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EFSAS Commentary

Afghan heroin flooding global markets and motivating narco-terrorism is a real threat after the Taliban takeover


Soon after coming to power on 15 August, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid had said that “Afghanistan will not be a country of cultivation of opium anymore. We are against drugs and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is trying to eradicate the production of narcotics”. His heartening statement, however, came with an important rider – that the fight against opium would be predicated upon the Taliban receiving a generous quantum of financial assistance from the international community. Mujahid had added, “but it is only possible when the whole world helps us in empowering the farmers and providing them with an alternative to earn their livelihood”. Given that over the years it has been the Taliban that has been taxing all the Afghan opium, processed heroin, and methamphetamine, the drug that is presently going through a wave of popularity both in the international market and among producers in Afghanistan, it could reasonably be argued that it was actually the Taliban’s responsibility to wean away the opium farmers to more acceptable and less toxic crops. Be that as it may, the reality is that the production of Afghan opium even after the Taliban takeover is headed only in one direction, and that is upward. This abundance of flowering poppies can have only one conceivable consequence – a boom in Afghanistan’s already substantial narcotics trade. Pakistani journalist and author Hamid Mir in an article in The Washington Post contended that such a boom presented a major threat to global health, and that “In the next few years, a flood of drugs from Afghanistan may become a bigger threat than terrorism”.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer, accounting for about 87% of the global production despite a $9 billion effort over a two-decade period by the United States (US) to deter illegal production in the country. Bloomberg informed in a 16 November report that the United Nations (UN) had assessed recently that Afghanistan had produced 6,800 tons of opium in 2021, the fifth straight year in which opium production had crossed the 6,000-ton mark, and that the uncertainty resulting from the Taliban’s takeover of the country had pushed up opium prices in August and September. Output grew 8% this year and incentives for cultivation have risen as prices have picked up amid soaring poverty and food insecurity. The UN report further said that “Income from opiates in Afghanistan amounted to some $1.8-$2.7 billion in 2021. However, much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan”. In this backdrop, despite the noble intentions announced with some fanfare by Mujahid, the Taliban’s status as the prime driver of narco-terrorism has caused most seasoned observers to be skeptical about it.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a network of more than 500 experts on organized crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies, argued that “Ultimately, the new Taliban promises to ‘end drug smuggling’ are seen by observers as overtures to the international community, and part of a strategy to entice foreign aid back to the country and alleviate the economic crisis, rather than a commitment to counternarcotics policy”. Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime and author of ‘Seeds of Terror’, a book about the Taliban’s role in the heroin trade, pointed out that the Taliban’s swift return to power marks one of the few times in history that a multinational criminal cartel has succeeded in taking over an entire country. A report of the UN Security Council’s monitoring team in June this year observed that “The primary sources of Taliban financing remain criminal activities”, and that the production and trafficking of both heroin and methamphetamines “remains the Taliban’s largest single source of income”. The UN and the US have contended that the Taliban are involved in all facets, from poppy planting, opium extraction, and trafficking to exacting “taxes” from cultivators and drug labs to charging smugglers fees for shipments bound for Africa, Europe, Canada, Russia, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia.

There are yet other reasons why the Taliban would be loath to act against drug production and trafficking. The country’s dire economic situation is foremost among them. Also, the lesson from the Taliban’s ban on poppy growing in 2000 would still be etched in the memory of its senior leaders. Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown recalled that despite a steep decline in production, the 2000 ban on opium imposed by the Taliban regime in its earlier avatar had ignited a huge political storm against the Taliban and it was one reason why there were such dramatic defections after the US invasion in 2001. David Mansfield, a leading expert on Afghanistan’s drug industry, believes that the Taliban will “tread carefully to avoid alienating its rural constituency and provoking resistance and violent rebellion”. Hopes of persuading the present Taliban regime to actually crackdown on the harvesting of opium, therefore, appear dim. Jonathan Goodhand, Professor in Conflict and Development Studies, SOAS, University of London, believes that the drug trade is simply too deeply embedded in the accumulation and survival strategies of the Taliban.

Much of the Afghan opium is processed into heroin in labs in Pakistan before flooding the European market. Hamid Mir, in his article in The Washington Post asserted that Pakistan is on the front lines of the Afghan drug trade. Forty percent of Afghan drug trafficking utilizes routes passing through Pakistan. A 10 October report in The Week informed that tons of opium produced in Afghanistan are smuggled into the western borders of Pakistan in 100 – 200 kilogram packets and is processed there. The heroin is then reassembled into bigger consignments by gangs in Lahore and Faisalabad, before being sent to Karachi and Gwadar for further transportation through fishing vessels in the Makran coast. Prateek Joshi, a foreign policy researcher at Oxford University, explained that Pakistan takes advantage of the 2,500 km-long porous border it shares with Afghanistan and also its 1,062 km-long coastline on the Arabian Sea to promote the drug trade, and that “Pakistan acts as an intermediary and assists the Taliban in distributing the drugs all over the world, as far as the west and Africa”.

Brahma Chellaney, Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, underlined in his 12 November article titled ‘The Narco-Terrorist Taliban’ that “The Taliban uses several smuggling routes to move opiates. It moves output to Western Europe via the Caucasus and the Balkans, and from there all the way to North America. With the help of the Tajikistan-based terrorist group Jamaat Ansarullah, it also uses a northern route to Russia. The southeastern route, which snakes through Pakistan, is enabled by Pakistani security officials, who cooperate with the Taliban and smuggling syndicates, known locally as ‘tanzeems’, in exchange for bribes”.

