Afghan opium resurgence and us

Decline in opium production isn't due to any eradication programme, but due to a fungus which began wiping out poppies

Syed Mohammad Ali March 24, 2016
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne and is the author of Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

Since 9/11, the lingering turmoil in Afghanistan has led to a steady growth in opium production, and now our neighbouring country has become the largest supplier of illegal opium in the world. Massive amounts of this opium is also being refined into heroin, fueling an illegal trade that worsens prospects of stability within the country, and has major consequences for grappling with the heroin pandemic across the world. Given its proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan also cannot shield itself from implications of this hydra-headed opiate resurgence.

It is ironic that the year (2014) in which NATO’s mission officially ended in Afghanistan, the UN estimated a record opium harvest in the country, which was estimated to comprise 90 per cent of the world’s illicit opiate supplies. Despite over a dozen years of international experts and development agencies spending billions of dollars trying to build the Afghan economy, it was opiates which proved to be Afghanistan’s biggest exports in 2014. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated the value of illegal opiate trade to be around $2.8 billion, nearly 13 per cent of the country’s entire GDP. While opium production fell somewhat in 2015, this decline was not the result of any effective eradication programme. Rather, the noted decline was due to a fungus which, in recent years, has begun wiping out more poppies than any eradication efforts, even fueling suspicions that Western countries have unleashed a clandestine biological attack on the crop. However, the UNODC estimates that opium production will probably increase again in the current year.

While drug eradication or economic uplift of Afghanistan always took a back seat to achieving security-related goals under NATO intervention, the US and other countries have invested billions of dollars in programmes aimed at eradicating opium poppies and coaxing farmers into growing different crops. Yet, this investment has been proven worthwhile, given that the weather conditions, soil quality and lack of agricultural inputs make opium production a much more feasible choice for poor farmers, who can also make much more money from growing opium than they can growing conventional crops. The inability of the US and other international aid agencies to create sufficient and more feasible options, including off-farm employment for the rural poor, thus compels poor farmers to continue growing opium in ever larger numbers.

It is, however, not poor Afghan farmers who are reaping the real dividends from harvesting this deadly crop. The Taliban have begun increasing on the opium trade to fund its insurgency. Moreover, Afghan officials at every level of government, ranging from police officials to politicians, are also reportedly getting rich due to the opium trade.

In the current scenario, the Afghan and US governments have now mostly given up on trying to eradicate opium production or to encourage crop substitution in major opium cultivating provinces like Helmand, where the Taliban have made increasing inroads in recent months.

While not a big opium producer itself, Pakistan is considered the major destination as well as transit point for opiate flows out of Afghanistan since decades. While heroin use became a major problem in Pakistan back in the 1980s, the ongoing surge in the Afghan drug trade has led to an alarming spike in heroin users across Pakistan. Also, a significant proportion of drugs produced in Afghanistan are reported to be smuggled to other countries via Balochistan’s coastal areas.

Pakistan is also a known transshipment point for precursor chemicals used in the production of drugs such as heroin, including acetic anhydride, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Yet, there have been no significant seizures of acetic anhydride reported in Pakistan. Clamping down on precursor chemicals going to Afghanistan through Pakistan could make a significant dent in the heroin production process, which would be good for our country, for Afghanistan, as well as the rest of the world, where numerous families have incurred much suffering and pain due to the growing availability of this lethal drug.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 25th, 2016.

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