Saturday, April 5, 2008

Afghanistan's Narcs problem--- # 1

Narco-trafficking in Afghanistan as a threat to international security… #1

1. Afghanistan's booming opium prodcution is a headache for the whole world. Yet apart from spending money - billions of $- nothing is
being done to prevent it. Afghanistan epitomizes the profound implications that drug trafficking has for national, regional and international security. There are other examples from South Asia too. In the NE of India some insurgent groups extort money from drug trafficking organizations to fund their activities. There are similar reports about LTTE in Sri Lanka. These illustrate the clear ramifications that drug trafficking has for domestic and regional security.
2. There are three clear facets to the drug issue. The first relates to the trafficking of chemicals described as precursors, which are essential for the manufacture of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The second is about the vast profits that the drug trade generates and the laundering of these profits. The third and perhaps the most relevant in the context of the present subject is the use of drug generated profits for the funding of terrorist activity.
4. Opium and cocoa producing countries are few, but countries that produce chemicals to refine these drugs are many. The heroin and cocaine producers of the nether world require these chemicals, known as precursors, e.g. Acetic Anhydride (AA) and Potassium Permanganate, to produce their noxious wares. To match the demand with adequate supplies criminal gangs with trans-national capabilities are necessary.
5. In the North East of India where I worked in the late 80s and early 90s we would hear of expected large opium harvests in adjacent Myanmar. As confirmation we would come across surreptitious orders for AA from India, which is a large producer of this chemical. These would be placed complete with detailed packing instructions. During that time there were many seizures, which eventually forced the criminals in Myanmar to get their supplies of AA from China. Narcotics were a significant reason for sustaining the insurgency in that region.
6. Picture # 1 shows 35 litre jerry cans of Indian Acetic Anhydride smuggled across in wooden crates. In Myanmar they would be tied below some of the boats that cross the Yu and Chindwin Rivers and taken to Kalemyo and Mandalay for dispersal to ‘refineries’.

7. I saw similar cross border business-like efficiency amongst the traffickers operating the drug routes to India through Pakistan from 1996 60 2003. Here too Acetic Anhydride would be booked many months ahead of the opium harvest in Afghanistan. The same modus operandi, but 2500 kms away. During this period the organizations I worked with were responsible for some large seizures of opium, heroin and precursor chemicals. The narcotics traffickers had easier access in the countries involved and were far more cooperative than any enforcement organizations.

8. The drug trade reacts to the changes in the world faster than Enforcement Agencies and is using the technological, financial and electronic wherewithal of globalisation to expand its reach over many countries. As an example of the traffickers being ahead of enforcement agencies there are reports of liquid heroin being seized from Central Asia. Their ruthless enterprise depends essentially on subversion of politicians and officials. Without them, continued criminal successes, despite ammending laws, would not be possible. It is a universally accepted axiom that less than 10% of all contraband is seized, and that too by the most alert enforcement agencies that have the advantage of the latest technologies and well trained men and women. It is not weaknesses in the laws but their ineffective implementation that is the problem.
9. Picture # 2 shows heroin packets thrown over the Indo-Pakistan Border fencing in India’s Punjab. They were supposed to have been picked up by an early morning border patrol, but Customs got there first. This was rather a crude way of smuggling heroin, but the traffickers would not have attempted it had they not been confident of the complicity of officials on both sides of the border.

10. Narcotics laws and rules of several countries, including those of Afghanistan, are all very practical and have been influenced by the various U N Conventions (1961. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs ; 1971. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances ; 1988. The UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances). These Conventions have served as excellent lode stars. Some provisions of these Conventions require changes, and these will be considered by the next UN General Assembly Special Session on Narcotics in 2009.

11. It is the close knit relationship between criminal gangs and Governments which is preventing any resolution in Afghanistan. Every year the Taleban get richer and stronger. They can finance terror all over the world. Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is more lethal because most of it is exported. Every year production goes up and despite a billion dollars being spent on enforcement not a dent is made.

The drug mafia’s depredations are not restricted to the economy. It just as naturally enters politics, and penetrates into the Government. This criminalisation of political life is very marked in Afghanistan but can also be observed, for example, in all the 12 CIS counties. In several CIS countries banks and companies were involved in laundering criminal proceeds, including money from the illicit drug trade. In 1999 in Moscow investigators found that a “Sherkhan Bank”, established by Afghans, laundered millions of dollars out of Russia.

13. Afghanistan’s narcotics laws are just as good as any other country’s, but yet there is no let up in trafficking despite enforcement organizations having more money than they can handle. The fault lies in corruption and collusion.