The reticence of the Taliban and Pakistan in controlling the production and trafficking of narcotic drugs is finding reflection in foreign lands. In September, after a record haul of a massive 3000 kilograms of Afghan heroin worth over a whopping $2.2 billion, India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, the agency that seized the heroin, said, “High-quality heroin, a trademark of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, is being smuggled to Mozambique. From there, it goes to Johannesburg, Doha and then to Indian cities, and is further destined to Australia and other countries. While the Taliban is the source, the operation is done by African drug cartels. What is caught at the airports could be the tip of the iceberg. Seaports are the real concern”. Devendra Dutt, a former Indian Narcotics Control Bureau official who has also served with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), informed that “Between 2017 and 2020, most of the Afghan opiates were transported by road through Pakistan and into the Indian state of Punjab. The trend is changing as sea route is being used now to smuggle out large quantities”. He added that given the situation in Afghanistan, “it would be reasonable to conclude that the upward trend in production and trafficking of Afghan opiates will continue under the new 'government' of Afghanistan”.

The threat from the escalating trade in Afghan heroin and methamphetamine after the Taliban takeover extends far beyond India and South Asia, though. As Hamid Mir pointed out, “many UN officials confirmed that Afghanistan is becoming the biggest threat to public health in Asia, Europe and Africa. Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia and Turkey are some of the most popular routes for the smuggling of Afghan narcotics to many parts of the world. Heroin linked to Afghanistan is being smuggled to drug cartels in Italy, Russia and even in the United States. Drug labs in Afghanistan are not only producing heroin and hashish but have also started making methamphetamine (known as ‘meth’ or ‘ice’) from the ephedra plant, which is found in the wild across the country. Meth is easily available to college and university students in Pakistan. Last year, authorities in Sri Lanka and Australia noticed a rise in seizures of this deadly product — most of it linked with Afghanistan”. Last year, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction had warned that Afghanistan’s meth industry could soon be as large as its heroin industry. Mir added, “After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August, it took only a few weeks until police were seizing tons of narcotics not only in Pakistan but also in India”.

Across Europe the fear of even more Afghan heroin arriving in huge quantities causing prices of the dangerous drug to plunge, and further exacerbating the health spending crisis, have occupied policy makers and enforcement agencies alike.  Jeremy Hunt, former British Cabinet minister and chair of the House of Commons health committee, believes that such a development “would be the most unintended of a long list of unintended consequences arising from this disastrous decision (to withdraw from Afghanistan)”. Terming Europe as the main destination for heroin produced in Afghanistan, British commentator Michael Day opined that with the Taliban having gained complete control of the opium producing areas in the south and east of Afghanistan, the terrorist group is likely to ramp up production of heroin.

The US and Canada are equally concerned. Gretchen Peters, highlighting the problem, observed that at a time when 90 per cent of the heroin sold in Canada comes from Afghanistan, it was “important to recognize that the Taliban leadership manages both upstream and downstream aspects of the Afghan heroin trade — from setting farm quotas for poppy cultivation and providing financing to farmers, to bulk-buying the crop, and then refining it into exportable opium and heroin, and finally transporting it to neighbouring countries. In recent years, as Afghanistan rapidly became a significant global producer of methamphetamines, the Taliban also began taxing meth labs and shipments, with a comprehensive 2020 report suggesting that meth could eventually become as big an export as heroin… As Canada grapples with the fact that the Taliban, several factions of which Ottawa has designated as terrorist groups, now control Afghanistan, it also must contend with the narcotics threat emanating from the region”.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime pointed out similar concerns for Africa. It said, “Afghanistan is a major supplier of drugs flowing to and through East and southern Africa. The country has long been the world’s leading source of heroin but is also increasingly producing methamphetamine, some of which in the past two years has begun to be trafficked to southern Africa… The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban means that the country’s entire opium poppy crop – estimated to be as much as 80% of the world’s opium production – and its nascent methamphetamine industry are now under Taliban control”. It added that while earlier much of the Afghan heroin that came to Africa was meant “for onward trafficking to wealthier heroin consumer markets in Europe and the US, this has evolved in recent years. Significant heroin consumer markets have now also emerged in cities and small towns across East and southern Africa, fed by a network of overland trafficking routes”. It further informed that “our research has found that crystal meth has gained a foothold in Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya. South Africa is a major meth consumer market. There is a strong and growing demand for crystal meth in Africa, and Afghan meth is contributing to meeting this need”.

Using an example from Africa, John Godfrey, a US counterterrorism envoy, highlighted the added danger of an expansive trade in drugs eventually morphing into narco-terrorism. He pointed out the “nexus between terrorism finance and narcotics trafficking in Mozambique that’s particularly problematic” in relation to the US designation of the Al Sunnah wa Jama (ASWJ) as a foreign terrorist organization. As General Dan McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, eloquently asserted, “When I see a poppy field, I see it turning into money and then into IEDs, AKs, and RPGs”.

There is, therefore, an urgent need for the international community to wake up to the dangerous challenges that lie ahead for it if it does not do enough now to prevent the Taliban-inspired surge of Afghan heroin and meth in distant and vulnerable shores all across the world.