Afghan production travels to nearly all parts of the world, with the exception of Latin America. Beyond the health consequences for consumers, the stakes are political. The illegal-narcotics trade constitutes one of the main financial sources of the insurgency groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but, more importantly, it feeds criminality in the set of countries through which they transit. The attention brought by the international community to such questions heightened in the 2000s as a result of the Western military engagement in Afghanistan. The American withdrawal in 2021 means that the countries of the region will have to play a greater role in the management of their borders and to confront questions about their capacity to stop potentially destabilising trends emerging from Afghanistan.
Heroin networks and drug lords present a principal impediment to security, state building, and democratic governance. Beyond the national boundaries, Afghan-originated heroin creates enormous challenges for international security by financing terrorism, instigating corruption, killing nearly 100,000 users worldwide every year, undermining public order, and debilitating economic development. The devastating impacts of the Afghan heroin trade have spilled over into Southwest Asia, Central Asia, Russia, China, the Balkans, and Europe. Narcotics have been increasingly used to fund extremist organisations, and the two industries have developed a symbiotic relationship where both benefit from the other’s activity. The Taliban have long used narcotics as their main source of revenue. Without the poppy crop, they may never have grown to be the massive organisation that they are today that was capable of toppling the Ghani government. Narcotics is the currency of non-state actors who want a way to boost their organising power quickly and effectively.
While the Afghan narcotics trade began with opium, it has evolved to include a slew of natural and synthetic drugs, and the pathways created for opium are now tread by every drug imaginable.
During the cold war, Afghanistan found itself at the heart of a showdown, which led to disastrous results that irreparably damaged the country’s agriculture. The West, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan burgeoned the mujahidin in order to topple the Soviet-backed government. This covert operation involved aiding the mujahidin in smuggling weapons into Afghanistan and drugs out to help fund their militia. This formed the smuggling pipeline that would be expanded upon over decades and is the root of the global narcotics trafficking route emanating from Afghanistan to this day. By 1984, Pakistan was furnishing 70 percent of the world supply of high-grade heroin. During the 1980s, corruption, covert operations and narcotics became intertwined in a manner which makes it difficult to separate Pakistan’s narcotics traffic from more complex questions of regional security and insurgent warfare.
By 1995, the Taliban expanded the drug pipeline, dominating Central Asia and extending trade into South Asia, the Gulf, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. The Afghan Drug Trafficking Pipeline begins in Afghanistan and now reaches 84% of the world, while exploring the ways in which this pipeline will grow and change in the future. The trafficking route can be broken down into three main pathways: the northern route, Balkan route, and southern route.
According to the Narco-Insecurity, Inc.’s report ‘The Convergence of the Narcotics Underworld and Extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan and its Global Proliferation,’ this was made possible with the help of Pakistan’s ISI, who launched several covert operations with sympathetic jihadist groups all of whom relied heavily on narcotics trafficking to fund their operations, expanding the trafficking route even further through their regions, launching the Balkan, northern, and southern routes of the global narcotics trafficking pipeline. This formed a complex relationship of trading arms and narcotics between insurgent groups, Islamist groups, and organised crime syndicates, birthing the crime-terror nexus. The most substantial of these was the Haqqani network, a criminal enterprise situated along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border that was founded on smuggling. The ISI saw the Haqqani network as a key ally, given their location and alliances with numerous jihadist groups, and began investing in their bases while using them as a proxy for engagement with other nonstate actors.
The Taliban’s 2000 opium ban ended up boosting the price of opium and incentivised increased production in regions outside of the Taliban’s control. Once the Taliban were removed from power post 9/11, they relied on their narcotics connections to help them slowly rebuild from neighbouring Pakistan. When some Western countries shifted their focus to Iraq, the Taliban used the opportunity to grow their power in rural nine regions throughout Afghanistan. This boosted Afghanistan’s opium output to historic levels. Since 2001, Afghanistan has become synonymous with “narco-state,” and the spread of crime and illegality. The Taliban rebuilt their network through coordination with other terror outfits and drug trafficking organisations to provide security for poppy fields, heroin labs, and smuggling routes. Through the 2000s, the Taliban continued to have strong support from the Pakistani ISI, who placated Western demands with half-hearted public gestures while privately sabotaging all efforts to disrupt the Taliban and its allies. Pakistan’s ISI and the Musharraf administration grew even more powerful, pushing out any moderate elements through intimidation or bribery. The Musharraf years saw the resurgence of poppy cultivation, which grew into one of the largest hubs for international trafficking in the world. During 2007 and 2008, the Afghan drug economy reached levels unprecedented in the history of the modern drug trade at least since World War II, and so far, efforts of the international community and the Afghan government have failed to contain and reduce it. Afghanistan supplies 93% of the global illicit market for opiates, and more than 95% of the European market.
