UN anti-crime chief calls for scaled-up resistance against Afghan drugs trafficking

21 October 2009
Seized opium

The United Nations drug and crime tsar today called for intensified efforts to combat the devastating global impact of Afghanistan’s multi-billion dollar opium trade, fuelling addiction, the spread of HIV, a rise in criminal activity, as well as insurgencies and terrorism.

Afghanistan produces almost all the world’s opium – the raw material for heroin – which has a $65 billion global market catering to 15 million addicts, causing up to 100,000 deaths per year, spreading HIV at an unprecedented rate, and funding the Taliban and Al-Qaida, according to a new UN Offices on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report.

“I urge the friends of Afghanistan to recognize that, to a large extent, these uncomfortable truths may be the result of their benign neglect,” said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa.

Afghanistan traffics some 900 tons of opium, 92 per cent of the total world’s production, and 350 tons of heroin every year across its porous borders, over Balkan and Eurasian drug routes and into Europe, Russia, India and China, said the report.

Spotlighting corruption and lawlessness in Afghanistan, as well as its uncontrolled borders, as the root of the problem, the report noted that just 2 per cent of opiates produced are seized by authorities in the country, compared to 36 per cent of cocaine produced in Colombia.

In addition, the “Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: The transnational threat of Afghan opium” report noted that in the south and east of the country, smuggling prospers because of centuries-old Pashtun and Baluchi cross-border tribal links, the chaos caused by insurgency, disregard for international obligations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the violation of trade transit agreements with neighbours.

“The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region has turned into the world’s largest free trade zone in anything and everything that is illicit – drugs of course, but also weapons, bomb-making equipment, chemical precursors, drug money, even people and migrants,” said Mr. Costa.

The report highlights that 20 per cent of Afghan opiate shipments are intercepted worldwide, compared to twice as much for cocaine from Andean countries, and while Iran seizes 20 per cent of the illicit drug crossing its borders, Russia confiscated just 5 per cent and European Union (EU) countries, such as Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, captured less than 2 per cent of their opiate trade.

Calling for more resources to tackle the problem at its source, Mr. Costa stressed that seizing “Afghan opium where it is produced is infinitely more efficient and cheaper than trying to do so where it is consumed.” The cost of law enforcement grows in proportion to the value of the drug on the street, with a gram of heroin worth $3 in Kabul costing $100 in London, Milan or Moscow.

“The Taliban’s direct involvement in the opium trade allows them to fund a war machine that is becoming technologically more complex and increasingly widespread,” said Mr. Costa. “Newly born narco-cartels in and around Afghanistan are blurring the difference between greed and ideology.”

Mr. Costa said that many of the drug barons, with links to insurgency, are known to Afghan and foreign intelligence services. “Why have their names not been submitted to the UN Security Council… in order to ban their travel and seize their assets?”

He warned that the “perfect storm” of drugs and terrorism that has swamped the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for years, may be heading to Central Asia, threatening to engulf the region in large-scale terrorism and endangering its massive energy resources.

“Opium hasn’t caused such grief since the plague of addiction in China a century ago,” said Mr. Costa, with the report noting that the number of people dying every year from drug overdoses in NATO countries – around 10,000 – is five times higher than the total number of NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years. And over 30,000 Russians are dying annually from Afghan drugs, which is more than the total number of Red Army soldiers who died in their 10-year Afghan war.


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