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from issue no. 06/07 - 2006

THE DRUGS TRAFFIC. The driving-force of instability and of terrorism

Bin Laden like the drug dealers

«Had it not been for 11 September Afghanistan would today be free of the drugs traffic», Pino Arlacchi, director of the UN Office for the fight against the drugs traffic in the years when the Taliban destroyed the opium plantations, comments on the new data that confirm how at present the war-torn Asian country has gone back to producing 80% of the illegal opium in the world. And indicates how a change can be made

Interview with Pino Arlacchi by Roberto Rotondo

Afghan army soldiers destroying a consignment of opium in Kabul

Afghan army soldiers destroying a consignment of opium in Kabul

«The thing that won’t let me sleep is that when the Americans went into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and capture Bin Laden in October 2001, there was no longer any opium production in the country». Pino Arlacchi was from 1997 to 2002 general undersecretary of the United Nations and director of the UN Office for Drug Control and the Prevention of Crime (UNODC) and knows in depth the Afghan great game. For him, having directed many operations in the field throughout Asia, the new UN report issued in June on the drug traffic in Afghanistan, that confirms the fact that 80% of the illegal production of opium in the world comes from the war-torn Asian country, is no surprise but a bitter and logical consequence of what happened after the attack on the Twin Towers. «Had it not been for 11 September, Afghanistan today would be free of the drug traffic, as happened in other countries, and would not instead be the foremost illegal producer of opium in the world. A historic opportunity was lost. And now that the US wants to disengage from Afghanistan and leave most of the commitment to the Europeans, we must be very careful not to repeat the errors committed by the Americans in these past five years». What links Afghanistan to Europe is not only the presence of soldiers of the ISAF military mission under NATO command, but also the fact that almost all of the heroin produced from Afghan opium ends up on the streets of European countries (as well as reaching Russia and recently also China). It would therefore be a tragic mockery to send more soldiers in the prospect of tolerating or pretending not to see the fields of poppies from which comes the heroin that is reaping so many victims in Europe.

A plan for the elimination of narcotics in Afghanistan must involve the elimination of the plantations, but in parallel with economic aid to the farmers. That, for the government of a drug producing country, is the road to take.
Professor Arlacchi, before outlining possible solutions, let’s try to analyze the problem. What historic occasion was lost?
PINO ARLACCHI: In 2000 we were only a step away from an epochal event: that would leave the world heroin traffic stranded because Afghanistan was coming off the list of countries illegally producing opium. The pressures brought on the Taliban, in fact, and political isolation at the international level that we had forced on them was producing good results. There had also been two rounds of very severe sanctions from the UN Security Council. As well, my office, through many Koran experts, had confronted the Taliban with the unequivocal fact that opium is an intoxicant prohibited, as are all other intoxicants, by their religion. The Taliban are religious, insurrectionists, fundamentalists, but even if all possible bad can be said about them, you can’t say that they are inclined to the drugs trade. They engage in it only as a necessary evil to finance themselves. The results that we were seeing in the field were that in 2001, without a bloodbath and with a minimum of coercion, the farmers were not producing opium in the areas controlled by the Taliban, that is in 90% of Afghan territory. Only a few plantations remained in the areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. They, then backed by a concert of powers – Russians, Americans, Iranians and Chinese – didn’t have that qualm, they were all up to their necks in the drug traffic. But even among the factions opposing the Taliban some people began to wonder whether the drug trade might not turn into something very dangerous. Once I met General Ahmed Massud, of the Pashtun ethnic group, who was head of the Northern Alliance forces. Like his Taliban enemies, he instinctively felt strong distaste for the opium traffic, but he needed it to back the war. He declared he was ready to collaborate, to form mixed commissions with us UN people to convince the farmers to let us meet the traffickers. Unfortunately that never happened and as everyone knows Massud was killed by al Quaeda two days before the 11 September attack.
So, if Bin Laden achieved a result after 11 September, it was that of having the drug traffic return to record levels in Afghanistan. But was such a complicated situation foreseeable at five years remove?
ARLACCHI: Of course. In Afghanistan there is absolutely no difference from what the premises let one think. Let’s take certain facts into account: Afghanistan, from the period before the Soviet occupation of the ’eighties, was a country in constant civil war, in which militia of different ethnic groups and tribes confronted each other, warlords in the classic sense, fundamentalists and rebel movements.
They were all fighting one against another to the last gasp. For power, for territory, for the lawful and especially unlawful resources of the country. International interests have always worked their way in to the endemic conflict: both great powers interested in the big game of the Cold War and neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, in whose interest it was that Afghanistan remains as it is, weak and manipulated by them. On these geopolitical questions is grafted the problem of the Afghan people seeking a way to survive: by fleeing – and already two million Afghans have left the country – or by trafficking in narcotics or in contraband. Among the consequences of the difficulty in establishing peace we have the enormous quantity of arms circulating everywhere and the colossal problem clearing the country of mines, with hundreds of deaths every month.
But in these years a much more dangerous game has been played: that of the US who thought and think they can use the warlords against terrorism. The Americans used them to dethrone the Taliban first, and then to hunt Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. They established a tacit agreement whereby, in exchange for help in the fight against terrorism, they would look the other way as far as the production of narcotics was concerned. The Pentagon in fact declared from the beginning of the operations in Afghanistan that they would not start a war against opium production, because they didn’t consider it a priority. The result was a failure of the whole approach: al Quaeda and its leaders weren’t rendered harmless, the Taliban are returning and now control 30% of the territory, the US soldiers are hated by the people and exhausted by the war, and terrorism is financed by opium.
Afghan militiamen of the Northern Alliance

