Afghanistan’s Opium War

When NATO leaders meet for their summit in Riga at the end of this month, there will be a ghost at the feast: Afghanistan’s opium. Afghanistan is in danger of falling back into the hands of terrorists, insurgents, and criminals, and the multi-billion-dollar opium trade is at the heart of the country’s malaise. Indeed, NATO’s top general, James Jones, has called drugs the “Achilles heel” of Afghanistan.

This year’s record harvest of 6,100 tons of opium will generate more than $3 billion in illicit revenue – equivalent to almost half of Afghanistan’s GDP. Profits for drug traffickers downstream will be almost 20 times that amount.

Opium money is corrupting Afghan society from top to bottom. High-level collusion enables thousands of tons of chemical precursors, needed to produce heroin, to be trucked into the country. Armed convoys transport raw opium around the country unhindered. Sometimes even army and police vehicles are involved. Guns and bribes ensure that the trucks are waved through checkpoints. Opiates flow freely across borders into Iran, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries.

The opium fields of wealthy landowners are untouched, because local officials are paid off. Major traffickers never come to trial because judges are bribed or intimidated. Senior government officials take their cut of opium revenues or bribes in return for keeping quiet. Perversely, some provincial governors and government officials are themselves major players in the drug trade.