Over the last decade, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has been rising incrementally, culminating in a bumper crop in 1999 that produced approximately 80 percent of the global supply of illicit opium. Despite this predicament, the dynamics of the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan has received little attention. Most media reports and government statements oversimplify the situation, making it appear as though the Taliban controlled the planting, cultivation, production and trafficking of all opiates. For example, The Times (London), in an article published in January 2000, reported: "The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan have become the world's biggest producers and smugglers of hard drugs, overtaking rings in Colombia and Burma. They are now responsible for 95 percent of all the heroin entering Britain." Following the September 11 attacks, this responsibility was shared with Osama bin Laden, and the Al-Qaeda network was likewise implicated in the trafficking of opiates. British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that the "arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets" and subsequently added that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden "jointly exploited the drugs trade." This view has also been propagated in the United States by leading news agencies. CNN, for example, explicitly reported that the Taliban both taxed and trafficked in narcotics, which were directly used to finance their military operations.
Although evidence implicates members of both groups in the drug trade, it is analytically inadequate to suggest that these two players entirely controlled the production and distribution of opiates from Afghanistan. Furthermore, it would be incorrect to assert that narcotics constituted a significant portion of either Taliban or Al-Qaeda finances used to purchase arms and ammunition. Many of the publicly accessible accounts of the regional drug trade post-September 11 were examples of "disturbing declarations" – commonly made nowadays – "inspired by media spin doctors to rally public opinion" for the US-led military operations in Afghanistan. As a result, any attempt to understand the trade in its totality must place it in the context of the prevailing post-Cold War security environment that has been colored by the crime-terror nexus where organized crime, the drug trade and terrorism converge. The crime-terror nexus illustrates the complex nature of the regional drug trade while distinguishing between the players who control it and those who merely take advantage of its presence and the instability it creates. Understanding the dynamics of the trade provides the information and analytical clarity required to devise appropriate policy responses. These policies need to address the incessant regional instability caused by the relationships between organized crime, the drug trade and terrorism in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
This "crime-terror nexus where organized crime, the drug trade and terrorism converge" is exactly what Sibel Edmonds caught a glimpse of while translating FBI materials. Farther west, organized crime and the drug trade merge with governmental authority in Turkey's Deep State. To the east, organized crime and the drug trade merge with terrorism, specifically Al Qaeda.
In a theoretical context, the term 'crime-terror nexus' refers to a security continuum with traditional organized crime on one end of the spectrum and terrorism at the other. In the middle of the spectrum is a 'gray area' – where organized crime and terrorism are indistinguishable from one another. The spectrum includes three separate situations. First, it refers to traditional criminal organizations – such as the Russian mafia and Albanian criminal groups – that initially used terror tactics as an operational tool, normally to eliminate competitors, but subsequently to seek political objectives. Second, the fulcrum of the crime-terror nexus refers to terrorist groups – such as Abu Sayyaf and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – who initially used criminal activities as a source of financing, but subsequently changed the focus of their ideological beliefs from political to financial. Finally, it may be applied to contemporary civil wars – wars in which factions have evolved from basing their motivations on religion and ideology to crime (for example, the 'diamond' wars of Sierra Leone and Angola). In Afghanistan and Central Asia the entire crime-terror continuum is represented. Thus, in addition to providing a base for organized criminal (drug mafias) and terrorist groups (Al-Qaeda), this region is also home to groups that simultaneously appear to be criminal and terrorist in nature (the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan).
A key statement: "the term 'crime-terror nexus' refers to a security continuum with traditional organized crime on one end of the spectrum and terrorism at the other."
This is exactly what the United States faces in its War on Terror. Sibel Edmonds calls attention to terrorism-related intelligence that came in through programs dealing with other fields of FBI interest, such as organized crime and foreign intelligence activities. This intelligence was not acted upon, however, resulting in missed opportunities to stop the 9/11 plot.
Due to the connections between terrorism and organized crime, it is reasonable to assume that more intelligence related to terrorist activities could be available through operations addressing organized crime, and vice-versa. Logically, then, an integrated approach, addressing the entire "crime-terror nexus", could yield results against both narcotrafficking and terrorism.
