Afghanistan traffickers winning "war on drugs"

By Kevin Clarke| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Opium out of Afghanistan continues to produce a bad trip for U.S. war strategists trying to cope with a disheartened public (in both the United States and Afghanistan), an apparently corrupt Karzai regime which has been deeply compromised by drug traffickers, and a growing Taliban insurgency earning more now from the poppy, according to the United Nations, than they did when they were in power. A new UN report includes the potentially politically incendiary charge that as much as 75 percent of the heroin sold in the United States and Canada could now be coming from Afghanistan.

According to the report, 90 percent of the world supply of heroin originates as opium in Afghanistan, a $65 billion annual global trade, which now kills many more people in NATO countries in a year than the number of NATO soldiers who have died on the battlefield in Afghanistan since 2001. Antonio Maria Costa, the senior United Nations official on drugs and crime, said. "If we do not address this, it will be hard to solve all the other problems in Afghanistan." The UN says the lucrative nature of the heroin trade is creating a "narco-cartel" in Afghanistan that includes corrupt government and security officials.

It's also helping paying the bills for the Taliban, which are connected to as many as 50 traffickers. According to the UN, between 2005 and 2008, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan drew between $90 million and $160 million annually from taxes and levies imposed on opium farmers and drug traffickers compared to $75 million to $100 million a year a decade ago. Foreign Policy notes there's plenty of blame to go around on the problem of the global drug trade. Hint: The bad guys are not always carrying AK-47s but montblancs. "[T]here's a broader issue that often gets ignored about the narcotics trade: The real money isn't in smuggling drugs, it's in laundering the dirty money. As . . . Antonio Maria Costa puts it: ‘The Afghan drug economy generates several hundred million dollars per year into evil hands -- some with black turbans, others with white collars.'"

According to the UN, there are 15.4 million opiate users worldwide, and global heroin consumption is estimated at 340 tons per year, equivalent to 2,600 tons of opium. The report notes the existence of an unaccounted stockpile of 12,000 tons of opium believed to be stored in Afghanistan and possibly also in transit and destination countries. ''Thus, even if opiate production in Afghanistan were to cease immediately, there would still be ample supply,'' the report said.

One way to open a new front in the war against the heroin traffickers might be to just open a new sanitized heroin market, one run by the government and stocked with government-provided heroin. It will likely be a shocking proposition to American ears, but in Britain, a program aimed at treating hard-core addicts and getting heroin sales off the streets is meeting some success. According to CNN: "[D]aily heroin injections given to hard-to-treat addicts as part of a comprehensive program succeeded in treating those addicts and reducing crime. The use of street heroin was reduced by three quarters and the crimes committed trying to get drugs were cut by two-thirds."

Such a program offers a number of ripple benefits it seems to me. It gets drug profits out of the hands of the traffickers and their minders in the Taliban, gets addicts into programs, and reduces street crime and HIV transmission. Curtailing the heroin trade at its market destination also should succeed in reducing corruption in Afghanistan and heroin-transit countries while diminishing violence and mayhem associated with the trade. Could be a win all around if we could take a deep breath and give such a radical proposal a try.