Afghan militiamen of the Northern Alliance

A mistaken strategy that has cost a great deal…
ARLACCHI: Let’s keep in mind that the warlords who have done everything except fight the terrorists, are bandits and criminals of the worst kind. They are systematic violators of human rights and, in the places where they have been nominated governors, they have in substance kept a large part of the odious impositions of the Taliban in relation to women and human rights. But the most evil consequence is that immediately, from 2001 up to today, the opium plantations have been recultivated, and the prices of opium have gone through the roof: 400 dollars a kilo, from the 30 dollars of 2001. Today there is a cartel of drug traffickers that sets the price, the market is no longer fragmented as it was five years ago, and the drug trade runs through and corrupts every level of Afghan society. Even changing course will cost a great deal: with opium at 30 dollars a kilo, our plan envisaged that 25 million dollars a year for ten years would suffice – the cost indeed of a couple of weeks bombing – to take Afghanistan definitively out of the drug traffic. Today, with opium at 400 dollars a kilo, the sum required is much greater, but it is still a minimal figure compared to the 100 billion dollars spent on military operations that have not led to the capture of Bin Laden or to the dismantling of al Quaeda nor to the transformation of Afghanistan into a safe country. A 100 billion dollars for a country whose GDP is just about 6 billion dollars a year, and more than half of which is obtained by the traffic in drugs: an absurdity.
A situation without hope?
ARLACCHI: I’m not saying that. Clearly the undertaking is more expensive, but we are still dealing with figures within the reach of the international community. Of course the families of farmers who grew opium in 2001 numbered 60 thousand and today they’re more than 350 thousand, however it is an undertaking that is possible. And it is enough to follow the methods that have been successful in other Asian countries.
Concretely, what must be done?
ARLACCHI: A plan for the elimination of narcotics in Afghanistan must involve the elimination of the plantations, but in parallel with economic aid to the farmers. This is the highroad that, wherever it has been taken by the governments of countries that were illegal producers of drugs, has led to the goal. The plan for the gradual elimination of the plantations must be realistic, respect all the humanitarian and human rights, and must be managed by the Afghan government, with international supervision that takes into account the situation and all the problems. This implies that the Afghan government must undertake to combat the corruption within it, and take the elementary steps distancing itself from the warlords, because Karzai, despite the promises and the words, has done nothing against the production of drugs.
AFGHANISTAN AND THE REAL PROBLEM. The graphs provided by UNODC show the destruction of opium cultivation and production in Afghanistan in 2001. After the US intervention they returned immediately to record levels. One notes how, through collaborative projects with the UN, other Asian countries, Laos for example, are coming off the list of illegal opium producers

AFGHANISTAN AND THE REAL PROBLEM. The graphs provided by UNODC show the destruction of opium cultivation and production in Afghanistan in 2001. After the US intervention they returned immediately to record levels. One notes how, through collaborative projects with the UN, other Asian countries, Laos for example, are coming off the list of illegal opium producers

