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AFGHANISTAN
from issue no. 09 - 2009

DRUG TRAFFICKING. The virus that is destabilizing the country and mutating

Involving Iran and Pakistan to defeat the drug terrorists


An interview with Antonio Maria Costa, director of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime. The opium market is declining in the country, but drug mafias are taking root: for terrorists, mercenaries, the Taliban, the warlords, the drug is no longer a means of raising funds but an end in itself. The way to stop them is to work more closely with the neighboring countries


Interview with Antonio Maria Costa by Roberto Rotondo


The drug trade in Afghanistan is a virus that has already mutated several times: from illegal revenue for starving peasants, for some years opium had become the main source of funding for insurgents, terrorists, warlords and the Taliban, as Time magazine also has pointed out, devoting a lengthy piece of investigative journalism to it, its cover story in early September. But in fact there has been a further mutation, more dangerous than previous, explains Antonio Maria Costa, the Italian diplomat heading the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime): “A marriage of convenience between insurgents and drug traffickers is creating Afghan drug mafias. And, as happened in Colombia with the FARC, the drug has shifted from being a means of financing resistance to being an end in itself. Drug money has caused dependence and has undermined ideology”. With Costa, habituated to studying the situation not only through statistics but also in the field, constantly traveling to the areas where his agency is engaged, we analyze the data and conclusions of the newly released 2009 UNODC report on opium in Afghanistan.
To speak of drugs and opium growing in Afghanistan is to speak of the largest industry of the battered Asian country, because it grows 90% of the opium illegally produced in the world and that, crude or refined into heroin, causes a hundred thousand deaths a year from overdose in Europe, Russia and, recently, also in China.

Antonio Maria Costa, Director of UNODC, during one of his trips to Afghanistan [© UNODC]

Antonio Maria Costa, Director of UNODC, during one of his trips to Afghanistan [© UNODC]

Dr Costa, UNODC’s new report highlights two phenomena that seem to contradict each other. The first is positive: the market for opium in Afghanistan is falling sharply. The second, however, prospects the emergence and taking root of drug mafias. What should we conclude?
ANTONIO MARIA COSTA: That a certain stage in the drug trade in Afghanistan is closing and that a new one is opening, one not to be underestimated. Let me try to give a picture of the situation. Opium growing has fallen by 22% in just one year, and prices have fallen to their lowest in a decade. The number of provinces free of opium growing has risen to 20 out of 34. In addition, 800,000 less Afghans are now involved in drug trafficking. In fact, the proceeds for the growers has fallen by 30% in one year and whereas in the past the production of a kilogram of opium was worth twenty-seven times the value of a kilo of wheat, now they are earning only twice that, but the risks are certainly not the same. So the value of opium in Afghanistan has dropped by 40% to 438 million dollars a year. It nevertheless remains an important enterprise that is equivalent to 4% of the gross domestic product of Afghanistan, but in 2002 it accounted for as much as 27% of GDP and 12% in 2007. The report, finally, shows that some progress is possible even in areas controlled by the Taliban.
A positive picture then. You yourself, in 2004, the year of highest production of opium in Afghanistan, explained how the drug trade was a sort of Marshall Plan that the country had invented to survive, but when it was no longer so profitable the Afghanis would get out of it. And instead?
COSTA: Instead the virus of drug trafficking not only continues to have devastating consequences but has mutated. Let me try to describe the new picture: over the past two years Afghanistan has produced 6,900 tons of opium a year, much more of the drug than worldwide demand, stable at 5,000 tons per year. This demand-supply relationship, which has caused the collapse in prices, had led us to understand that someone, and certainly not the growers, has taken off the market and put in storage a huge quantity of the drug, estimated at approximately 10,000 tons. This mountain of drugs must be neutralized before it becomes a source of funding for global terrorism and the cause of disturbing consequences.
The second element in the mutation: for some years the Afghans who cooperate with us in monitoring the situation on the ground, have reported that the Taliban, warlords, insurgents, mercenaries, have switched to operating the drug trade directly. Before they financed their wars by taking a cut from growers and traffickers, now they are directly involved, now they are in effect drug traffickers. Evidence? For some time the special forces against drug trafficking have been finding in their operations against the drug collection centers material that has little to do with organized crime: satellite phones, explosive suicide-bomber belts and weapons, lots of weapons. Third element: the production and trafficking of drugs in fact have been concentrated in five provinces that are under the control of the insurgents, that, not incidentally, are the most dangerous, and those with the highest number of suicide bombings.
British soldiers in an opium plantation in the north of the Afghan province of Helmand. According to the UNODC 2009 Report the provinces involved in drug trafficking are in sharp decline, but the growing of opium is concentrated in areas under the control of insurgents <BR>[© Redux/Contrasto]

British soldiers in an opium plantation in the north of the Afghan province of Helmand. According to the UNODC 2009 Report the provinces involved in drug trafficking are in sharp decline, but the growing of opium is concentrated in areas under the control of insurgents
[© Redux/Contrasto]

