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#1565, 30 November 2004
War on Terror and Revival of Drug Trade in Afghanistan
Sanjay Kumar
Freelancer, New Delhi

The War on Terror launched by the US in Afghanistan after the attack on the twin towers managed to change the regime in that country. It also improved the security situation in South Asia and the neighbouring regions but has failed to establish functional state in Afghanistan. The continuous instability in this war-torn country has revived some old problems, the most important is the thriving drug trade.

Afghanistan has a long history regarding drug trading. When the Afghan Mujahedins were fighting the Soviets, they depended heavily on the drug trade for revenue. The country remained engulfed in the civil war for almost a decade even after the withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan. The fundamentalist Taliban came to power in 1996 and banned the use of all intoxicants, including opiates, to gain some international recognition to counter their growing isolation. They managed to reduce opium production from 3,276 tons in 2000 to just 185 tons in 2001. Following the Taliban's ouster, the new government outlawed opium production, but the chaos prevailing meant that poppy fields were replanted and smuggling revived.

The US managed to displace the Taliban and install the government of Hamid Karzai, who recently won the presidential elections in Afghanistan. But his control hardly extends beyond Kabul. The US forces, some 18,000 in number, are already stretched to the limits. Moreover, they do not appear keen to increase their presence in Afghanistan.

Though the change of regime in Afghanistan was useful for security purposes, it did not provide Afghan people with an alternative source of income. Poppy cultivation has filled this void, and has spread to 28 of the 32 provinces. The Afghan government figures that about 30 percent of Afghan families are involved in the trade. Besides the Taliban, many of Karzai's local warlord allies are also involved in drug trafficking. Heroin and opium trafficking earned revenues estimated at $2.5 billion last year.

With more than 1.5 million Afghans involved in a trade worth an estimated US$2.5 billion annually, trying to change the situation overnight could backfire, and lead to deteriorating security and stability. It simply cannot be done by military and authoritarian means, which has been tried in the past and found unsustainable.
Any crackdown is likely to affect those already most disadvantaged, poor farmers, who are also the most likely to turn against any authority that interferes with their ability to provide for their families. It would also cut into the income of the country's previous Taliban rulers, and the warlords and military commanders who control much of the countryside.

The issue of poppy cultivation and drug trade is a sensitive issue in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, despite Afghanistan being the source of over 75 percent of the world's heroin, and 95 percent of Europe's supplies, the issue did not figure in the election promises of any of the 18 candidates running for president. But the country’s exploding drug production became an issue in the US presidential campaign. In a debate in Florida, Democratic candidate John F. Kerry cited the burgeoning opium crop as evidence of President Bush’s "colossal misjudgment" in turning his attention from Afghanistan to wage war in Iraq.

The US does not want its military forces, already tasked with counterterrorism and security operations, to become Afghanistan's antinarcotics police. It believes that the drug trade and poppy cultivation should be controlled by the Afghan police, army and judicial authorities which the allied forces are helping to establish. But this is a tall order for a barely functioning Afghan state.

The United States is facing a curious situation in Afghanistan. Its preoccupation with the War on Terror has not allowed them to focus on drug-trafficking. As the drug trade is assuming menacing proportions it wants to take steps, but a crackdown would affect poor farmers who may go back to the Taliban. This will undermine its operations against al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.

To deal with the drug problem steps have to be taken on many fronts. The laboratories where these drugs are processed should be the primary target of any campaign to stamp out the drug trade. The authorities have to deal with issues like the farmers' debt, crop substitution and compensation schemes. They have also to improve the judicial system so that anti-drug laws are fairly implemented and the people responsible for drug processing are identified.

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