When NATO leaders meet for their summit in Riga at the end of this month. There will be a ghost at the feast: Afghanistan’s opium. Afghanistan is in danger of falling back into the hands of terrorists, insurgents, and criminals, and the multi-billion-dollar opium trade is at the heart of the country’s malaise. Indeed, Nato’s top general, James Jones, has called drugs the “Achilles heel of Afghanistan. This year’s record harvest of 6,100 tons of opium will generate more than $3 billion in illicit revenue – equivalent to almost half of Afghanistan’s GDP. Profits for drug traffickers downstream will be almost 20 times that amount. Opium money is corrupting Afghan society from top to bottom. High-level collusion enables thousands of tons of chemical precursors, needed to produce heroin, to be trucked into the country. Armed convoys transport raw opium around the country unhindered. Sometimes even army and police vehicles are involved. Guns and bribes ensure that the trucks are waved through checkpoints. Opiates flow freely across borders into Iran, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries. The opium fields of wealthy landowners are untouched because local officials are paid off. Major traffickers never come to trial because judges are bribed or intimidated. Senior government officials take their cut of opium revenues or bribes in return for keeping quiet. Perversely, some provincial governors and government officials are themselves major players in the drug trade. As a result, the Afghan state is at risk of takeover by a malign coalition of extremists, criminals, and opportunists. Opium is choking Afghan society. Within Afghanistan, drug addiction is rising. Neighbors that used to be transit states for drugs are now major consumers, owing to similar dramatic increases in opium and heroin addiction. Intravenous drug use is spreading HIV/AIDS in Iran, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union. In traditional Western European markets, health officials should brace for a rise in the number of deaths from drug overdoses, as this year’s bumper opium crop will lead to higher-purity doses of heroin. What can be done? First, the veil of corruption in Afghanistan must be lifted. Afghans are fed up with arrogant and well-armed tycoons who live in mansions and drive top-of-the range Mercedes limousines – in a country where barely 13 percent of the population has electricity and most people must survive on less than $200 a year. It is time for the Afghan government to name, shame, and sack corrupt officials, arrest major drug traffickers and opium landlords, and seize their assets. Donors have trained police and prosecutors and built courts and detention centers. Now it is up to the government to use the judicial system to impose the rule of law. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to re-establish confidence in the central government. Putting major drug traffickers behind bars at the new maximum-security prison at Pul-i-Charki, near Kabul, would be a good start. Of course, Afghanistan does not bear sole responsibility for its plight. The heroin trade would not be booming if Western governments were serious about combating drug consumption. It is a bitter irony that the countries whose soldiers’ lives are on the line in Afghanistan are also the biggest markets for Afghan heroin. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s neighbors must do more to stop insurgents, weapons, money, and chemical precursors from flowing across their borders into the country. Coalition forces should take a more robust approach to the drug problem. Counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics are two sides of the same coin. Improving security and the rule of law must include destroying the opium trade. Allowing opium traffickers to operate with impunity gives them a free hand to raise money to pay for the arms and fighters battling the Afghan army and Nato forces. The United Nations Security Council has authorized the International Security Assistance Force to take all necessary measures to fulfill its mandate. NATO troops should be given the green light to help the Afghan army fight opium – destroy the heroin labs, disband the opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys, and bring the big traders to justice. And they should be given the tools and manpower to do the job. There is no point in trying to win the hearts and minds of major drug traffickers. Farmers are a different story. Forced eradication risks pushing farmers into the hands of extremists, and thus will not lead to the sustainable reduction of opium fields. Indeed, as we have seen in some Andean countries, it can be counter-productive. Therefore, security and development must go hand in hand. To achieve this, Afghanistan needs more development assistance. International support so far has been generous, but it is still well below per capita equivalents for other post-conflict situations – and the need is much greater. Farmers will be weaned off opium over the long term only if they have sustainable livelihoods. At the moment, Afghanistan’s drug lords are prospering, and rural communities are suffering. That situation needs to be reversed. We must punish the traffickers and reward the farmers. We cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan. Recent history has given us graphic evidence of what would happen if we do. But any solution in Afghanistan depends on eliminating its opium.
Antonio Maria Costa is executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).