, I see now that they did not learn the lessons of the past. They should know that the Afghan people will rise against us [if corruption continues.] And this time, there will be no place [abroad] for us to flee."
In corruption watchdog Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, Afghanistan ranked 172nd in the world, with a score of 1.8. The index scores range from 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (highly clean).
Possible Cabinet Reshuffle
Political analysts -- including government advisers in Kabul -- tell RFE/RL that Karzai's remarks appear to be a reaction to criticisms made earlier this week by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Khalilzad, who formerly worked as the U.S. ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, has suggested that Karzai should make changes to his "working team" -- which includes some of Karzai's political opponents as well as his allies.
Speaking on November 12 to Afghan and U.S. businesspeople at a conference in Washington, Khalilzad said the United States is concerned about some of the activities of Karzai's political opponents. He said those forces have contributed to corruption, a lack of security, and a daily increase in political competition and rivalry within Afghanistan.
Khalilzad made similar criticisms last month in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, saying that the major barriers to reconstruction in Afghanistan are corruption and a lack of cooperation between authorities responsible for rebuilding the country.
Wadir Safi, a professor of political science at Kabul University, says the issue of fighting corruption could show how much real power Karzai exercises in Afghanistan.
"It has yet to be seen whether he is able to bring about these kinds of changes -- or if he is able to confront all of those powers that he mentioned," Safi says. "These are not just problems that appeared yesterday. During the last three years, Karzai frequently has been told about the problems of corruption, bribery, and increasing insecurity. But he has done nothing -- as if he was deaf."
In the end, Safi says, Karzai's remarks suggest that the Afghan president is likely to introduce major changes to his cabinet in the near future.
"[Karzai's domestic political position] is very weak. If he doesn't bring changes after this speech, I don't think he will be able to keep his position as president. He must bring about broad and sweeping change to all areas -- to every field -- from top to bottom," Safi says.
Some lawmakers believe that Karzai has no choice but to act now. Mohammad Babur Nafirzada, a member of the Afghan parliament from the northwestern province of Faryab, tells RFE/RL that Karzai's remarks on corruption mean he must either sack some of his government ministers or introduce new reforms.
"President Karzai has acknowledged the presence of corruption inside his government. If he wants reforms in Afghanistan, he must do something after making such a speech. He must do something himself to bring about reforms," Nafirzada says.
Previous anticorruption efforts have achieved little. In March 2004, faced with numerous complaints about corruption and extortion among the Afghan police, the judicial system, public utilities, and even the national airline -- Karzai established an anticorruption department in his administration.
But the head of that department, Ezatullah Wasifi, has been heavily criticized for doing little to control the graft rampant throughout the country.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
Afghanistan/Pakistan: UN Report Says Suicide Bombers Get Support In Both Countries
Until recently, however, little publicly available research has been conducted to understand or explain the way suicide bombings have been proliferating in Afghanistan since 2005.
But a recent report by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) suggests that people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are in a state of denial about the problem.
"The important big picture is that Afghans like to tell you that [suicide attacks] are a Pakistani phenomenon. Pakistan has been long saying that this not just [Pakistan]. And this is exactly what the report said," says Christine Fair, the coordinator and main author of the UN report.
"There certainly is a Pakistani component, and it is a very important component," she adds. "But even if Pakistan went away, you'd still have a largely Afghan-driven insurgency. Obviously, Pakistan has an impact upon that. But taking away Pakistan, the insurgency doesn't go away."
Fair says suicide bombings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas appear to be a cross-border phenomenon. And she says the problem is not going to be resolved as long as Afghan and Pakistani officials keep assigning the blame to each other.
"The report was the first [report] to actually say that this is truly a problem where the solution resides in both Afghanistan as well as Pakistan," Fair says. "The Pakistanis were apparently outraged by the report, with the argument that [it] overestimates the Pakistani involvement. I was rather shocked by that, because, from my point of view, the report's useful intervention was that it actually drove home to Afghans that they have to stop putting the blame for this squarely on Pakistan's shoulders -- because, clearly, Afghans have got issues which need to be fixed domestically as well."
