According to the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan produced 93% of world poppy cultivation last year. The insurgency-hit country is the biggest world producer of opium. Most poppy crops are cultivated in five southern militancy-hit provinces where Taliban have been challenging the writ of the Afghan Government making a strong comeback after they were ousted by the US-led forces. Over 50% of the total production is just cultivated in Helmand province, the heartland of Taliban militancy stronghold where a major military offensive—Operation Khanjar, the largest since the ouster of Taliban in 2001—with 4000 US Marines and over 600 Afghan troops, is underway. If Taliban are completely cleared from Helmand province, half of Afghanistan’s opium production can be controlled. Besides the recent deployment of 4000 US Marines for the military operation, there has been 8000 British troops stationed in Helmand. Despite this, there are more than 50 drug processing labs in this province. There was an increased record of 160% in poppy production in Helmand last year. Before the massive military operation was launched in Helmand, Taliban insurgents controlled five of total 14 districts of this province during the last three years.
Infiltration of militants from the other side of border fills the safe havens of insurgents in Helmand that borders Pakistan. Taliban spread across the country from there. Most of their recruitment, training and planning is carried out in this province. Helmand is strategic for the terrorists not only from the economical point of view, but also human resource. The poor farmers are not to directly benefit from the cultivation. These landless peasants grow opium for landlords and druglords linked with Taliban. Before the crop is ready for cultivation, militants and paid “insurgents” are recruited for safeguard of the crops. The operation cost is paid by the big shots that have influence in both sides—among militants, and with Government institutions. After harvest and processing, Taliban are responsible for transportation. The 90% of the world heroin that’s produced in Afghanistan are being smuggled to other parts of the world through neighboring countries. Mostly illicit drugs of Afghanistan are being smuggled across the world through neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan.
In the past, there have been several military operations in Helmand, but in none, the forces stayed longer once clearing some districts. Even many times, the military has applied “negotiating” approach with insurgents. It has been a tactic by the Taliban druglords to make ground for their business.
Financing Taliban Insurgency
According to statistics, today Taliban receives over 63% of its financial assistance from the $ 4billion opium industry—53% of the GDP of Afghanistan. NATO forces have been trying to eradicate the financial supply line of Taliban, the drug trade. Officials calculate that Taliban earned $140 million from opium in 2007. Insurgents are involved in different ways, through direct cultivation to safeguarding and transportation of the production. According to officials, about 20 times more area has been brought under cultivation during the last eight years. In 2001, it was 7,606 hectares while last year cultivation was recorded at 1,57,000 hectares.
“US Anti-Drug Policy Ineffective”
International community is worried about the intensifying poppy production in Afghanistan, despite billions of dollars are spent on efforts to eradicate the illicit drugs from the war-torn country. Recently, the US Envoy Mr. Richard Holbrooke admitted the US anti-drug policy has been ineffective. “The US anti-drug campaign has been the most wasteful and ineffective program”, said Mr. Holbrooke while talking to media recently in the Brussels Forum in Belgium. The US spends annual $800 million on counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan. Mr. Holbrooke said the US “has nothing out of the counter-narcotics program.”
There have been different approaches in counter-narcotics in Afghanistan during the last eight years. A couple of months ago, NATO had allowed its forces to target “insurgency related poppy networks”. Prior to this, the forces did not directly involve against the drug networks. The US wanted to spray herbicides on the vast poppy farmlands, but the Afghan Government has been opposing the idea. Last year, there was a US plan of spraying herbicides on heroin and poppy fields which were disallowed by President Karzai saying it would harm the fields and would drive poor farmers into Taliban insurgency. It’s doubtful to me. A former US expert in an article on NYTimes had said Government officials are involved in the big business of poppy. Unverified sources say Karzai’s brother is the tycoon of this business.
The Afghan Ministry of Counter-Narcotics has been launching livelihood programs for poor farmers in the southern provinces to encourage them grow other crops and give up poppy cultivation. But poverty is not the main reason behind this all. Bigwigs in power are involved.
A couple of months ago, a Triangular Joint Anti-Narcotics Operation was conducted by the anti-drugs police of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran on the joint borders. This was the first joint counter-narcotics initiative by the neighboring countries to control drug smuggling on their borders. The joint operation was the initial action plan of the gradual task to reduce drug smuggling. The respective countries have declared the focal points to implement the joint operations against drug trafficking. A Joint Planning Cell has already been set up in Tehran in February of the current year.
The US envoy Richard Holbrooke talking to media after the G-8 Conference said the new US Administration under President Obama will change drug efforts from poppy eradication to ban on drug shipments and supplies. He admitted that the anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan have resulted in failure. Under the new strategy, the US will not support poppy eradication, but its movement and interception of chemicals and drug transportation while going after drug lords. Though Afghan Government had welcomed the new strategy, but British officials said they would continue eradication efforts. It shows a split which is concerning since British forces have been controlling the highest-poppy producing province Helmand—the Empire of Poppy.