Afghanistan’s newest front line

Opium abuse in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries has cost five times more lives annually than the alliance’s eight years of fighting against Afghanistan’s Taliban.

These latest statistics stem from a United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report released last week. This report draws serious attention to a situation that appears to be escalating uncontrollably.

Afghanistan focal point
According to the Times of India, it is estimated that about 15 million people around the world use heroin, opium or morphine. This widespread usage fuels a market worth approximately $65 billion USD annually.

Opium, which is manufactured from the extract of poppies, can also be refined to make heroin. Estimates suggest that Afghanistan is responsible for 92 per cent of the world’s opium supply.
The UNODC’s report, released on Oct. 21, hopes to rally international community support for a global crackdown. According to UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa, in an interview with CNN, “Seizing Afghan opium where it is produced is infinitely more efficient and cheaper than trying to do so where it is consumed.” He added, “This is not just a shared responsibility: it’s hard-headed self-interest.”

According to the Times of India, production of opium has exploded in the past decade. 6,900 tonnes of opium was cultivated in 2009. This figure exceeds that of worldwide consumption, and UNODC believes it will continue to increase if no serious action is taken.

Tracing consumption
Most of the opium produced in Afghanistan makes it way through Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran, producing criminality, corruption and lawlessness in its wake. The UN says only a small fraction of what is produced is seized en route.

With the release of the UNODC’s latest report, Costa told CNN that “we have identified the global consequences of the Afghan opium trade. Some are devastating but expected; others seem surprising, yet they are very real.”

A major concern highlighted by this report suggests that on an international level not enough is being done to intercept opium production.

The declining seizure rates are believed to be connected with the ever-increasing value of the drug.

With every border the illegal substance successfully crosses, the dollar value nearly doubles. The BBC estimates that “one gram of heroin worth $3 in Kabul is worth up to $100 on the streets of London, Milan or Moscow.”

According to the BBC, a major problem lies in the drastically different seizure rates occurring from country to country. The reality of the situation is that while Iran may be intercepting up to 20 per cent of the opium entering its territory, and Pakistan up to 17 per cent, Russia and some other European countries are seizing less than five per cent.

North America is not impartial. The United Nations found that Afghanistan may be supplying more heroin to the United States and Canada than was previously suspected.

According to the New York Times, the two North American countries consume more than twice as much heroin as Latin America produces. This means that either more Afghan heroin is making its way to North America than had been known, or that Mexico and Columbia are producing more than was realized.

The Taliban link
The UNODC is calling for international resources to tackle the problem by treating the situation as organized crime. UNODC hopes to see the collaboration of intelligence agencies to trace and destroy the lucrative money trail.

Afghanistan’s illegal opium production is directly linked with the Taliban. Taxation of the illegal operations allows the group to receive increased revenues.

In an interview with CNN, Costa said, “The Taliban’s direct involvement in the opium trade allows them to fund a war machine that is becoming technologically more complex and increasingly widespread.”

The money is not only finding its way into the hands of drug dealers, according to Costa; Afghan officials are profiting as well.

“The Afghan drug economy generates several hundred million dollars per year into evil hands: some with black turbans, some with white collars,” Costa said. By white collars, Costa is referring to “officials in the Afghan administration, federal government of Kabul or the provinces or the army or the police.”

The depth of the problem makes it difficult to target, leaving the UN with a simple message: reduce demand.

Finding a solution
The solution “is very clear,” says Costa.

“We need a much greater effort and commitment by governments to prevent drug addiction, to take care of drug addicts … to reduce demand.”

Ethan Nadelmann, founding executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to the war on drugs, suggests to CNN that the report offers little in the way of possible solutions.

Nadelmann’s own proposals include global legalization and control, which “is not happening, not any time soon,” he said in an interview with CNN. The second option is to increase drug treatment for addicts who want it and to provide legal access to the drug, as Canada has done. The last possibility is to acknowledge Afghanistan as the “world supplier of opium and focus on regulating market participants, even though it is still illegal.”

Although this remains a de facto strategy for political reasons, the report serves as a reminder of harsh reality. As long as there is a demand for opium, there will be a supply.