Stijn van der Kasteel (mahnmut) wrote in talk_politics,
Stijn van der Kasteel

NATO and the Afghan opium

So, Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, and promised bright days ahead. That's nice of course. Some would argue it's meant to give an encouraging gesture to the military who've been stuck there for over a decade, and are feeling a bit strained already. Others would argue it's part of his election campaign, i.e. a populist stunt (although Romney seems to be happy with Obama's visit). Either way, the event warrants some more thinking on the Afghani "issue".

NATO's military operation in Afghanistan was sold as the spearhead of the war on terror, the bad guys in this movie being represented by Al Qaeda and their sinister accomplices around the world. So far so good. And granted, despite the painfully endless duration of this war (now the longest US war in history), and the rising negative attitude of the locals to the actions of the coalition, and the constant problems with the "lesser" allies who don't seem very enthusiastic about sending new reinforcements to the region, as a whole (at least in the words of the NATO leadership) the operation has been viewed as mostly successful. Not exactly Mission Accomplished, but still it has brought some results.

In March the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Gen. John Allen expressed in Congress that he was confident the US troops would meet the withdrawal deadline by the end of '14. What's more, he sounded very optimistic that the Afghani forces are now capable of taking responsibility for guaranteeing the peace and security in their country.

Let's leave this assessment aside for now, to the General and his conscience. And let's remind of another issue which unfortunately is not mentioned very often in front of the Western public. I'm talking about the drug production in Afghanistan, one of the world leaders in this criminal business (especially regarding "hard" drugs).

In April the UN commissioner on drug crime Jean-Luc Lemahieu warned the international community that opium is effectively turning into the main convertible currency in Afghanistan. The locals are storing poppy seeds en masse, preparing for harder days of social and economic turmoil (after the allied forces supposedly leave the country). The poppy industry has become a reliable insurance against unstable future, something like a "golden standard" if you like.

Nowadays almost 90% of the world's opium production (used for making heroine) comes from Afghanistan. A UN report from last year says that opium makes for 15% of the Afghani GDP, roughly 1.4 billion dollars. Since the allied forces stepped in, the opium production has risen threefold. Since 2010 Afghanistan has consistently topped the world markets as the biggest producer of hashish. Over 500 tons of Afghani narcotics (in opium equivalent) enter Russia annually, and over 700 tons go to Europe. They are processed in Central Asia and the Middle East, and then distributed via... surprise-surprise! North Caucasus and Kosovo, respectively (the so-called northern and southern route - see map above).

The huge volumes of drug traffic originating from Afghanistan are a serious factor for destabilization in Central Asia, Caucasus, Russia, the Middle East, South Asia and East Europe. Some of the most extremist criminal organizations in Central Asia, in the Uyghur autonomous region in China and in Kosovo, are sponsored from this trade. Kosovo is a special case by the way, because it's protected by NATO, and meanwhile is now the main hub for the Afghan opium on the European markets. You'd think it would be easy for the so-called peace keepers to deal with this problem, but strangely, it turns out not so easy.

The scheme is very clear. Expert estimates show that the Afghan drug business is now working together with the international terrorist organizations, it has expanded its financial and distribution network, and the money ultimately goes for arming various extremists who then go and spread more chaos around the world. Then governments send more troops to fight them, pumping up their military budgets for maintaining large military on the ground and filling the coffers of the weapon producers - and so the wheel keeps turning. And you can't afford to stop all that without paying a steep social and hence political cost, because the industry has cast its roots so deep in the Western societies that there are entire communities who'd collapse if that industry is shut down. And I already mentioned what would be the result in the East from destroying the opium production.

I'd also add that corruption amidst the Afghani institutions (lead by Karzai) is the most fertile soil possible for this flourishing business. And the command of the international coalition is either unable, or more likely unwilling to influence the local bureaucrats to counter this industry, for strategic (and possibly, financial) reasons.

The most curious part though, is that the UN Security Council itself doesn't seem to be willing to clearly recognize the situation in Afghanistan as a threat to international security, and there've been many moves to block any resolutions on the issue of drug production in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the US recently tried to push through a resolution that would allow them to form drug enforcement units in the Central Asian republics, under the pretense that they were trying to fight drug trafficking. Russia instantly detected the true geopolitical plans behind this move, and opposed it. This was used as an excuse to accuse Russia in blocking the efforts against opium production, which doesn't make any sense, since Russia suffers the most from the drug trade (the Chechen extremists and their entire plan for a Caucasian Caliphate rests upon sponsorship from this trade, and the drug cartels rule supreme in the bigger Russian cities, including Moscow).

We're witnessing a double standard and the existence of rules that apply to some countries, while to others any advances in that direction are instantly halted by the usual suspects. The excuses are many - from bureaucratic to diplomatic, and as a whole the problem is being regularly swept under the rug whenever someone tries to raise it more categorically. NATO explains its position with the argument that destroying the poppy plantations would deprive many Afghani people of their only source of income, which could trigger social unrest of unpredictable proportions. This is curious, especially when compared to the firm attitude to Bolivia, where growing coca has been a centuries-old tradition of the locals, and yet there's been a lot of pressure on Evo Morales to ban it altogether.

Granted, such sudden generosity on part of the West in Afghanistan's case, will probably save large portions of the Afghan population from misery and devastation for some time, but the price is an epidemy of narcomania and crime throughout the whole Eurasian continent. But of course that's not such a big problem, since it's another continent that isn't North America. I.e.: Other Countries That Don't Matter. Some of those who don't matter have tried doing something on the matter, and failed for lack of substantial support.

Still, a report by the Royal United Services Institute (an independent think-tank for defence and security research) says that after NATO weakens its presence in Afghanistan and the Taliban inevitably come back to power in one form or another, Al Qaeda is ultimately planning to redirect its focus on Africa. The appetites to Africa have increased in recent years and a new geopolitical game is starting here (some call it the New Scramble for Africa), now that China is actively stepping into the vacuum that was left by the West. As for Al Qaeda, their main goal is to create "a new front of global jihad" on this continent and activate the local Islamist groups, mostly in the Sahel. Presumably this front will spread from coast to coast across the whole African continent, and to a large extent it could be called a drug-driven front, with all the subsequent negative consequences. The West is not sleeping either, and some could argue that knocking Gaddafi out of Libya was a preemptive geopolitical move to shield the borders of the "Free World" from this coming threat. We'll see where this goes.

The modern geopolitical reality postulates that NATO (represented by its leader the US and their European allies) is the center of power that sets the standards in defending the democratic principles across the world. Supposedly. In addition to their mysterious criteria for defining terms like "the Axis of Evil" and the likes, NATO constantly conducts military operations against "world enemy #1" and then the "next world enemy #1" and then the next. The global drug business, including the Afghan one, is of course a major source of threat for peace and stability, as it finances terrorism and fuels extremism, corruption, money laundering, and epidemics. So there's no room for compromise with it. And yet there are cases like Afghanistan, a country that's presumably still under NATO control.

Of course it would be too impudent and simplistic to accuse the allies of anything, or to try giving any advices to such smart heads like those in Norfolk, Arlington or DC. But still, perhaps they could consider putting the focus more on the drug production, which IMO is the root source that keeps fueling the insurgency in Afghanistan. I mean to try addressing the causes for the disease, rather than merely dealing with the symptoms, and naively hoping that the patient would somehow heal itself on its own.
Tags: afghanistan, drugs, geopolitics, terrorism
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