The tactic was rarely seen in Afghanistan until 2005. Since then, suicide attacks have become increasingly common in Afghanistan, running at a rate of about three to four per week.
Debunking Myths About Afghan Role
The report is based upon several types of data. Fair first used a UN database that provided reliable information about the locations of suicide bombings and the number of people killed. She also was given access and allowed to interview 25 would-be suicide bombers who had failed or refused to carry out attacks they had been trained for. All of those would-be bombers were Afghans who, with few exceptions, had spent time in Pakistan. Fair also was allowed to interview Afghan police and intelligence officers about how they had reached their official conclusions about the backgrounds of suicide bombers.
The report notes that suicide attacks were very rare in Afghanistan until 2005 but have become increasingly commonplace since then. It says the increase in suicide attacks may suggest that more attackers and explosive materials are readily available, that planning takes place continuously, or that a series of attacks are planned where local coordinators have the power within a "mission command" structure to order attacks when they are prepared. But Fair stresses that Afghan authorities must start admitting to their own people that the majority of the suicide attacks in Afghanistan are carried out with help from Afghans.
"As we all know, there is Pakistani involvement," she says. "There is recruitment across the border in the tribal areas, and madrasahs pre-figure prominently. We all know this. There is nothing to debate on this issue. But there is a larger point that most Afghans are not familiar with: there are Afghans who are involved, not only in the capacity of suicide attackers, but they are also involved obviously in safe houses. They are obviously involved in the production of bombs. They are involved in getting bombers to targets. At every point in the provision of suicide attacks, an Afghan is necessary. This is [a finding] that the Afghans need to embrace and they need to deal with."
Significantly, Fair says the report contradicts some media reports and assessments that expertise from insurgents in Iraq is being imported directly into Afghanistan by Taliban-linked militants. "There is all this speculation that these guys are learning lessons from Iraq. We don't see any evidence for it. It differs hugely," Fair says.
"We are not seeing the technical innovation that is often talked about in the media," she continues. "The bombs are not getting any better. Afghan [militants] are continuing to use what has worked for them. We just do not see any evidence that this is an Iraqi phenomenon imported to Afghanistan."
Fair adds that the "best parallel is actually across the border in Pakistan. At about the same time that suicide bombing was being developed and deployed against security forces in Afghanistan, it was also being developed and deployed in Pakistan along the tribal area. And suicide bombing was being used in Pakistan long before it came to be used in Iraq."
Fair says one of the most frustrating aspects of her work in Afghanistan on the report was to discover how quick Afghan police and security officials are to announce after a suicide attack that the bomber was a foreigner. Fair questioned those Afghan authorities about many suicide bombings and says she discovered that the backgrounds of most suicide bombers in Afghanistan are not adequately investigated.
"I was told repeatedly that these attackers are not Afghans -- that they are Pakistanis, 18 to 24 years old, from [the] Waziristan [tribal areas of Pakistan]," Fair says. "And I would repeatedly ask how [they had reached such a conclusion.] And they -- be it a chief of police or be it an [officer in Afghanistan's] National Directorate for Security -- would repeatedly tell me they knew this because 'the [bomber's] feet survived and the feet are brown. Our feet aren't as brown as this. These are clearly Pakistani.' Or similar claims would advanced about remains of the head.
"None of these people are forensic anthropologists. There is absolutely no way you can distinguish an Afghan foot from a Pakistani foot. This is called wishful thinking. So until the Afghans really take seriously the investigations into these attackers, as do other countries that confront suicide bombings, this facilitates the collective imagination [among Afghans] that these [suicide bombers] are all Pakistanis."
Fair says Afghan suicide bombers often appear to be less educated and poorer than suicide bombers elsewhere in the world. She says there is only anecdotal evidence about this, because of the failure of Afghan authorities to adequately investigate the background of suicide bombers. But she says evidence also suggests that many Afghans recruited as suicide attackers tend to be social rejects -- people who are mentally ill, alcoholics, or even drug addicts -- who see a suicide attack as a way to redeem themselves and restore honor to their family.
But Fair concludes that the lack of video wills by Afghanistan's suicide bombers suggests that ordinary Afghans are still not willing to glorify suicide bombers as martyrs.