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from issue no. 10 - 2003

ONU. The Head of the Office against drugs and crime speaks.

The monster with a thousand heads

Interview with Antonio Maria Costa. The traffic of opium, which is rooting itself ever more deeply in Afghan society, subsidizes the terrorists and threatens the already difficult process of democratization. The war lords are also becoming drug traffickers

by Roberto Rotondo

An American soldier of the Valiant Guardian operation against the members of Al Qaeda

An American soldier of the Valiant Guardian operation against the members of Al Qaeda

T“o years after the fall of the Taleban regime Afghanistan is still one of the world’s principal producers of drugs. And this illicit activity nourishes, according to the Vicesecretary general of ONU Antonio Maria Costa, a monster with a thousand heads which embraces everything, from the terrorist groups of Al Qaeda to the war lords who continue to control the private militias. «The great game», as the English define Afghanistan, has become the «drugs power game», Costa explains and launches an alarm: «There is a progressive rooting of the drugs traffic in Afghan society. It is a cancerous process much faster than the political process of democratization that the Karzai government is introducing amidst a thousand difficulties. The risk is that the country is imploding and will be consigned to the hands of some of the drug traffic cartels». Costa, who directs the UN center in Vienna and is the executive director of the UNODC (United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime), was recently on a mission to Afghanistan where he signed an agreement with the Minister of the Interior Ahmad Jalai for the creation of a new anti-drug unit within the Ministry. In Kabul he met Karzai, his ministers and the heads of the NATO military command. With 30Days Costa clarified the torment of the Asian country, no longer under the media spotlight of the world but far from resolving its own problems. Costa anticipates some approaches which will appear in the new UN report on worldwide tendencies of illicit drugs in the world because, as said, there is only one sector that is expanding very quickly in Afghanistan, that of opium production. It is enough to think that today 75% of the substance on the world markets comes from there and more than 80% of the heroin that circulates in Europe is refined from Afghan opium. UNODC estimates that 74,000 hectares of land were given over to the cultivation of the poppy in 2002. Crops that produced 3,442 tons of opium. We are therefore returning to the record numbers of the second half of the ’nineties.

Doctor Costa, what situation did you find in Afghanistan?
ANTONIO MARIA COSTA: The political process for creating a central state is advancing fairly well. There are hiccoughs of course, as there are in every part of the world when you have to work out a Constitution starting from with nothing. But the political process is in line with the calendar set out by the Bonn agreements, and Karzai has complete control. The procedures for setting up presidential elections next spring are also continuing, even if I leave you to imagine what preparing the electoral lists in a country in which most of the electorate is illiterate is like. Further,the reorganization of the army is also going ahead and the police forces are also in a phase of restructuring even if with minimal resources. Advances are also to be noted in the administrative arrangements of the State, and during my last trip I saw that there were extremely competent ministers, nothing to do with the first ones I saw some months back and especially not with those in office immediately after the fall of the Taleban.
Also the level of the security systems which protected me during my moves showed significant organizational progress.
But they will also have confirmed that it is certainly not a safe and pacified country ….
COSTA: Agreed, and that’s another aspect of the situation. I had many confirmations, also in the briefings with the military, that strong terrorist penetration by Al Qaeda, the Taleban and of elements perhaps associated with the former prime minister Hekmatyr is underway. It’s not that there is an enormous number of militants, they gave me as a number about four thousand Talebans, three thousand adherents of Al Qaeda and some hundreds of followers of Hekmatyr. The terrorists cross the border from Pakistan, and engage at the moment in skirmishes and then retreat, or try to establish themselves, as has happened with some groups of Taleban, in the south of the capital. They are trial operations almost, as if they wanted to assess the extent of military reaction.
All of this makes the situation even more precarious and I noticed great preoccupation among the military, also because the three groups to which we have referred used at one time to shoot at each other, but now seem to cooperate, share their arms and protect each other. This leads us to an even more serious problem, that of drug traffic, which represents a resource both for the warlords and for the terrorists. Along the border with Pakistan, in fact, either by force or by promising protection, they oblige the opium traffickers to feed them.
President Karzai

