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The Observer (UK)
December 2, 2001
It's not only the west that suffers
Afghanistan is the source of most of the west's heroin.
But the greatest devastation is within the local region, and the damage will get worse still unless the international community acts

By Ustina Markus

Ustina Markus is Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group. ICG's new report Central Asia: Drugs and Conflict is available on ICG's website www.crisisweb.org.

There are no good guys in Afghanistan's heroin trade. There may be a popular desire to blame the Taliban for Afghanistan's massive share of the world's heroin supply, which has helped to fuel conflict in Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia. But the devastating social and political impact of the drugs trade across the region will not stop with the Taliban's defeat. Without immediate international attention, the problem may well get worse.

Many of the Talban's opponents have, at the very least, tolerated and profited from the drugs trade. UN research has found that most of the opiates transiting Tajikistan's major smuggling routes have come from Northern Alliance-controlled territory. The fact that seizures of heroin outnumber those of opium demonstrares that laboratories in Alliance-controlled areas were successfully refining opium into the more potent and compact final product. The late Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud may have publicly opposed the drugs trade, just as Taliban leader Mullah Omar had condemned it. But weapons and troops are paid for by individual commanders: there is no doubt that opiates have funded all factions.

Talk of Afghan heroin mostly focuses solely on its impact on western markets and societies. 80 per cent of western Europe's heroin supply does come from Afghanistan. But while the entire annual consumption of heroin in western Europe amounts to around 120 tons, Afghanistan is estimated to have produced enough opium to make 350 tons of heroin. While addiction in western markets has generally stabilised or even fallen, these massive increases of supply have flooded regional neighbours, with devastating effects.

Pakistan and Iran now have the highest rates of heroin addiction in the world. Almost ten per cent of Iran's population is estimated to use drugs - and there are well over a million addicts. In Peshawar, Pakistan, it is impossible not to notice addicts shooting up in alleyways. In Tajikistan one in 50 people are estimated to be regular users of opiates while Russia has also seen a 400 per cent rise in heroin addiction rates in the past decade. Europe is easily the most lucrative market for Afghan heroin, but much of it is soaked up in Russia and central Asia, where it is sold for as little as a dollar a 'hit'.

There is no accurate estimate of the extent of heroin use and addiction in Afghanistan itself - but the huge supply, local heroin labs and desperate misery make it reasonable to assume that a large proportion of its population are users. Regional trends suggest that the majority of addicts will be young men, exactly those who should be engaged in reconstruction.

An offshoot of drug abuse has been the appearance of HIV infection in the region, mostly in the intravenous drug user community. In Russia, HIV rates went up from an official 38,000 in mid-2000 to 129,000 diagnosed cases in July 2001. Unofficially it is believed as many as 700,000 are infected. Official statistics are lower in Central Asia, but relatively few people have been tested there. The only area where a large sample has been taken is in the city of Termitau in Kazakhstan. The city is a major transit point for drugs and over 1,000 have tested positive for HIV in a population of 160,000. An epidemic, strictly speaking, is one percent - and so Termitau is almost there. Health officials believe that at least six other cities along the drug transit routes in Kazakhstan have similar infection rates.

Ridding Afghanistan of its opium and heroin industries will not be easy. Up to 50 per cent of the population is believed to be directly or indirectly reliant on the trade for their livelihoods, even while Mullah Omar's ban was in place. The departure of the Taliban from many areas has already seen farmers replanting poppy crops. Women who were prevented from any other work - and often widowed by the war - increasingly worked as couriers. It is a brutal business.

Smugglers often take members of the courier's family hostage to ensure delivery and payment for the merchandise. Criminality, violence and corruption also weaken institutions and regional governments and thwart desperately needed economic reforms. Interdiction efforts have led to low-intensity conflict with drug dealers, especially in border areas, while tighter border controls hinder trade and weaken already fragile regional economies. Greater police powers have often led to new opportunities for corruption. Drugs have themselves become currency - payment in kind where cash is unavailable and relatively worthless.

So far attempts made by the international community to tackle the drug trade emanating from Afghanistan have had little effect. The US has paid scant attention - believing that Afghan drugs pay only a small part in its own narcotics problem. The European Union has funded interdiction programs through the UN but has otherwise done little to work with the countries of the region. But the opium and heroin trade must be a serious focus for reconstruction and development if stability is ever to be achieved.

A comprehensive and sophisticated strategy has to form part of the broader efforts to end decades of conflict and economic decline. Afghanistan's neighbours, especially Pakistan and Iran, will not feel secure as long as Afghan drugs have such a malign effect on their societies - and are unlikely to end their often unhelpful intrusions into the country's politics. The fragile economies of Central Asia are also terribly destabilised by opiates.

What can be done? The international community will have to devote far greater resources - not only for policing, but also for poverty alleviation and agricultural reform. Crop substitution and improved market access are essential in the next few years. But in the meantime farmers will need direct assistance if they are to stop poppy cultivation now that the Taliban have gone. While interdiction will also play an important part, it must be accompanied by anti-corruption measures and harm reduction through education, needle exchanges and drug treatment programs. The countries of Central Asia and the region that have cooperated with the US-led alliance against the Taliban expect and deserve aid and assistance in return. They will get it - but it must be carefully targeted to do the most good. Simply jailing more Afghan war widows is not the answer.

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