14. During my visits to the posts on the Afghanistan – Iran border in Herat and Nimroz province I was surprised to find that apart from a sort of an attendance register and some kind of a wireless log book there was no other documentation in most of the Border Posts. There was no evidence of any control exercised by senior officers except rare visits. Most of the posts were manned by illiterate soldiers. Even the Commander of a Border Post in Herat was unlettered. Nearly all the soldiers were young. The old experienced, and literate, soldiers having been pensioned off under an ill advised scheme. They were thought to have been perhaps tainted by their association with the Najibullah Government, during whose tenure cultivation averaged 10,000 ha. Their replacements owed their employment to bribery. They now make money to pay off debts and feed their officers. Thus destabilization begins from the lowest rung. It is just as easy to buy off higher echelons with the huge assets that the narcotics traffickers continue to accumulate. A system which is so fundamentally flawed can hardly be expected to be effective against well organized and entrenched drug cartels.

15. The Afghan narcotics scene is dominated by corrupt officials, war lords, drug lords, and above all by the Taleban. While a soldier in the Government got in late 2006 the small amount of $ 40/-, a Taleban soldier got $300/- to begin with. And all his expenses were taken care off. Taleban have a very simple system. They would ask an area’s drug lord to pay for the entire upkeep of 10 soldiers including their arms. In return their business would be protected, as it has been so far. The poor farmer, the lowest in the drug chain and paradoxically the most honest, is the one who pays the most. From the UN stated farm gate price of about $86/- per kg, the opium farmer is left with only $40/- per kg after paying bribes and protection money. Thus the criminal juggernaut rolls on feeding on greed, exploiting the vulnerabilities of a compromised enforcement apparatus and working in tandem with terror outfits in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

16. Living conditions in the Border Posts on the 920 kms Iran-Afghan border are horrible. The border is a series of deserts. Only in the north of Herat province where the thin sluggish Hirai Rud (river) marks the border is there some precipitation that nurtures woeful patches of vegetation amidst sand dunes. Its extremely hot or cold and always dusty. There is no water and the generators do not work. The poorly paid soldiers are not trained or committed enough to take risks or be honest, and rarely spend nights at their posts. In most of the posts the kitchen had never been used. No wonder the Iranians, who have posts opposite them seize more than 3 times as much narcotics as the Afghans. And spend only 15% of the amount.
17. Picture # 3 is of the comparatively ‘fertile’ village of Buniyad in North Heart. The scrub of Hirai Rud is at the back and Iran beyond. Villages such as these are ever ready to help smuggle narcotics- for a price. That Toyota inside the village is an indication of the prosperity that the drug trade has brought to these deserted frontier villages.

18. The example that their officers set is far from inspirational for the men in drug law enforcement. Those with influence get themselves posted out within days, and many of them have garish palaces in Kabul’s posh suburbs of Wazir Khan and Sherpur.

19. During the war to remove the Najibullah Government the US supported the Mujahideen and then the Taleban. It was during these years that the area under opium cultivation continued to expand reaching 193,000 ha in 2007! Quite a large number of the ex-Mujahideen and ex-Taleban who were being supported by the US then are now in powerful positions in the forces. It is impossible to expect them to eradicate the opium crop when they themselves had allowed it to flourish and profit from it. The much publicized eradication programme targets only the helpless and the poor and can not eradicate more than 15,000 ha at most annually.

20. There is an another strange system that is followed in Afghanistan. The Governors and even officials like local police chiefs run private militias. Most of these militias are anti-Taleban but also protect opium cultivation- on payment. That is the reason that the Taleban fights them. The Governor of Nimroz, has his own militia like many others. Like all others he is venal. He takes payment for providing 1000 troops from an Indian Road building organization but provided them till recently with just 300. Only after 6 of these road builders were killed by the Taleban did the security improve. His militia exclusively guards some of the most used routes to Iran. Like the one at Kerta post in northern Nimroz .

21. Picture # 4 is of Kerta Border Post in Nimroz Province. The uniformed gentleman and the two in black are part of the Governor’s private militia. Such militias are part of the drug problem.

22. Is it possible for any one to sustain such a huge militia without massive financial support? In a land that has no industry or even agriculture to have so much money is improbable, unless it is from narcotics. From the house of Muhammad Akhundzada, the then Governor of Helmand, 9 tons of opium were seized in 2005 by the DEA, which is often at loggerheads with their own diplomats and intelligence agencies. As he had been a favourite of the US and UK nothing happened to him. He is an MP in the Afghan Parliament, and in late 2006 started a large militia of his own, ostensibly to fight drug trafficking!

23. These are acts of omission and commission that have compounded the Afghan problem. If there was no corruption and collusion on such a wide spread scale the problem would not have become so intractable. Drug money buys arms and explosives to fan insurgency not only in Afghanistan, but elsewhere in the region. India, apart from Pakistan, too suffers periodically from attacks paid for from the limitless coffers of the Taleban and their cohorts.

24. There are 110 routes, along which narcotics are smuggled out of Afghanistan. About 15% of them are to Central Asia, another 20% to Pakistan, 10% to China, and the rest are to Iran. In that unfortunate country the addicts alone have doubled in the past decade to reach 2.5 mln. They have financed the construction of 28 forts on Afghanistan’s side of their border in the hope that they too would be effective. There is no chance of that.

25. Picture # 5 is of an Iranian fort taken from the Afghan one of Thane Haji Jan in Northern Nimroz. Officers in the fort across had made several seizures in 2006, whereas none from this post.

