Afghanistan’s Highway to Hell

February 12th, 2007 - by admin

Syed Saleem Shahzad / Asia Times Online – 2007-02-12 23:35:08

]KABUL (February 1, 2007) — Western officials involved in counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan estimate that this year the country will produce its biggest poppy crop in history.

Nevertheless, Taliban-dominated Helmand province, which contributes a major chunk in poppy cultivation, houses drug-processing labs and serves as a main route for trafficking and transportation, will be largely spared anti-narcotics operations.

In Helmand, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be preoccupied with an expected major Taliban offensive come spring, rather than with drug-eradication programs.

The United Nations estimates that Afghanistan’s opium production jumped by nearly 50% in 2006 to a record 6,100 tonnes to supply more than 90% of the world’s heroin. About a third of the country’s economy was based on opium last year. Of the 164,700 hectares of poppies that were cultivated in 2006, 70,000 hectares were in Helmand province, according to UN figures.

Sitting in a heated room of the British task force’s base in Helmand near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, a British anti-narcotics officer spread a map detailing just what a drug heaven Helmand is.

“Undoubtedly, Afghanistan will produce its best bumper poppy crop ever this year, but there is no shortcut to control this monster,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

“At least, it will take three to five years for any significant reduction, given that development projects are launched and the people are provided alternative means of earning a livelihood and if the security situation is improved.”

The official added that one cannot expect any improvement in the poppy situation when security is such a problem and counter-narcotics teams cannot operate freely. “You need to understand that in Thailand it took 30 years to make counter-narcotics operations successful,” said the official.

The official said he believed that spraying is not an option as it can make people and animals ill.

His position was endorsed last week by President Hamid Karzai, who, despite months of US pressure, decided against using herbicides – in this case glyphosate – to spray heroin-producing poppies. A spokesman for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics said that this year the government will rely on “traditional techniques” such as sending people into fields to trample or plow opium poppies before they are harvested.

“Eradication is only possible by forcing people to eliminate the poppy and grow other crops,” the British official said. “We don’t offer any compensation for poppy elimination. In 2002, people were offered money to eliminate poppy, and it played havoc. All the money went into people’s pockets and they did not eliminate poppy cultivation.”

Flower power

Afghanistan has for many years been the world’s hub of poppy cultivation and the narcotics trade. When the US Central Intelligence Agency supported the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s, it turned a blind eye to – or even actively aided – drug money flowing into the resistance’s coffers.

Drug kingpins were born, often from Pakistani Pashtun areas, and their money helped shape the dynamics of Pakistan’s social, religious and political fabric – some were said to have become members of Parliament.

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they clamped down on poppy cultivation, at least in the early years before they were ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001. But now it is business as never before.

“Five kilograms of heroin is sold for US$90 in Helmand province, and the district of Sangeen is the main hub of narcotic-processing labs,” the British official said. He estimated that there are no fewer than 150 such laboratories in the area. About 10 tonnes of opium produces approximately a tonne of heroin.

“The finished produce of the Sangeen laboratories is sold on the British market for anywhere between $120 and $160 per gram,” the official said.

I put it to the official that the Taliban are not directly involved in the drug business, other than receiving “contributions” for providing protection to the growers and processors. The Taliban’s business is fighting occupation forces, I suggested.

“I don’t agree with you. It is correct that the Taliban don’t like poppy cultivation and the narcotics trade in principle, but it is impossible that narcotics could be traded without their consent, and we are even aware of some big names among the Taliban directly overseeing narcotics trade operations,” the official said.

The official was lost for a while in his own thoughts, and then spoke. “The international buyers sit at the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan [Gardi Jungle near Pakistan’s Balochistan province] and send local buyers to Lashkar Gah. A full-blown mafia operation runs this business, which includes the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army and the local administration. Their connivance goes all the way to assisting the local buyers to get the consignment of heroin to the Gramsir district.

“From Gramsir, the Taliban’s area starts and a new cartel then transports the consignment up to the Pak-Afghan border. From there they use many deserted coastal points in Balochistan to ship the consignments to the UAE, Europe and other international destinations. Nevertheless, from the Gramsir district nothing can pass through without the consent and connivance of the Taliban … it is impossible,” the official said.

“Some marijuana is smuggled into Iran and some of the heroin is also marketed in Pakistan,” the official added.

More than a handful

Helmand is the Taliban’s most strategic province, where it raises resources and exerts widespread influence over the population. The province also serves as access to western Afghanistan’s Tajik belt and to Pakistan’s lawless border areas to the south.

Within the province, Gramsir district is perhaps the only region in which British troops actively pursue targets (beside Gresikh, where there is limited patrolling and occasional operations). Operations in Gramsir are based on sketchy information-gathering that leads to air strikes.

Similarly, British forces do not know how to choke the drug routes, especially as from Lashkar Gah to Gramsir a cartel allegedly headed by the Taliban includes local police and army personnel.

The Afghan Eradication Force led by US and British forces simply does not have any idea how to tackle this unlikely joint venture between the Taliban and Afghan security forces and the local administration.

And critically, in Sangeen district, where most of the processing labs are located, the Taliban and the ISAF have agreed to a ceasefire, in effect allowing the Taliban to go about their business – whether military or otherwise – unimpeded.

Asadullah Wafa, the governor of Helmand, has been entrusted by the British to establish tribal councils to build bridges between the Taliban and his local Kabul-backed administration. Money will also be funneled into numerous reconstruction projects.

For Sangeen district, the governor has only recently started negotiations with tribal elders and clerics to form councils. Until these are in place – and it could take months – the ceasefire between the Taliban and foreign forces will stand.

Yet the Taliban’s planned mass uprising for spring is only a few months away, as is another lucrative bumper poppy crop that would provide the money to keep the uprising going for a long time.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at

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