So, less widespread but more entrenched drug trafficking...
COSTA: Right. I don’t know whether this concentration, this “cartelization”, may not have positive aspects by the fact that it delimits the problem and frees many parts of the country, but I know it’s very dangerous because the Taliban who control the opium production areas could, by following the simple market law that regulates supply and demand, impose a halt on the growers. At that point prices, which continue to decline, would immediately rise and those who have stored those 10,000 tons of excess drugs would have their hands on an immense treasure. Not to mention the positive image they would enjoy in worldwide public opinion, posing as the people who have put an end to opium growing. It’s a scenario that I had already conceived as possible in the 2008 Report, but it hasn’t occurred. So far.
Yet the Taliban years ago were reluctant, for religious reasons, to get their hands dirty with drug trafficking, and only got into it for funding purposes. And then?
COSTA: Let me first say that, perhaps by generalizing too much, we now use the term Taliban to indicate all the insurgents. In fact the Taliban, that is the students who arrived in Afghanistan over a decade ago from the Pakistani madrasas, are only one sector of the insurgents, among whom are numbered warlords, common bandits, terrorists, Chechen and Arab mercenaries. A confused mix, a gray area where the roles and loyalties are never clear.
But returning to the Taliban, there have been three stages in their relationship with the drug. From when they came to power up to the year two thousand they tolerated the production and trafficking of drugs. Then, at the time of the wave of international outrage at the stoning of women in stadiums and the destruction of the giant statues of Buddha, Mullah Omar decreed a ban on the growing of opium, both to patch up his credit internationally and because, like today, there was so much around that prices were falling. In that way he made them rise. In the third phase, after the invasion following 11 September 2001, the Taliban again began to be involved in drug trafficking. Except that, as I’ve said, drug trafficking causes dependence and now has become an end not a means.
Where does Afghan opium end up?
COSTA: Around half of the product is shifted to Iran. There a part is consumed and a part seized by the Iranian anti-drug squads, who lead the world in seizures of opium and its derivatives. Approximately 30-35% of the product is taken into Pakistan from Afghanistan and 15-18% follows the Central Asian route northwards. This shows why we can only combat this scourge with a regional approach, that is by involving Pakistan and Iran. Once the drug is out of Afghanistan the matter becomes complicated, because the road that takes opium to poorer societies, where it is consumed raw, has to be separate from that taken by heroin or morphine, bound for richer societies. But some statistics leap to the eye: in Russia alone 21% of the heroin produced from Afghan opium is consumed, nearly 80 tons of heroin per year. In European Union countries, 25%. A new and worrying statistic is that China absorbs 13% of heroin, nearly 50 tons of the finished product per year. As for raw opium, what arrives in Iran and is not consumed, is partly refined and then exported across the border with Turkey, to areas of the Caucasus and especially to the Balkans, reaching Romania and Bulgaria. The surprising thing is the very low number of seizures of this drug: consider that while about half of the cocaine produced in Colombia and the Andean countries is seized, in the case of opium only 20% of the stuff circulating manages to get blocked.
Taliban militants checking the work of the farmers in an opium plantation. Over the past two years much more opium than that required by the world market has been produced. The UN says someone has stored it, creating an enormous and dangerous hoard of the drug <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Taliban militants checking the work of the farmers in an opium plantation. Over the past two years much more opium than that required by the world market has been produced. The UN says someone has stored it, creating an enormous and dangerous hoard of the drug
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Will anything change in terms of drug trafficking after the presidential elections in Afghanistan?
COSTA: My hope is that President Karzai is aware, and not only in words, that the biggest problem is the corruption of institutions caused by money from drug trafficking. One third of the House appears to be connected in one way or another to the world of gangs and drugs, which runs through every level of the State, from the central government to the provinces, from the state apparatus to that of the army and police. You cannot solve the drug problem in Afghanistan without engaging in a drastic strengthening of the integrity of state administration. This is my great hope for the programs that President Karzai will have to undertake to get out of this difficult situation.
The Report speaks of the negative effects of drugs on the banking system, especially the banks of the Persian Gulf.
COSTA: The issue is more important than Afghanistan itself. Money laundering is an extraordinarily complex device that involves real investments, especially in real estate, in the hotel sector, casinos, and it also involves the traditional banking system. There’s always been an army of professionals in the world – white-collar professionals, God-fearing, patriotic and professing a certain sense of civic duty – who do not ask questions about the origin of the money they take in, try to get the mafiosi out of prison, falsify accounts, swindle. But there’s also a new fact: the banking crisis, which was above all a liquidity crisis, has offered extraordinary opportunities to organized crime, which has so much cash, because it always deals in cash. The dirty money from drug trafficking has suddenly had greater weight for the banks, ready to do anything to survive. It is a perverse and destabilizing system.
In conclusion, what is your feeling on the situation in Afghanistan and the area more generally?
COSTA: Never before have the efforts to stamp out drug traffickers and terrorists been so inextricably linked: if one fails, the others will fail.


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