26. At Kurki post in Nimroz every day several commodities are briskly smuggled into Afghanistan and a few smuggled out. The Customs and Border Police officials posted there are not bothered. Long tankers carrying petrol and arms from Iran openly cross the border to fill up smaller Afghan tankers right under their noses and in broad day light. What they take back is any one’s guess. Humans are one item. Narcotics are probably the main contraband to make this journey. It is low in volume and high on value, and is the easiest way to pay for this constant stream of tankers and trucks. Such a huge illegal market can not function without the nearby Iranians’ complicity too. This only shows that even in a determined country like Iran, which has stringent laws, there are pockets where money power is supreme, and the staunchest disciplinarians are powerless.

27. Picture # 6 is of Kurki Border Post on the Iran border, across which all those tankers and trucks at the back have come.

28. Iran seized 231,352 kgs of opium against 90,990 by Afghanistan the source country. And Iran, Pakistan, China, Turkey, Tajikistan and Russian accounted for 69% of all the heroin seized in 2005. Afghanistan, seized a mere 10% or 9079 kgs.

29. UNODC keeps talking, as indicators of success, that 13 provinces are now opium free, but over all Kandahar and Helmand which produce 65% of opium not only make up for this presumed loss, but also increase their production by at least 30% every year. Opium from as far as Badakshan is brought to Baramcha in Nimroz for quality refining by expert Baluch ‘pharmacists’. Proving that it is safer to move the cultivation to Kandahar and Helmand where there is minimal interference from law.

30. Baramcha in the South Eastern tip of Nimroz is very close to Helmand. Here the heroin producing facilities are numerous and brazenly visible. Yet law has not reached them. Most consignments of opium to Baramcha reach it safely, suggesting some kind of official safe passage. Baramcha and most of Nimroz is a Baluch area. The contiguous territories in Iran and Pakistan are also Baluch. Tribal affiliations protect their criminal acts. Taleban guard the routes. It has become the heart of a new golden triangle. Within this triangle more than 65% of all opium is produced, about 80% of it is refined here, and about 70% of all the routes out are from this triangle. The target of Afghan drugs is mainly Europe, followed far behind by Russia and China. The Governments of these nations can not be subverted easily, but none the less many of their institutions are threatened.

31. Protection guaranteed by paying the Taleban or by bribing Government officials ensures a dramatic annual increase in production of opium. 14% of Afghanistan’s population is engaged in this activity. The farm gate value of the entire production at the rate of $86/- per kg is estimated to be about $ 1 billion. As most of the produce is exported it generates about $4 bln, which is about 53% of Afghanistan’s GDP. These figures are from UNODC. From this exercise the Taleban alone are raking in more than a $ 100 mln annually. Then the individual drug lords also get quite a sackful. With so much money floating around no one in authority in Afghanistan is keen on a solution. And the virus of insurgency is being financed from Afghanistan to vex countries close by. The explosion in a suburban train in Mumbai that killed about 200 was financed by Al Qaeda. And the never ending violent unrest in Pakistan’s Wazirstan province is directly financed by the Taleban.

32. Now there is news- not unexpected- that US servicemen too are involved in ferrying drugs to air bases in Kyrghystan and Turkey. Commenting on such reports the Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan diplomatically said that this is possible. Former US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke wrote in the Washington Post in January “government officials, including some with close ties to the presidency, are protecting the drug trade and profiting from it.” The President’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai is reported to be the hub for many traffickers. In the same article Holbrooke described the US counter narcotics effort in Afghanistan as “the single most ineffective programme in the history of American foreign policy.”

33. What was once an essentially domestic problem has now become the head ache of neighbouring countries. Narcotics fuelled mayhem is being spread near and far. In South Asia, West Asia, and Central Asia. Pakistan in 2005 seized 27% (24,341 kgs) of all heroin. In 2002, Turkmenistan’s Prosecutor General Kurbanbibi Atadzhanova was arrested for narcotics trafficking. In Tajikstan in 2002 more than 3 tons of heroin was seized. In the last two months of 2007 about 1 ton of opium and heroin were seized from the CIS states. Those arrested have been from all over the world.

“Something new and significant is going on in the world drugs market. In last year's World Drug Report we made the argument that drug control is working and the world drug problem is being contained. This 2007 Report provides further robust evidence of this trend. For almost every kind of illicit drug - cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) - there are signs of overall stability, whether we speak of cultivation, production or consumption. Hopefully, within the next few years evidence to support this claim will become statistically and logically incontrovertible.”

This optimistic passage is from the introduction written by the Executive Director of UNODC to the World Drug Report of 2007. With 8200 tons of opium being produced in Afghanistan last year, a 34% increase over the previous year there is only “robust evidence” to the contrary.

Eradication or destruction, even if it is wide spread and not selective as it is now, will never stop this cultivation. Think of about two and a half million or so opiate users in Afghanistan and the coutnries around it. Till they are around opium will continue to be grown somewhere or the other. Show of force like in this last picture is only --- show.

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