June 26 marks the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. It is observed to raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse to encourage all efforts to combat the menace at the international level. This year’s theme is ‘Listen first’.
Terrorism, drugs-for-arms and money laundering are intrinsically linked and pose a considerable threat to global peace and security. They destabilise the political and financial stability of many nation-states. They were accelerated in the wake of 9/11. Militants and extremists have a nexus with criminal networks involved in dealing drugs and arms.
Evidence available with intelligence agencies confirms that from Al-Qaeda to Daesh the real challenge involves the free flow of legal and illegal funds. Until today, the international community has failed to sever their financial lifeline.
It is an open secret how the drug trade in post-Taliban Afghanistan was institutionalised through the puppet regime in Kabul and the patronising attitude of war lords in many provinces of the country. Once opium started being processed at a mass scale into morphine and heroin in Afghanistan, it brought tonnes of money for commanders on the ground.
Since 2004, the controlled democracy in Afghanistan has been playing into the hands of more sophisticated narco-enriched commanders. It is no longer a secret that the Taliban – with whom the US and its allies have always been in negotiation since 2004 – knew how to buy or muscle a vote which would protect their opium interests in every election.
Even Afghanistan’s neighbours have been making profits from the windfall: criminal groups from Central Asia, says the UN, have made profits worth $15.2 billion from the trafficking of opiates in 2015. Tajikistan is, by far, the worst affected by the drug plague owing to a combination of history, poverty and geography.
In the late 1990s, the drug trade was believed to be a source of finance for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – a terrorist group which had bases in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. After the war in Afghanistan, the IMU lost most of its influence. But the drugs trade continued with organised criminals taking the place of political or religious activists. In a survey conducted by the Open Society Institute, eight out of 10 of those polled said – hardly surprisingly – that “the main reason to turn to drug trafficking was to make big money”.
Geography also contributed to Tajikistan’s drugs problem: at 1,400km, the country’s border with Afghanistan is longer than the borders of its Central Asian neighbours and is far more difficult to guard.
Afghanistan’s north-eastern province of Badakhshan – an important poppy-growing area – is close to the border with Tajikistan. From there, most narcotics move to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan before continuing towards Kazakhstan and onwards to Russia.
Three of Afghanistan’s five big drug-producing provinces – Helmand, Urozgan and Kandahar – have, over a period of time, emerged as the ‘new Colombia’: places where drug lords capture and wreck governments and the economy alike. The successive Afghan governments in the post-Taliban period have made little progress against poppy-growing – except declaring it illegal and establishing a new policy body, the Counter-Narcotics Department (CND). The goal of 100 percent elimination by 2013 proved to be a farce. In reality, production has increased after the establishment of the CND, as confirmed by the threInternational Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) 2017.
While the INCSR highlights the spectre of the Taliban, it does not discuss the widespread poverty in Afghanistan and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. For many local politicians, such economic factors – along with natural disasters and border problems – constitute far bigger problems than the Taliban.
Human rights activists contend that the ‘Taliban threat’ is being exaggerated to crush all forms of dissent – religious or otherwise. But even those who think that Islamic radicalism and terrorism are the real dangers criticise the US-backed governments for not countering the Taliban through economic initiatives.
The US could have played a useful role by acknowledging and supporting the efforts of Iran that waged an all-out crackdown on warlords and commanders engaged in the drug trade. However, the Americans were supporting them. People are therefore sceptical of US policies in Afghanistan to counter the drug trade and religious fundamentalism. China views this as a ‘hidden agenda’ for its containment through militancy by using the ‘Islamic card’ – as was done against the erstwhile USSR.
China also believes Southeast Asia’s lawless ‘Golden Triangle’ region remains the overwhelming source of the heroin and methamphetamine used in the country. A Chinese cabinet report on China’s drug situation – released on June 24, 2015 – underscores the threat posed by the region, including parts of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, despite the efforts made towards enhancing cross-border cooperation. It stated that 90 percent of the 9.3 tonnes of heroin and 11.4 tonnes of methamphetamine seized in 2014, came from the area that borders China’s southern province of Yunnan.
The report is the government’s first comprehensive look at drug use in China, where synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine and ketamine, have overtaken heroin in popularity. It stated that China has about three million registered drug users, but the estimates of those who have tried drugs run as high as 14 million.
The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court and adjunct faculty at LUMS.