By Johannes Olschner

Afghanistan has been a major opiate producer for decades, but instead of the anticipated improvements since the invasion by the United States in 2001 under international watch, drug production has reached record levels.

The consequences of this failure have reverberated beyond Afghanistan and was witnessed most recently in Kyrgyzstan. When violence broke out there in June, the international media portrayed it as an instance of inter-ethnic conflict. But this was not the only cause; competition over narco-trafficking networks also played a distinct role.

Ever since the occupation of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, opiate production in Afghanistan has steadily - sometimes drastically - increased. Now Afghanistan feeds over ninety percent of global demand. It is estimated that Afghanistan produced around 6,900 tons of opium in 2009, leading the United National Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to describe it as having 'a virtual monopoly on the illicit production of the drug'. Some 3,800 tons of this opium was converted into 380 tons of heroin, most of which was exported. Iran, Pakistan and the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan - Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - all act as a conduit for this endeavour: approximately 150 tons passed into Pakistan, 105 tons into Iran, and 100 tons into Central Asia.

But when the United States launched its new strategy for Afghanistan in March 2009, Central Asia wasn't mentioned once, and drugs were only referred to in passing. The focus was almost exclusively on Islamic militant linkages between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet like Pakistan, Central Asia is affected by and impacts on the security of Afghanistan. Unlike Pakistan, narcotics dominate this relationship, facilitated by an porous and sometime open 2,087 km border between Afghanistan and its northern neighbours. Sustaining a drugs trade that undermines governance and serves as a conflict dynamic on both sides of the border.

Destabilising the Region

In June, Kyrgyzstan felt how malign the influence of the narco-trade can be. Unanswered questions remain over what provoked the violence that killed over 400 people, but it has become clear that drugs trafficking exacerbated the situation.

Osh, probably the epicentre of violence in the summer, is one of the key drugs transhipment points in Central Asia. As a result, the potential for illicit enrichment is vast - a reality of which the family of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev took advantage. Official Kyrgyz sources say western officials made in excess of 480 million dollars per annum from the drugs trade.

According to independent analysts in the capital Bishkek, it was well-known narco-trafficker Aibek Mirsidikov who secured the Bakiyevs' control over narco-smuggling operations running through Osh. Following a period of rumbling unrest in which Mirsidikov was engaged, he was gunned down on June 7. Two days later full-blown violence erupted when, according to the United Nations, five coordinated attacks were executed in Osh - one of which targeted a gym frequented by a known criminal group.

This was not the first time drugs-fuelled violence struck Kyrgyzstan. Following the disputed election result in 2005, criminal leaders were involved in the unrest that resulted in the overthrow of then President Askar Akaev. This rupture in the political process resulted once again in the disruption of criminal activity, leading to conflict over control of drug trafficking networks, and culminating in the assassination of a number of prominent figures, including three parliamentarians allegedly involved in the narco-trade.

Undermining Afghanistan

So lucrative is this enterprise for groups in Afghanistan that, according to the Tajik Drug Control Agency (DCA), there are around 34 heroin processing laboratories in northern Afghanistan servicing the narcotics trade flowing into Central Asia. One UNODC official in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe said that it is too risky for criminals to refine opium into its derivative in Central Asia; instead this is done in Afghanistan.

As a result, this northern smuggling route contributes greatly to the opium economy in Afghanistan, believed to be worth four billion dollars annually. As Central Asia receives about thirty percent of Afghanistan's drugs, Central Asia-bound narcotics generate roughly 1.3 billion dollars for Afghanistan.

But only twenty-five percent of this constitutes income for farmers, leaving three billion dollars in the hands of insurgents, organised criminal gangs and warlords. This has seriously aggravated the situation in Afghanistan. In terms of security, it has provided financial sustenance to anti-government groups. Insurgent groups like the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban all profit from the trade through informal taxation on the cultivation and smuggling of narcotics, contributing to their capability to attack Afghan and ISAF forces. Unsurprisingly, the UN asserts that the seven provinces producing 98 percent of Afghan opium also face the most serious security challenges in the country.

The drugs trade clearly undermines governance in Afghanistan, adding instability to the region. According to the UN, 2.5 billion dollars were paid in bribes to government officials in 2009; a large portion of this may have come from narco-traffickers. It has become common practice for aspiring police officers to pay as much as 150,000 dollars for a senior post on known drug smuggling routes.

Concerning the West

The consequences of the narco-trade in Afghanistan and Central Asia should be of concern to the international community. In the first instance, there are credible accounts of high-level government involvement in the drugs trade severely undermining international efforts at stabilising Afghanistan. Given the high priority afforded to Afghanistan in the foreign policies of both European and North American countries, this is perhaps an overlooked area.

Secondly, most Afghan opiates traversing the border with Central Asia end up in Russia and Europe. These are the two most profitable heroin markets in the world, valued at 13 billion dollars and twenty billion dollars respectively. By the time heroin reaches These areas, its price is up to thirty times greater than in Afghanistan.

This has provided a powerful inducement for organised criminals in Russia and Europe; such valuable illicit markets necessitate robust criminal networks. Their ability to effectively supply consumers has in turn been accompanied by increased addiction and HIV infection rates.

There has been some western support for Central Asian counter-narcotics efforts: assistance has been provided for border management and local law enforcement agencies. However, such programmes have not been incorporated into a broader strategy, nor will they last much longer fears persist that cash support for the TajikDCA and crucial projects - like the EU-funded Border Management Programme in Central Asia (BOMCA) - are reaching their final phase.

Clearly the deficit in Central Asian governance capacity combined with weak border management have allowed large quantities of narcotics to move from Afghanistan to their destinations with relative ease. Given that Central Asia is an extension of the problem it must be extension the solution; this should be reflected in western strategy in Afghanistan.

(Johannes Olschner works for the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House.)


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