Afghanistan: The World's Number One Narco-State?
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At a drug conference in Kabul this month, the head of Russia's Federal Narcotics Service estimated the value of Afghanistan's current opium crop at $65 billion. Only $500 million of that vast sum goes to Afghanistan's farmers, $300 million to the Taliban guerrillas, and the $64 billion balance "to the drug mafia," leaving ample funds to corrupt the Karzai government in a nation whose total GDP is only $10 billion.
Indeed, opium's influence is so pervasive that many Afghan officials, from village leaders to Kabul's police chief, the defense minister, and the president's brother, have been tainted by the traffic. So cancerous and crippling is this corruption that, according to recent U.N. estimates, Afghans are forced to spend a stunning $2.5 billion in bribes. Not surprisingly, the government's repeated attempts at opium eradication have been thoroughly compromised by what the U.N. has called "corrupt deals between field owners, village elders, and eradication teams."
Not only have drug taxes funded an expanding guerrilla force, but the Taliban's role in protecting opium farmers and the heroin merchants who rely on their crop gives them real control over the core of the country's economy. In January 2009, the U.N. and anonymous U.S. "intelligence officials" estimated that drug traffic provided Taliban insurgents with $400 million a year. "Clearly," commented Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "we have to go after the drug labs and the druglords that provide support to the Taliban and other insurgents."
In mid-2009, the U.S. embassy launched a multi-agency effort, called the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, to cut Taliban drug monies through financial controls. But one American official soon compared this effort to "punching jello." By August 2009, a frustrated Obama administration had ordered the U.S. military to "kill or capture" 50 Taliban-connected druglords who were placed on a classified "kill list."
Since the record crop of 2007, opium production has, in fact, declined somewhat -- to 6,900 tons last year (still over 90% of the world's opium supply). While U.N. analysts attribute this 20% reduction largely to eradication efforts, a more likely cause has been the global glut of heroin that came with the Afghan opium boom, and which had depressed the price of poppies by 34%. In fact, even this reduced Afghan opium crop is still far above total world demand, which the U.N. estimates at 5,000 tons per annum.
Preliminary reports on the 2010 Afghan opium harvest, which starts next month, indicate that the drug problem is not going away. Some U.S. officials who have surveyed Helmand's opium heartland see signs of an expanded crop. Even the U.N. drug experts who have predicted a continuing decline in production are not optimistic about long-term trends. Opium prices might decline for a few years, but the price of wheat and other staple crops is dropping even faster, leaving poppies as by far the most profitable crop for poor Afghan farmers.
Ending the Cycle of Drugs and Death
With its forces now planted in the dragon's teeth soil of Afghanistan, Washington is locked into what looks to be an unending cycle of drugs and death. Every spring in those rugged mountains, the snows melt, the opium seeds sprout, and a fresh crop of Taliban fighters takes to the field, many to die by lethal American fire. And the next year, the snows melt again, fresh poppy shoots break through the soil, and a new crop of teen-aged Taliban fighters pick up arms against America, spilling more blood. This cycle has been repeated for the past ten years and, unless something changes, can continue indefinitely.