Home > Archives > 11 - 2004 > The flowers of evil
from issue no. 11 - 2004

DRUG TRAFFIC. The director of the UN Office against Drugs and Crime speaks

The flowers of evil

The data of the new UN report leave no doubts.In three years Afghanistan has become the world leader in the production and traffic of opium. Many of the proceeds from the drug end up in the pockets of terrorists. Interview with Antonio Maria Costa

by Roberto Rotondo

An armed convoy in the streets of Qalat, an Afghan town close to the border with Pakistan

An armed convoy in the streets of Qalat, an Afghan town close to the border with Pakistan

«It would be an historic error to abandon Afghanistan to the drug traffickers after having rescued it from the Taleban». Antonio Maria Costa, the Italian diplomat at the head of the UN Office against Drugs and Crime (UNODC), does not mince his words when commenting on the new data about the illegal cultivation of opium and the drug traffic in Afghanistan. Data that were published this year in a report published by UNODC, which has its headquarters in Vienna: in 2004, 4,200 tons of opium, equivalent to 80% of world production and 60% of the gross national product of Afghanistan, was produced from the plantations of this tormented Asian country. A sad record reached with impressive speed, since in 1999 the Taleban, two years before being overthrown because of their support for the Al Qaeda terrorists, had reduced production to practically zero by destroying crops. But, the paradoxes of history, the reborn drug traffic of Afghanistan, a business worth 2.8 billion dollars in 2004, now largely finances international terrorism.
Along with Costa, who is used to studying the situation not only through figures but in the field, thanks to continual visits to the areas where his agency is busy, we took a look at the situation in the ‘Great game’ as the English called Afghanistan, which by now is becoming a ‘Drug power game’.

Doctor Costa, but if it was going to finish up like this, wasn’t it better to keep the Taleban?
ANTONIO MARIA COSTA: No. I can understand your thrust, given the situation, but technically we can’t say that the Taleban were against drug-traffic, because it was only in the last year of their regime that they destroyed the crops, whereas in the previous five years there was record production. In reality the fields were destroyed because so much of merchandise was being produced that prices collapse through oversupply. Let’s say it was a business operation, market-rigging.
We can’t deny, however, that the new UN report on the issue makes a gloomy picture…
COSTA: Yes, it’s a very difficult situation. Not only because of the 64% increase in opium growing in just one year, work in which 10% of the Afghan people are employed, but especially because the narcotics trade is polluting the national economic, political and social system. So much so that the danger of Afghanistan degenerating into a “drug state” is becoming a reality. But the problem is not the growers, whose smallest plots, four meters by four, we can see thanks to our satellites at 875 kilometers from the earth. The problem is corruption, misgovernment, especially in the provinces. It’s the military, the Ministry of Defense, the police, the functionaries who deal with exportation and importation who authorize everything without caring too much. The problem is the warlords who control vast areas of the territory. In reality all are benefiting from the drug traffic, a kind of Marshall Plan that this country has invented.
A poppy field near Laskargah in the Afghan province of Helmand

