Opium Problem in Afghanistan

Posted: February 4, 2010 in Politics
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Afghanistan shot into prominence the day after 9/11, not that it wasn’t so before with the Taliban and their rule that made headlines for reasons altogether different. Considered part of the ‘Golden Crescent’ that supplies narcotics to the world, the country has always been in news. A source of revenue to its people has now become the favored resources for the Taliban’s who are running a sophisticated financial network to pay for all their insurgent operations. Millions of dollars are raised from extortions, kidnappings, illicit drug trades and foreign donations from sympathizers across the globe. Futile attempts have been made in the past to cut off this flow and have been unsuccessful so far. They have been very savvy with the way the financial dealing have been diversified and non-traceable sometimes. It continues to produce 90% of the world Opium processed into heroin that gets sent out into Europe and Russia. Afghan Opium kills 100,000 people world over. Most of the farmers depend on this crop for their livelihood and stopping this cultivation will result in an economic catastrophe since the economic downturn after 2001 found more people automatically moving towards Opium production. It is estimated that 52% of the nation’s GDP, amounting to $2.7 billion annually, is generated by the drug trade. There are no alternative development programs that could supplement income for the people as there is extreme poverty and discontentment in several indigent areas in the country. In addition there is also a large population addicted to the drug who would like to see it continue.

The Taliban’s and their financial worth are estimated to be in the millions per year. Their illicit drug trade is supposedly in the range from 70-400 million a year according to the US officials. The Middle East is a continuous source of foreign aid. The NATO officials are equally confounded and unable to stem this flow. With all this in mind the Obama administration is in a fix as to how to deal with this problem. What started off as an anti-terrorism squad and an ‘eliminate Osama-Bin-Laden and the Al Qeada’ venture has veered into unknown territories. The administration is dithering over wanting to send more troops, another 40,000 to combat the insurgency. Trying to suppress Opium production might not be the answer to the problem either since it is easy for the local people to train insurgents cheaply or people might start looking for alternate ways to sustain their living and might inadvertently get pushed into becoming insurgents for the financial gains.

The insurgents stand to gain at every step of the Opium production. Right from the start where they extort ‘protection money’ from the farmers to the processing units, the operators, smugglers, transporters are all part of the nexus that may be forced to add to the coffers of the Taliban. Several of the insurgents also work in the fields to supplement their income. Drug traffickers at the border between Pakistan are also paid hefty chunks.

A UN report that was issued in August claims that some of the Opium trafficking guerrillas had secretly stockpiled more than 10,000 tons of illegal opium worth billions of dollars and maybe enough to satisfy two years of world demand. These stockpiles are enough to last them in the long run and will boost their efforts in obtaining funding for expanding their activity.

If the US were to try to stem the financial flow from foreign lands they would need an elaborate counter-network of intelligence to figure out where and how the cash is flowing in. Richard Holbrooke the special representative of the Obama administration for Afghanistan and Pakistan has re-iterated that Opium is not the only source of revenue for the Taliban’s. It is said from unnamed sources that the Taliban’s have received close to 106 million dollars from outside donors. So essentially stemming Opium trade is not a conclusive solution until the foreign aid to the insurgents is cut off. There are several suspects in the foreign aid sector including Pakistan but has been vehemently denied.

Most of the donors world-wide have become very savvy in the way the donations are made and hiding their tracks well. Sanctions alone haven’t worked very well either.

Another major source of financing for the Taliban is criminal activity such as kidnappings and protection payments from legitimate businesses that might want to operate on Taliban territory. The problems are larger than what is envisioned by the world and not a typical counter-insurgency program that can be mounted with success.

The US has created two new entities that might disrupt the drug trafficking and financing. The Afghan Threat Finance Cell located in Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. The second group, the Illicit Finance Task Force based in Washington that aims to identify and disrupt financial networks that support all nefarious activities in that part of the world.

With all this going on and the Hamid Karzai election run off in the waiting, the ‘pot’ has been stirred and the noxious fumes emitting is sure to hang around for a long time to come. Another case of ‘can’t swallow it and can’t spit it out’ for the US. Tie in Pakistan to this equation and we have a potpourri of political instability in that part of the world, a disaster waiting to happen.


  1. Meera San says:

    Don’t know what to say ! *grim issue*

    You have put it all together well !

  2. Thanks again. It’s crazy in that part of the world. The underlying problems are numerous and what the common man gets to see is just the surface, well hidden by the press and politics..A volatile situation that will hang on for years to come…