How do you convince a farmer to give up the profits from opium and to grow other crops?
ARLACCHI: There is already a plan ready to be financed that can become the axis on which western intervention in Afghanistan can be made to turn. It’s useless deluding oneself into thinking that an element of coercion will not be necessary in the first phase. If we go only to hand out money to the farmers, we’re condemned to failure. Since 1997, when I formulated the plan for the elimination of drugs within ten years, I introduced a combination of economic help and prohibition. It must be clear that those who grow opium are committing a crime. But what convinces the farmers is to see serious plans for development. When we not only proposed alternative crops, that can’t of course equal the drug profits, but accompanied it with projects designed to raise the living standards of the farmers, bringing schools, streets, hospitals, access to microcredits, we had rapid and lasting success. So, what must be said to the farmers is: with drugs you earn much more, but what will you do with this money if you then die of a banal infection because there are no hospitals? If you live oppressed and threatened by the drug traffickers who have advanced the money for the crop? If your children step on the mines left by who knows what army? If there are no schools, no security? We give them a chance to make a qualitative leap. That is the winning proposal whereby we got rid of drugs in a large part of Asia. I don’t understand why we think that in Afghanistan it’s different, that it is an irretrievable country. People don’t realize that, whereas in Afghanistan from 2001 onwards production has increased, in the rest of the drug producing countries it has fallen. In practice only 44 thousand hectares of plantation remain in Myanmar, and Laos, which was the third world producer, came out of the production of opium this year, two years in advance of the plan agreed with them in 1999. A success that few people have highlighted. Thailand, then, another historic producer, came out in 1992, as did Pakistan. We also have control systems that allow us to check that new breeding grounds of opium production are not being created to replace the countries that give it up. Therefore our problem is Afghanistan. And we must eliminate drugs because not only does it supply the whole European market, but also because it is the source of the strength of the insurrectionary movement, the driving-force behind the destabilization of the country.
Is it possible to achieve elimination of drugs without military intervention?
ARLACCHI: Military intervention on the drug front must be directed toward creating an Afghan police force, to creating an Afghan army with parameters of integrity and training such as will reduce corruption. Further I hope that the US will not attempt to destroy the opium by air strikes, because the destruction of the crop of a farming family is in any case a humanitarian crime. There have been cases of farmers forced to sell their daughters to the traffickers in human beings once their crop was lost because of air strikes. To repropose the Colombian model in Afghanistan would be a colossal error, that would also end by increasing the discontent toward the international military forces.

What do you think of the recent proposal from Giuliano Amato to liberalize Afghan opium, buy it in block and use it for the production of medical painkillers with a morphine base, to be distributed generously in Afghanistan as well as in the Third World ?
ARLACCHI: Amato, as others, starts from the supposition that there is a scarcity of painkilling medicines for some anti-cancer, anti-AIDS therapies, etc. Therefore, he says, in one move we take drugs off the global market and create the possibility of expanding humanitarian medical intervention in the Third World. I’m against this idea for two reasons: the first is that this demand for painkillers is not there. The International Narcotic Control Board, a UN gem of efficiency and competence, that directs the relation between demand and supply in legal opium, confirms this. This commission evaluates, authorizes and controls the legal production of opium in four countries: India, Australia, France and Turkey. As well as that, there are the reserve supplies. The producing countries and the consumers have the authorization to have them precisely to avoid shortage of medicines of this kind in the case of an epidemic or a natural disaster. There are more than 800 tons of stocks ready to be used. Further, the production systems of these four countries are ready to deal with an increase in demand at any moment. If there is a lack of morphine-derived medicines in the Third World, it’s a problem of price, not of production. Then as in the case of anti-AIDS medicine, an international pricing policy can be introduced.
The second objection is: how can such a complex structure, with sophisticated and widespread security systems, as that controlled by the International Narcotic Control Board, be set up in a country like Afghanistan? It would be unrealistic and tremendously costly not only to create and maintain a control structure that impedes diversion into illegal traffic, but also to buy the entire crop every year, beating the competition of the drug traffickers. According to our calculations the figures are unsustainable for anyone. But, even more, if we are capable of facing such costs, I don’t see why we can’t aim at an alternative development of the country in exchange for the abandonment of the opium plantations.
And the possibilty of leaving Afghanistan entirely?
ARLACCHI: That would also be an error: we must remain in Afghanistan to try to take another road than that taken till now. Both to normalize the country and to make a qualitative leap in international drug strategy. I have already said: instability in Afghanistan and terrorism are fed by the drug traffic, and the worst thing that we could do is to repeat the mistakes that the Americans made.

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