Afghanistan, that most exotic of battlegrounds, is known for its fierce Islamic fighters, the Taliban, but internationally even more for the production of opium. According to reports of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), about 90% of the world’s heroin now comes from Afghanistan and Helmand province accounts for one-half to nearly two-thirds of that production. Nationwide approximately 2.3 million people are involved in poppy cultivation and processing, a tenth of the population.
The impression has been created of a clandestinely grown crop of opium poppies in the hidden hills of southern Afghanistan. Instead, Helmand’s desert-like land, irrigated by a major river, supports an agricultural industry that is over 100,000 hectares of well-cared-for fields separated by carefully drawn familial property lines.
The Taliban benefits two ways from the opium trade: First they tithe the poppy-producing farmers about 10% of the value of their crop. This is actually the traditional tax, called a zagat (or zakat), that in the past went to the tribal headman. Now it goes to the chief Taliban representative, who also might just happen to be the tribal headman, depending on his political disposition.
Secondarily the Taliban gains if there is government intercession in the “normality” of poppy harvesting. Unless an advantage is given to the farmer to produce something other than opium poppies, there is a substantial anti-government backlash benefiting the Taliban. The difference in return on poppy versus wheat production can run as high as four to ten times in favor of opium, depending on market factors. The opium-to-heroin processors are in a far better position than the government to offer “differentials” to encourage continued production.
When the government does mount a program to encourage substitute crops, such as wheat, the farmers pay local officials to allow them to hold back conversion on all but a small portion of their land. The local officials are “taken care of,” the Taliban and headmen receive their zagat, and the government can report to the UN and NATO a drop in poppy acreage.
It doesn’t take a vast intelligence operation to determine the Taliban and local officials have close ties. It’s in both their interests to keep the farmers producing. It’s also important for the smugglers to have a protected source of supply. They, too, pay off both the Taliban and local police. It is the ultimate socioeconomic and, in a certain sense, political symbiosis.
Last year the American command offered to bring in crop sprayers to eradicate the extensive poppy fields in the south. This brought an uproar all the way back to the presidential palace in Kabul. The British military, which is responsible for Helmand, put up the logical argument that its entire effort to win the cooperation of the local tribesmen would be destroyed — along with that year’s cash crop.
Even if the farmers could be encouraged to replant with wheat and other non-offensive products, an entire crop year would be lost and the British would be blamed by the Taliban political operators. Another grand idea born in fertile Washington minds was shelved just in time.
The product moves down the line by donkey, motorbike, truck, and numerous colorful horse-drawn carts. Organized armed smuggling teams operate through Pakistan and southern Iran’s shared Baluchi tribal territory. Others head northward, crossing through Iran and the central Asia nations to the Caspian and onward to Turkey, thence Europe and the Americas. Some smugglers travel eastward to supply markets in south Asia and even those Asian markets formerly served by the once powerful “golden triangle.”
The overall business is calculated to be worth in excess of $4 billion at point of entry of neighboring transit countries. Of this the gross income to farmers is estimated at $732 million for 2008. This means tens of millions of dollars go to the Taliban and other payoffs before the smugglers even become involved.
Drugs have been a traditional Afghan commerce for centuries, and that is not going to change very much because Washington, London, and the United Nations want it. The Taliban, though, could do the job — if they really wanted to do it. But that would cut off a major source of their funding, as it would for many tribal leaders, government officials and police.
The commitment to fight the war in Afghanistan is going to take far more than a troop increase!