Afghanistan grew and consolidated itself as a major actor within the international narcotics trade, in an environment created by the crime-terror nexus. This is in part because of the symbiotic relationship that the Afghan opiate trade developed with the Central Asian republics, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. As discussed in the following section, it is evident that narcotics production and trafficking in Afghanistan grew in tandem with regional criminal organizations, transnational crime, and insurgent and terrorist movements. As a result, the regional drug trade has been a considerable source of national insecurity and regional instability. It is a reality that persists in the face of the ongoing US-led 'war on terrorism' conducted in Afghanistan, and the semi-permanent presence of American troops in Central Asia.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- there are five answers to our riddles from the previous post.
Contrary to strong beliefs that an American military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia would discourage the illicit trade in narcotics, recent studies have confirmed that Afghanistan's drug trade is actually on the rise. It has successfully recovered from the opium ban announced and enforced by the Taliban in 2000, which diminished Afghanistan's share of the global opium yield in 2001 to 10 percent from approximately 70 percent the year before. Some estimates suggest that the cultivation of opium poppy in 2002 will reach production levels consistent with the mid-1990s, or up to 2,700 tons of opium. However, more recent reports strongly indicate that Afghanistan is likely to produce a bumper crop comparable to the record yield of 4,600 tons produced in 1999. As noted by Mohammad Amirkhizi, Senior Adviser to the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP), "the area now most likely to replace the missing production [in Afghanistan] is Afghanistan itself."
Why is it that the immediate result of a massive infusion of American troops into Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and Afghanistan resulted in an increase in heroin trafficking?
Keep that question in mind as we continue through this series, and as we return to Part 3 of 2 (!) of our Sibelology series.
The Rise of the Afghan/Central Asian Drug Trade
Opium poppy cultivation in the contemporary region of Central Asia has historical roots dating back to 500 BC. Opium was commonly used for medicinal purposes until the 18th century, when opium became increasingly used for recreation due to the widespread availability of the drug. As opium use expanded, social and political attitudes towards the drug changed from "panacea" to "evil," thus driving the opium trade underground and subsequently raising the profits for individuals prepared to face the rising risks of supplying the drug. Although there is a vast history of opiate use and smuggling in Central Asia – due in part to a geographic environment conducive to the growth of opium poppies – the roots of the contemporary drug environment lie in the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989). Not only did the war spread drug addiction in the 1980s, but it also facilitated cross-border trafficking. Dire social conditions led many soldiers and people living in Afghanistan to find refuge in opiate use. Economic and political turmoil also attracted criminals, warlords, and political and religious extremists to take advantage of the lucrative gains promised by the illicit trade in narcotics.
A key history lesson from the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in the 80's: war facilitated the drug trade.
Lacking licit economic resources required to purchase war supplies, drugs increasingly became the most reliable source of currency that could be used to purchase weapons, ammunition and foodstuffs. Afghanistan thus supplied a stable, but relatively low, yield of opiates until the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The opiate yield in Afghanistan was low compared to other global suppliers throughout the Afghan-Soviet war for several reasons. First, given the widespread nature of the Soviet occupation, Afghan traders were not in a position to increase their operations; in a sense it may be argued that the Soviet presence controlled supply. Second, actors engaged in the drug trade, such as warlords, initially did so for a relatively focused purpose: to purchase war supplies. Finally, given the Soviet presence and the isolation of Afghanistan from the international community, domestic traders were unable to develop the international network required to bring Afghan opiates to the international market.
Initially, drugs were a means to one end, money, which, in turn, was a means to another end: jihad against the Soviet Union.
Ah, but money corrupts, and the potential for profit from Afghanistan's opiates is stunning....
The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 and the absence of external support to help Afghanistan reintegrate with the international community as a nation thus created a hospitable environment for the expansion of opium poppy cultivation and production. Sustained insecurity and destruction, caused by factional fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in the early 1990s, turned Afghanistan into the world’s new heroin haven. During this sustained armed conflict, factions engaged in a fight for the control of Afghan territory needed to secure sources to purchase war supplies. In the absence of adequate foreign aid, the only way to secure short-term financing was via participation in the drug trade. Rising demands for opiates – both in Europe and throughout the former Soviet Union – ensured that Afghan opiates would find an international market.
Remember our lesson from history: war facilitated the drug trade.
After the Soviets withdrew, and then the Soviet Union itself came apart at the seams, the fighting in Afghanistan continued. The factions fought for control of territory, which, in turn, yielded resources -- from narcotics production -- to support the war effort as the factions battled each other.
