Drugs and Insecurity in Afghanistan: No Quick Fix

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa

3rd International GLOBSEC Conference, Bratislava, 18 January 2008

Foreign Minster Kubiš, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to contribute to this discussion on promoting a comprehensive approach to the situation in Afghanistan by focusing on drugs and crime.

My bottom line is that there is no quick fix to the problem of drugs and insurgency in Afghanistan. It may take a generation. That is something that we have to accept. Nevertheless, the situation is not hopeless. I will therefore offer seven priority areas that deserve attention.

Before I do, let me give you an idea of the current situation.

Opium: Afghanistan's biggest problem

President Karzai has said that opium is Afghanistan's biggest problem. Either we destroy the problem or it will destroy us. I tend to agree, and not only because I am the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Opium is:  

the funding source for terrorists, insurgents, and warlords;

corrupting Afghan society and perverting its economy;

spreading addiction in and around Afghanistan as well as an HIV epidemic

The problem reached historic proportions in 2007 - as UNODC reported, 193,000 hectares of poppy were cultivated, producing a record 8,200 tons of opium. On aggregate, Afghanistan's opium production has reached a frighteningly new level, twice the amount produced two years ago. No other country - since China in the 19th century - has ever produced narcotics on such a deadly scale.

But this fact should be put in perspective. While opium production is growing, it is becoming more concentrated in the South of the country.

In centre-north Afghanistan, despite massive poverty, opium cultivation has diminished. The number of opium-free provinces more than doubled, from 6 in 2006 to 13 in 2007. Security and development are slowly taking hold. 

We know from experience in other parts of the world that greater stability and more assistance help farmers turn their back on drug cultivation: this has happened in the Andean region and in South-East Asia. It is now happening in parts of Afghanistan, where a balanced system of retribution (eradication) and rewards (i.e. Good Performance Fund and development aid i.e. WB and WFP) is creating an opium-free belt across the middle of the country, from the border with Pakistan in the south-east to the border of Turkmenistan in the north-west.

Seven Pillars

Our target for 2008 is to have at least half of the country's 34 provinces become opium free. This will depend on focussing aid on a hand-full of priority programs (hospitals, schools, water, power, and rural development) and disbursing it quickly in amounts proportional to the progress made towards achieving opium-free status.

It will also depend on more effective eradication: in 2008, unlike in the past, rich landlords should face the consequences of breaking the law.

Therefore, the first element of any comprehensive plan for Afghanistan must be to demonstrate to farmers that there are viable alternatives to growing poppy, and serious risks if they do not switch to licit livelihoods. 

In south-west Afghanistan, despite its relatively good income, opium cultivation has exploded to unprecedented levels. In 2007, around 70% of the country's poppies were grown in five provinces along the border with Pakistan. An astonishing 50% of the whole Afghan opium crop comes from one single province: Hilmand. With just 2.5 million inhabitants, this relatively rich southern province has become the world's biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries like Colombia (coca), Morocco (cannabis), and Mynamar (opium) - which have populations up to twenty times larger.

As a result, the vicious circle of drugs funding terrorism, and terrorism supporting drug lords is stronger than ever. The resulting ever-increasing opium cultivation in the 5 provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Nimroz is an issue of insurgency as much as a drugs problem. As ISAF commander General Dan McNeill has said: "when I see a poppy field, I see it turning into money and then into IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and Kalashnikovs". His predecessor, British General David Richards used to say: "every time I see a truck of heroin crossing the border in one direction I see a truck of weapons crossing in the other direction".

Therefore, a second strategic consideration for improving the situation in Afghanistan is to consider counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics as two sides of the same coin. My impression from talking to NATO commanders in Afghanistan is that they realize the self-interest in supporting Afghan counter-narcotics operations: destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets, seizing opium convoys and bringing traffickers to justice.

Thirdly, we must look at the illicit drugs trade as a whole, not just cultivation. For example, some of the northern provinces that do not grow opium are nevertheless involved in drug trading and refining. Some are also major centres of cannabis production. So we should push to make them drug-free and not just poppy free.

What are the enabling factors of the drugs trade? Insecurity is one, criminality is another, for example the import of precursor chemicals needed to produce heroin and the export of the illicit proceeds derived from the opium economy. The relevant numbers are big - so big that their lack of detection is a revealing story in itself. Think of this: last year alone, more than 1,000 tonnes of acetic anhydride were smuggled into Afghanistan, together with five times as many tons of other chemical derivatives needed for drug refining. That is several thousand truckloads. How is this possible? Go to Afghanistan's borders with Pakistan, Iran or parts of Central Asia and look at the quality of border control compared to the volume of traffic. Or consider the amount of money at stake versus the salaries of those paid to stop this traffic - and you can understand how recently 1,600 containers destined for Afghanistan were apparently cleared on fake documents at the port of Karachi and have since gone missing.

While chemical precursors are flowing into Afghanistan, drugs are flowing out. The drug economy was worth around US$ 4 billion in Afghanistan in 2007 - equivalent to more than half the country's licit economy. By the time the heroin hits the streets of Moscow, Paris or London, it could be worth 50 to 100 times as much as in Kabul.

Therefore, border management is a fourth and vital element of a comprehensive strategy to contain the Afghan opium problem. Strengthening Afghanistan's national capacity will take time. Therefore, neighbours and all those with a stake in stopping the flow of drugs, chemical precursors and money must help.

This is being coordinated under the auspices of the Paris Pact. Furthermore, UNODC has proposed a Trilateral Initiative to assist Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan improve border management and counter-narcotic intelligence cooperation. We are building national capacity in Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan. Last week I was in Turkmenistan where I met with the new President to agree on joint projects for improving drug control at his country's land and sea borders. This will also lead to greater trilateral cooperation between Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. Furthermore we are promoting regional cooperation. This year a UNODC-brokered Central Asia regional intelligence sharing centre should become operational in Almaty. A similar centre has been proposed for the Gulf States.

Fifth, bribery, dishonesty and corruption are the lubricants of the drug machinery, they are destroying the country's political culture, and tearing its moral fabric. My Office has offered to assist Afghanistan implement the United Nations Convention against Corruption. I attach particular importance to the establishment of a strong, honest, national independent anti-corruption authority, capable of making the country comply with the Convention. More must be done to cut the tentacles of drug-funded corruption that are strangling Afghanistan's fledgling democratic institutions and choking the rule of law.

Sixth: we need to bring major drug traffickers to justice. There is a culture of impunity in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Kubiš, you will recall (from Slovakia's membership on the Security Council) that I have urged Member States to take advantage of Resolution 1735 of 22 December 2006 that gives countries the possibility to include in the Taliban/Al-Qaida list the names of major drug traffickers connected to terrorism in order to ban their travel, seize their assets and facilitate their extradition. More names should be added to this list.

Seventh, reducing supply and interdiction are necessary but insufficient conditions for coping with the opium problem. Improving drug prevention and treatment - particularly in the European Union, the CIS nations and China - are essential to lower demand for Afghanistan's opium and contain the effects of its abuse.

Ladies and gentlemen, dealing with these seven issues will go a long way to containing the threat posed by Afghanistan's opium. Broader cooperation can help Afghanistan escape a fate of drugs, crime, and terrorism.