The original money laundering operation in Afghanistan began with the ISI funnelling funds for the mujahidin through banking institutions which became the main vehicles for terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda to traffic funds through a complex network of subsidiaries meant to obfuscate transactions. With the growth of the narcotics industry, terror groups are finding new ways to protect their organisations from economic collapse. They are becoming more and more like mafia organisations, with investments in various licit enterprises like real estate, shipping businesses, and construction companies to conceal and protect their illicit profits. They are also utilising both ancient and cutting-edge methods for obfuscating transactions and moving finances and illicit products around the world. Today crime-terror hybrid organisations, fund terror operations through criminal enterprise, such as the infamous crime-terror organisation D-Company and its founder Dawood Ibrahim. The D-Company launders funds by utilising front companies, real estate, and the stock market to conceal their illicit assets and to safely fund allied terrorist organisations. Another significant method for terrorist organisations to hide their funds is through the hawala system, a traditional remittance system which is important to understand.
Transaction methods are changing now that Blockchain technology and bitcoin, as well as the slew of cryptocurrencies and crypto markets have emerged. Narco-terrorist organisations use cryptocurrency to receive donations and conceal transactions, but they also profit from selling drugs on the darknet marketplace.
A vicious cycle has formed between insecurity and the opium economy. Insecure regions are fertile territory for poppy farming due to the lack of government oversight and a lack of alternative livelihoods. They both attract insurgent groups, who profit off of the opium industry at multiple levels of the supply chain, and are created by insurgent groups.
Since the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, there has been a knock-on effect for the global narcotics industry. Counter narcotics efforts will need to shift to operate under a new paradigm where direct counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan are unlikely to continue.
With the control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has acquired control over the opium cultivation in the country. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) November 2021 Report, Afghanistan accounted for around 85 percent of global opium production in the year 2020 and supplied to approximately 80 percent of the world’s opium consumers. The total value of opiates (opium, morphine, and heroin) was 9 per cent to 14 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. Methamphetamine and cannabis are two other major drugs which have expanded production in Afghanistan in recent years.
The Western withdrawal that precipitated the swift takeover by the Taliban, has led to increasing instability and to further growth of narcotics trafficking, such as internal conflict within the Taliban, local opposition to the Taliban, schisms from the Taliban, economic sanctions, and climate change. Given the rising prominence of the Haqqani network within the Taliban, the uncertain leadership of this group and the numerous figures who may succeed Sirajuddin Haqqani in the coming years. While the Taliban publicly states they will not traffic narcotics, that depends on whether or not they would make enough from other revenue sources to sustain the country, and whether they believe trafficking will impact their international standing enough to threaten their control of the country.
With Afghanistan facing its worst humanitarian crisis due to economic collapse and recurring droughts, the Taliban would not want to ban the drug which has funded its insurgency against the US and NATO-sponsored previous Afghan government. The Taliban needs the drug money to keep control over their cadres. Although drug production and consumption are un-Islamic, in their previous regime the Taliban did not ban the production and trading of opium cultivation for the longest time. The political costs for the Taliban would have been a lot more if they had placed the ban on the production of opium and continued to be a patron of opium cultivation. The drug money also played an important role in the Taliban’s rise to power for the second time and it would not want to jeopardise it.
Pakistan shares 2400 kilometres of border with Afghanistan, which is largely porous. And this has served as a transit corridor for drug traffickers. Forty percent of Afghan drugs transit Pakistan before they reach the international markets. Tonnes of opiates and meth are trafficked from Afghanistan to the Torkham border crossing, Ghulam Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, from where they are sent to Lahore and Faisalabad, reassembled into huge consignments.
Pakistan’s role in drug proliferation is validated by a number of arrests of its nationals in other countries on charges of drug trafficking. Shahbaz Khan, a Pakistani national, was the leader of a drug trafficking organization (the “DTO”) based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which produced and distributed massive quantities of narcotics around the world. He was arrested by Liberian authorities in December 2016 and later deported to the United States, where in 2019 he was sentenced to 15 years for conspiring and attempting to import heroin into the U.S. In May 2017, officials for the U.K.’s Border Force impounded a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight from Islamabad at London’s Heathrow airport. Later, the National Crime Agency said that a quantity of heroin had been found hidden in different panels of the plane. In March 2018, two members of the cabin crew of a PIA flight, travelling on an Islamabad-Paris flight (PK-749), were caught smuggling narcotics on board the flight.
Pakistani elements have always provided separatists with funding acquired from narcotics trade. That Pakistani security establishment sells heroin to pay for the country’s covert military operations was admitted by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a 1994 interview to The Washington Post. Law enforcement agencies in Kashmir are unanimous in their conclusion that for the purposes of terrorist financing, Pakistan-based terrorist groups are now resorting to sending in narcotics into the region.
The issue of narcotics smuggling has the potential to derail Pakistan’s bilateral relations and besmirch its international reputation. Despite this Pakistan continues with it. This because of the huge benefit it derives from narcotics, and the money derived from drug smuggling serves Pakistan’s larger agenda of sponsoring proxy terror groups.
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