To what extent is that just a convoluted way of saying they were fighting over control of the heroin supply?
Faced with few prospects for legal economic gain, illegal cross-border trade and smuggling in both licit and illicit commodities – including durable goods, fuel and narcotics – rose dramatically in Afghanistan. This situation was arguably compounded by the economic embargoes placed on Afghanistan by the United States and the United Nations. Several academics and professionals have argued that these embargoes further isolated Afghan society from the international community. Giles Dorronsoro, for example, noted that "despite all the high-sounding words about human rights and a negotiated solution, Western policy towards Afghanistan, led by Washington, has two contradictory themes: let the Taliban win, and punish Afghanistan by isolating it." By eliminating any hope for future economic security, these embargoes drove an estimated 50 percent of the country to participate in the drug trade. Suggestions have also been made that had the international community established diplomatic and economic ties with the Taliban, Afghan people themselves would have eventually sought change from within. However, the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan was unstoppable in the absence of international support, and it thus came as no surprise that the self-appointed government of Afghanistan – the Taliban – found it beneficial to tax this trade. Of the greatest significance for the region, however, were the transnational networks developed in Afghanistan between criminal organizations, drug traffickers and terrorist groups that facilitated the operation of trafficking routes taking Afghan opiates to the international market. The dynamics of this network will be illustrated in the following section.
Where does one draw the line between taxing the drug trade and controlling the drug trade, or between those and being a narcotrafficker?
As the cultivation and production of opiates increased in Afghanistan, the dominant "Balkan Route" was disrupted by the Iranian counter-narcotics initiative. Since the 1980s, this route has been taking heroin to the Western market from Afghanistan through Iran, Turkey, and the Balkan Peninsula. As a result of counter-narcotics efforts supported by the United Nations Drug Control Program and Western governments over the last decade, Iran interrupted a significant flow of illicit narcotics crossing its borders. The UNODCCP estimated that by 1999, Iran alone accounted for 85 percent of total global opium seizures. Thus it was essential for the survival of trafficking operations that drug dealers diversify their routes out of Afghanistan.
The shortest route between Afghanistan, where the poppies were grown, and Turkey, where heroin was refined and shipped off to Europe, was through Iran, and there was quite a party going on. Then, in steps the Iranian Government, with international backing -- and, the party-pooping begins.
But, the party must go on, so the narcotraffickers diversify their routes.
The favored routes for Afghan and Pakistani traders in the early 1990s were those transiting the Central Asian republics. Although some routes going through Central Asia eventually transited the Balkans, the majority of the new routes were established through the Russian Federation and Eastern Europe as well as via the Caucasus. Decisions to penetrate Central Asian territory were informed by several key factors: the existence of smuggling routes between Afghanistan and Central Asia created during the Afghan civil war; the unstable environment that prevailed in the region following declarations of independence (weak governments and security organs, the absence of border controls, and declining socio-economic conditions); and a host of additional Soviet legacies, such as widespread corruption. As a result, the Central Asian states were easily penetrable and thus became an important component of the Afghan drug predicament. UNODCCP officials and independent analysts now believe that up to 65 percent of Afghan opiates enter the Western market via the Central Asian republics. As such, a comprehensive understanding of the illicit opiate trade originating in Afghanistan necessitates a discussion of each facet of the crime-terror spectrum throughout Central Asia to determine how it developed and how each facet interacts with the others.
That's interesting. As of the Summer of 2002, the poppy crop production in Afghanistan is increasing, and almost two thirds of the opiates that move from Afghanistan to the West transit the Central Asian republics.
What else was happening in 2002?
The US military had just overrun most of Afghanistan, driving out the Taliban; in fact, the Taliban and Al Qaeda had retreated toward the Pakistani border, and US forces and those of our allies controlled the areas to the north, which serve as the gateway to Central Asia.
Also, as support for the operations in Afghanistan, there was a growing US military presence in the Central Asian republics.
So, all this expansion of the narcotics trade was occurring under the eyes of the US military, both on the production end in Afghanistan, and along the main transit routes through Central Asia.
And, what else was happening in 2002?
Well, Sibel Edmonds was being fired from the FBI for persistently voicing concerns over ties between US officials and foreign narcotraffickers. In fact, some of the most significant of those ties turned out to be in the State Department, where issues of foreign relations are managed, and in the Defense Department, which controlled the troops in Afghanistan and Central Asia.