The independent resource on global security

In Afghan fields

A 2007 raid of Bagcho's palatial headquarters on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan revealed ledgers indicating annual profits of $250 million for the sale and transport of 137 tons of heroin (20% of the global heroin supply) across 20 countries. These profits were then used to tighten Bagcho`s stronghold on the market by supporting and collaborating with powerful terrorist organizations in Central Asia, such as various factions of al Qaeda and the Taliban. 

Yet, despite the fact that Bogcho will serve out a life sentence in a US prison, heroin production in Afghanistan--and its subsequent trafficking through Central Asia to Russia and Europe—has been on the rise since his arrest in 2009.  A recent threat assessment put forth by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that, while Northern Afghanistan has become a largely `poppy-free´ zone, opium production has nearly doubled in the Southern regions between 2010 and 2011.  Furthermore, the poppy-free provinces of Northern Afghanistan have become drug-processing centers that specialize in turning opium into heroin in makeshift, mobile laboratories.  Thus a rather sophisticated system has developed, and continues to develop, in which opium is cultivated and produced in the South before being processed into heroin in the North, where it subsequently goes onto be trafficked through Central Asia.  Similar systems have been set up within Afghanistan for trafficking East through Karachi and West through Iran.

However, it is the general health and livelihood of the people of Central Asia that is suffering perhaps the biggest blowback from the narco-terrorism activities.  Concurrent with the influx of heroin production and trafficking is the soaring rate of drug abuse, especially within urban centers that serve to store, process or package opiates.  The high quantity of cheap, available heroin in the region has moved people from the more traditional smoking of opium or marijuana to the use of intravenous narcotics.  According to the UNODC, intravenous use of heroin and the eventual addiction thereto have contributed to a skyrocketing incidence of HIV/AIDS in Central Asia that has increased 48% annually for the past decade.

The very livelihoods of the people of Central Asia are also an important story.  Afghan farmers find themselves constantly at odds with US Coalition and Afghan Security Forces on the one hand, who want to pay them money to produce licit goods, and narco-terrorist forces on the other hand, who want to pay them to produce illicit goods.  Either way, farmers find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, merely struggling to live day-to-day without suffering field eradication at the hands of the Afghan Government  or being forced to sell off their daughter to avoid a debt to the Taliban drug cartel.  According to the Afghanistan Winter Risk Assessment 2012 by UNODC, over 70% of Afghan farmers say that they are drawn to cultivate poppy due to high yield prices paid by the drug trade.  Yet, paradoxically, the same assessment notes how over 70% of farmers who do not grow poppy are prevented from doing so because it is banned by the government (i.e. they fear government reprisals).  Within this one survey is evidence that farmers are forced to choose a side between a corrupt government and a criminal enterprise and hope they have joined the right team in the long term.

Additionally, both the 2011 and 2012 UNODC Afghan Winter Assessments confirm that Afghan provinces that are subject to insecurity and violence are most likely to cultivate opium (Logically, the surveys also confirm that those provinces that are classified as more secure are less likely to cultivate opium).  To put these finding into perspective, however, this aspect of the survey tells us the following: 1) regions controlled by US and NATO forces and whose licit agriculture is heavily subsidized by foreign governments are less likely to cultivate opium, and 2) regions with a significant anti-government presence and which receive no subsidies are more likely to cultivate opium.  Thus, the average Afghan farmer will grow whatever is required by those who have power in a particular region.

There are several political and public health interventions that would aid in solving the problems presently being discussed.  Firstly, public health drug education programs should be introduced to the most at-risk populations in Central Asian urban communities.  These programs should specialize in teaching HIV prevention techniques for intravenous drug users; and, moreover, should teach safe sex programs aimed to prevent the spread of HIV to sexually active members of target communities.  Secondly, according to the NY Times, the US spent well over 4 billion USD over the past decade on alternate livelihood and poppy eradication programs in Afghanistan.  This money could be used to purchase the Afghani poppy supply for a set, reasonable price, thus undercutting the black market drug trade. 

Perhaps this purchased crop of opiates could be used to supply the 5.5 billion people in the world who, according to the WHO, have `low to nonexistent’ access to opioid painkillers. There are many arguments to be made against such a distribution program--such as the ability of underdeveloped countries to purchase and regulate medicinal opiates—yet many of these arguments come from special interest groups and people who believe the current situation in Afghanistan is working. Surely the billions of USD spent each year in international aid and development could wisely be spent in developing a pain medication distribution system in underdeveloped countries. But whatever is going to be done in the war on narco-terrorism in the future, it must be drastically different than what has been done so far.