President Karzai

In some of your reports you stressed that while the annual profits from Afghan drugs hover around 1.2 billion U.S. dollars, the budget of the Afghan anti-narcotic agency is only 3 million dollars (never delivered). Is drug trafficking too big a problem for the Karzai government?
COSTA: Drug trafficking is not only a problem for Afghanistan. The whole international community must do more. President Hamid Karzai reconfirmed to me the government’s committment to reinforce the control on narcotics, uproot the poppy plants and destroy the illegal laboratories. Further, in the coming months, Karzai will sign the country’s first anti-drug law. My trip to the Afghan provinces in which the opium is produced was also the occasion to study the most effective way to combat production. In fact, if in the five provinces (Helmand, Nangarhar, Badakhshan, Uruzgan and Kandahar) where growing is most widespread one sees a reduction, the fact that the poppy fields are extending to other areas is preoccupying: Farh, Ghor, Fariab and Samangan, in almost every corner of the country practically.
If the spread of poppy growing continues, the crop could diminish, because the climate is not favorable to the cultivation of opium. But the fact that the price has come down (good news, because less money comes into the pockets of the traffickers), makes one think that there must be a great quantity of the stuff in circulation. Today, also, in order to increase profits, the opium is refined in the country of origin and there is a wave of heroin at low cost which is invading Russia, where all the heroin sold is however of Afghan origin. It’s a phenomenon which greatly alarms the Russians and which I had the occasion to speak to Putin about on a recent journey.
But in this period the most dramatic problem which I spoke about to the soldiers of “Enduring freedom” and the NATO Council in Afghanistan, is that the opium economy is becoming ever more rooted in the attitudes and choices of the Afghan people. The wise men, the village leaders, whom I met told me that they are driven with no alternative by poverty, that they are seduced by the money of the traffickers who buy the crop already before they have begun to plant it, that they are constrained by the threats of the terrorists. I did not, however, like the arguments of some of them, because they sounded like blackmail: “Pay us and we’ll stop”. But I also understand that a peasant in such a poor country, where the streets are so ruined that produce can’t be taken to the market, where there is no electricity nor drinkable water nor hospitals nor schools, has found an Eldorado in his poverty by growing a little opium. Let’s not forget that a kilo of opium is worth the equivalent of ten barrels of oil, or 350 dollars. As well as that the international community hasn’t treated Afghanistan very generously, which received on average last year about 50-55 dollars less for every inhabitant. Very little, if we compare it to Bosnia where 260 dollars a person is given.
To grasp what is going on can we sketch in the different stages of the drug trafficking?
COSTA: The first stage in the opium industry obviously relates to the peasants who grow it and receive a certain price selling it in the bazaar. We’ve estimated that in 2002 the income which the peasants received was about 1 bilion, 200 million dollars.
A great volume of trade ….
COSTA: Yes, even if we must consider that a percentage of this money is confiscated by local extortioners, whether the warlords or the terrorists. The second stage: the product leaves the bazaar and is transported towards the border. The overall estimate we’ve calculated for the traffickers who transport the produce is about 1 billion, 400 million dollars. Third stage: the traffickers pay various tolls at the road blocks they encounter, on one side and the other of the border. On the one side they pay paramilitary troops who fought the Taleban and now control the various provinces, on the other side of the border they pay the terrorists who control some border areas of Pakistan.
Here’s the real root of the problem. The military commanders, in fact, play an equivocal role. They’ve almost all been involved in the traffic for years, even if this does not mean that they are traffickers. They’ve always had the problem of providing resources for their own troops, half peasants and half soldiers, enlisted on the basis of ethnic group affiliation: half a dollar a day per person for food, a minimum of remuneration, something for the family, new arms and so on. This is an element of trafficking which I consider understandable even if not acceptable. But the argument is changing, however. I’ve met military commanders with gold watches of 200 grams, I have heard from others that they’ve bought real estate in the Persian Gulf, in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq, in Iran. I’ve known military commanders who have bought chains of hotels and supermarkets. Some of these warlords are becoming the leaders of organized crime and what I fear most of all is that the effort of Karzai and of the United Nations to stabilize this delicate, slow process, made up of ethnic balances, will be nullified by a much more rapid process, which can transform Afghanistan into a cartel country, like Medellin.
Did you have occasion during your trip to press the NATO forces on the problem?
COSTA: Certainly. The military must slow down this cancerous process as much as possible through interdiction, the demolition of the laboratories, confiscation, sequestration and so on. I’ve not had a response, but that doesn’t mean that they were indifferent, because these are decisions that are made elsewhere, at political levels in the capitals of the countries involved. However I have seen in the past weeks a certain number of military operations which stopped many traffickers.
But if stopping the traffic really means cutting off fuel from terrorism, why are more resources not invested in the effort, instead of embarking on military campaigns aimed at changing the regimes of the so called ‘rogue’ countries?
COSTA: International terrorism is a much vaster problem than the case of Afghanistan, which does however represent an important element in it. Many times I say to the Americans: «You’re looking for someone and not something». In effect this “someone” benefits from the “something”, from the traffic in drugs. But the United States Defence Department (even if the USA remains the nation which is helping the UN in Afghanistan most of all) has always had a very hostile attitude towards any possible involvement of the military in the fight against “drugs”, perhaps because it had tragic experiences at the time of the war in Vietnam. However I’ve noticed in recent times that the subject is certainly under discussion.
In 2001 when Afghanistan was in the hands of the Taleban, the production of opium dropped to a historic low. Therefore a system for preventing it exists ….
COSTA: The problem is not to eradicate the poppy plantations, to overwhelm the peasants, but to interrupt the traffic in the finished product. Then we must remember that today we have a country where there is a lack of government, whereas with the Taleban there was a totalitarian government and the peasants risked their lives for much lesser things. Furthermore the Taleban only blocked the growing, sure in the knowledge that there was a lot of the finished product that circulated. At that time the prices per kilo oscillated between 35-40 dollars to 700 dollars.
Are there economic and political interests outside Afghanistan which foment the drug traffic?
COSTA: We haven’t any corroborating evidence; however, as far as growing is concerned, I discovered during my travels that the peasants are rarely owners of the land on which the opium is cultivated. The land belongs to the village, the town council, or, especially in the south of the country, it belongs to ambiguous personages who live abroad, and who impose on share-cropping peasants cultivation of the drug. Many of these owners could be colluding with terrorism.

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