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Afghanistan's Other Battle: The Fight Against Opium Trafficking


The Afghan government had a big victory this week in its battle against drug trafficking. Police seized a huge haul of opium in the eastern part of the country. The raid comes as President Hamid Karzai begins a crackdown on what he calls the country's biggest problem, the production of illegal opium. But researchers at Sweden's Uppsala University who study the Central Asia drug trade, say Afghanistan's drug problem is likely to worsen unless the United States and Europe attach more importance to fighting.

In the past two weeks, Afghan special anti-narcotics units have seized more than 15 tons of opium.

But analysts say a weak central government and powerful warlords will make President Hamid Karzai's campaign to end the opium trade very difficult unless the United States and its European allies make combating drug trafficking a top priority. Svante Cornell, deputy director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Sweden's Uppsala University, says right now they are not. "I think very often [counter narcotics] comes at the lower end at the list of priorities. I mean for the United States it obviously has [a lower priority], that's crystal clear. For the Europeans, it's even worse. I mean, [at least] the U.S. is funding drug control agencies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whereas Europe, [which] should be interested, is not to any significant extent," he said.

Mr. Cornell was one of three members of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute who addressed a symposium in Washington Wednesday on the regional and international implications of Afghanistan's heroin industry.

Tamara Makarenko, a researcher at the Institute, says the United States and its European allies are concentrating on tracking down al-Qaida terrorists and Taleban militants, which means they have fewer resources to devote to fighting the narcotics trade. This has had an unintended side effect: warlords who previously controlled most aspects of Afghanistan's opium trade have given way to numerous individuals involved in small-scale cultivation and smuggling.

But that does not mean, according to Ms. Makarenko, that the warlords are no longer involved in opium production. "There are also some suggestions that remnant militants are protecting production facilities and essentially taking over the role of the Taleban by beginning to tax the [smuggling] routes," she said.

U.N. surveys estimate that Afghanistan produces nearly three-quarters of the world's opium. Afghan farmers are said to grow it out of desperation. They are struggling to survive a six-year drought that has shriveled most crops and sent grain prices soaring. With malnutrition rates hovering near 40 percent, many Afghans see growing opium poppies as the only way to put food on the table. The country's booming drug trade is estimated to account for 60 percent of its gross domestic product.

Mr. Cornell said "nowadays the question 'Why don't you grow opium?' is more relevant than the one 'Why do you grow opium?'" According to Mr. Cornell, one way the United States and Europe can help stem the drug trade is through economic development and regional infrastructure development. He cites a current U.S. Agency for International Development project to build a series of inter-connected roads in Afghanistan as one way to help the region's economy. "The drug trade is doing pretty fine without roads," he said. "On the other hand the legal economy is not doing fine without roads and unless you have a legal economy, which requires roads, you won't be able to fight the drug trade."

Svante Cornell says without a serious effort to stem the opium trade, Afghanistan risks becoming a narco-state where corruption and criminality are rampant.

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