A poppy field near Laskargah in the Afghan province of Helmand

Too big a problem for Karzai?
COSTA: The problem has to be seen in its political, social, economic and also its strategic aspects. Karzai can handle the political and social aspects, because the peasants, also those who grow opium, elected him to the presidency by plebiscite. But to hit the traffickers is out of reach for this government because we are talking about organizations that are too fierce. I saw a film by the Iranian secret services showing a convoy of traffickers, about sixty heavy vehicles, well-armed jeeps and with a military type escort. They are strategic operations that can field logistical means Karzai’s government and army can’t compete with. These organizations must be combated by the troops of the international forces present in Afghanistan. Whether it is NATO or the Coalition “Enduring freedom”, whether forms of bilateral assistance, Italian, English or American, doesn’t matter.
But you publicly asked the military forces in Afghanistan, the US and NATO, for greater commitment to stopping the traffickers. Do you think that not enough is being done on that front?
COSTA: I believe interdiction operations are under way against the traffickers that are kept secret. Although those in charge in the government and the military leaders deny it, even to me, there are many signs that something is happening. Otherwise the sums don’t add up. In fact the price of opium in the central provinces of the country has dropped sharply in the last year. On the markets, a kilogram of dry opium costs 92 dollars, compared to the 285 dollars of last year. If instead we look at the value of the merchandise on the border with Pakistan and in the Republics of Central Asia, we see no variation in price. So the profit of growers has been heavily cut and that of the traffickers enormously increased. This can only be explained by the fact that the risk for the traffickers in taking the opium and heroin out of the country has increased because of confiscation operations and destruction of the merchandise. Mine is only a hypothesis, but it’s backed up by the impressions of the UN workers in the field and by the Pakistani secret services. Furthermore, the very considerable increase in the profit margin of the traffickers at the expense of the peasants can’t be explained by an increase in the international demand for heroin, since consumption is falling and is today about 400 tons a year throughout the world.
The areas of production are in zones controlled by the Coalition forces? So it could happen that our soldiers find themselves guarding opium plantations?
COSTA: First of all one needs to accept that opium production has spread through all the thirty-two Afghan provinces. However it is clear that the intensity of production is much greater in the more remote areas, where government control is less and that of the terrorists or Taleban greater, where they can protect and control both growers and laboratories, as well as the traffic in general. Also, along the border with Pakistan there is a long and narrow stretch with a good many terrorist groups present. The product must of necessity pass there there. And the terrorists, like the warlords before them, demand what we in Italy call “il pizzo”, protection money, a cut. Sometimes they ask ten per cent of the value of the merchandise. There are also many arms dealers who swap arms for drugs, thanks to terrorist intermediaries. That’s why I’m always saying that the fight against drugs is the fight against terrorism. Because it deprives them of their main source of livelihood, the Petri dish in which the virus proliferates and grows.
It’s a very difficult situation. Not only because of the 64% increase in opium growing in just one year, work on which 10% of the Afghan people are employed, but especially because the narcotics trade is polluting the national economic, political and social system. So much so that the danger of Afghanistan degenerating into a “drug state” is becoming a reality.
Your view didn’t go down very well with those in charge of military operations, so much so that you said that the US was seeking “someone”, meaning Bin Laden, instead of seeking “something”, the something that enables Al Qaeda to exist. Is that still the situation today?
COSTA: No, the US has become aware of the terrible risk of instability caused by drugs and the drug-terrorism fusion. It’s got through to the top levels of the government of the country, of Congress, of the State Department and, I would say, to the level of civilian staff in the Defense Department.
And it’s got through in Afghanistan?
COSTA: Let’s be clear about this: for months and months Afghanistan was involved in a prolonged electoral campaign. The strength of democracies is the fact that political representatives act on a popular mandate, but their weakness is their incapacity to act during election periods. Over the past twelve months President Karzai was greatly hindered, especially in the work of eradicating crops, by not wanting to create conflicts and clashes in outlying areas of the country. Today the president has certainly a freer hand.
Once out of Afghanistan the drugs pass through many countries, including various of the former Soviet republics. What harm does their passage cause?
COSTA: It created what all the large concentrations of illegal finance creates: security problems, problems of stability, especially in some countries of Central Asia. There are large terrorist groups, such as the Uzbek Islamic movement, that receive revenue from the drugs. But the most terrible thing is that 80% of the new cases of AIDS in the world, those caused by shooting heroin, occur in the Central Asian Republics, in Russia, in the Ukraine, in the Baltic Republics. In short, along route traced by the drug traffic that begins in Afghanistan. It’s a frightening percentage.
What can be done apart from taking the drugs from the traffickers? It seems to me that there is no unified viewpoint, especially about how to convince more than two million growers to change crop…
COSTA: Obviously the growers must be worked on. At the UN we don’t have programs for destroying the crops, but it’s something that must be done, because the growers must be made to realize that engaging in illegal activity is a risk. Robbing a bank or stealing from one’s neighbor is a risk and so must growing opium be. But even if some repressive measure is necessary we must not forget that this is the third poorest country in the world. Poverty can’t be an alibi, but it’s clear that it makes people particularly vulnerable to the temptation to become part of the business. So we need programs of alternative development, of investments, of small-scale credit. We can’t ask growers to abandon crops that are absolutely profitable if the alternative is to die of hunger. The DNA of Afghanis is no better nor worse than our own, if they have to choose between legality and illegality they choose the former, but if they have to choose between hunger and illegality they choose the latter.

But is the international community helping Afghanistan in this?
COSTA: Less than it helped the Balkans, much less than it did East Timor. In Bosnia, for example, we invested 260 dollars a year per inhabitant, in Afghanistan 55 dollars. Not to sound cynical, but I believe that for the Afghanis drugs are a kind of national Marshall Plan. For lack of anything else they’ve independently developed a business that generates 2.8 billion dollars a year without taxes or controls. They see opium as something that doesn’t do them any harm because it gets exported. And if there’s no regime like that of the Taleban, when you could be executed for much less, people ask “why not?” I asked a grower in the province of Kunduz why he was cultivating opium and he said: «We’re free now, there’s a democracy, why shouldn’t I?»
We’ll hear about it in 2005, then, to mark a new record harvest, or an eventual drop if the weather is not against it…
COSTA: No, I believe that results will be better in 2005. This strange overlap of democracy and drug traffic won’t last. The country is becoming aware that sooner or later this story will finish as it finished in Pakistan and in Thailand. What we’re seeing is the last effort to corner as many dollars as possible.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português