How narcotics provided oxygen to the Afghan insurgency

The heroin from Afghanistan also made its way to Indian Kashmir, where the police caught Pakistani-trained militants carrying the drug

M.R. Narayan Swamy Aug 22, 2021
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The Nexus: International Terrorism and Drug Trafficking from Afghanistan; Author Frank Shanty:

The Taliban, which has seized power in Kabul thanks to a hasty US military pullout, has grown from strength to strength despite losing power a decade ago, partly because of a close relationship it has enjoyed with the country’s booming narcotics trade.

Collaborators in the nefarious business are allied insurgent groups, warlords, the former Northern Alliance, international criminal gangs, and Pakistan’s deep state. Unless Afghanistan shows a dramatic economic revival as the Taliban starts governing, narcotics will continue to cast a long shadow, posing major challenges to other countries in the region, India included.

Frank Shanty, director of a terrorism and counter-terrorism research firm in the United States, underlines a strong link between terrorism and the Afghan narcotics trade, whose value runs into roughly USD 2.7 to 3 billion.

Beginning of Afghanistan’s drug trade

Until 1989, Pakistan accounted for an estimated 70 percent of the world’s heroin supply. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed the scenario. As carpet bombing by the Soviet Air Force destroyed rural Afghanistan, impoverished farmers were forced to cultivate the easy-growing poppy, marking the country’s marriage with heroin.

Opium was the ideal crop that had the potential to provide the quickest and most profitable return for farmers and itinerant workers. In no time, an opium-based economy began to take shape in Afghanistan. The land area covered by poppy soared from 29,000 hectares in 1986 to 104,000 hectares in 2005, a whopping 260 percent increase.

Despite the Islamic revolution and Tehran’s efforts to curb the drugs trade, heroin was smuggled from Afghanistan to Iran. By 1986, a Pakistani narcotics control officer estimated that 12 of Afghanistan’s 29 provinces produced opium. Pakistani military vehicles frequently transported opium, thanks to passes issued by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which coordinated the anti-Soviet war by the mujahideen.

The Taliban’s involvement in the trade was a closely held secret during the anti-Soviet war, says Shanty. By 1986, the US State Department admitted that Afghanistan was probably the world’s largest producer of opium. But the CIA turned a blind eye so as not to upset the insurgents it was backing.

Although the Taliban’s ban on opium cultivation when it took power did have considerable success, the trafficking in opium and its derivatives continued. Once the US-led coalition ousted the Taliban, triggering a civil war, opium poppy cultivation spread throughout the country. In time, processing facilities came up to convert almost 60 percent of all poppies into morphine and heroin for the global market.  The Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – both their criminal gangs and corrupt officials – became a key part of the clandestine trade, given the potential for huge and easy profits.

Taliban opium policy u-turn

Once the Taliban escalated insurgency during the US deployment, it made a U-turn in its opium policy. Its fighters began to encourage farmers to grow poppy and facilitated its conversion into heroin and eventually smuggling out of the country, taxing everyone in the long chain. The Taliban even issued receipts for revenues collected from poppy farmers.

The warlords allied with both Kabul and the US-led coalition were themselves into the drug business; so were the corrupt elements in the Afghan Interior Ministry and police. The farmers became more and more beholden to the Taliban for protecting their poppy farms – their source of livelihood. It was no coincidence that the two provinces which became the main poppy-producing hubs were also the Taliban’s strongholds: Helmand in the south and Nangarhar in the east.

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed opium production to 3,200 tonnes in 2001. This went up to 3,400 tonnes in 2002 and 6,100 tonnes in 2006. The opium economy became well-entrenched and all-pervasive.

While the majority of heroin produced in Afghanistan is exported to Europe and Russia, Afghan opiates also go to Africa, Australia, Canada, China and the US. Crackdown on poppy farmers almost ended; the judicial system in the country was in any way in a bad shape; judges earned just about USD 100 a month – a fraction of what those involved in the narcotics trade made.

Most experts admitted there was no evidence that Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda outfit was directly involved in the drug trade although some held a contrary view. Captured Al Qaeda fighters told interrogators that their leadership did not trust those in the business and forbade them from having links with them. Trafficking would unnecessarily expose Al Qaeda operatives to risks of detention or arrest. In any case, Al Qaeda’s primary funding came from wealthy Saudis and Arabs. This of course didn’t mean that rogue elements from the group were not into drugs.

Pakistan’s involvement

Shanty says members of the Pakistani military and ISI have been involved in the dirty trade. A CIA report is quoted as saying that drug corruption had permeated virtually all segments of Pakistan’s key institutions of power. The heroin from Afghanistan also made its way to Indian Kashmir, where the police caught Pakistani-trained militants carrying the drug. Pakistan has also used the drug trade to “finance insurgent efforts against the Indian government.”

Pakistan, the author says, presents a very serious threat to the US and global security. “We need to get smarter on how to manage this growing problem… In Pakistan, elements of the ISI and possibly senior civilian officials are providing various levels of support to groups they view as critical components in their policy towards India and Afghanistan.”

 (The Nexus: International Terrorism and Drug Trafficking from Afghanistan; Author Frank Shanty: Publishers Pentagon Press; Pages 289; Price Rs 995)

 (The reviewer is a New Delhi-based veteran journalist who writes on diplomacy and politics. He can be contacted at ranjini17@hotmail.com)