Afghanistan’s Opium has Regional Repercussions

Afghanistan’s Opium has Regional Repercussions

Attempts to rid the Afghan economy of its reliance on opium production and smuggling have largely failed due to corruption and the lack of equally profitable alternatives.

However, the opium trade does not only lead to corrupt networks of growers, exporters and officials within Afghanistan. Rather, a system has evolved to traffic opium from Afghanistan, through Iran and Central Asia. Due to this system, over the last decade the intermediary countries have faced growing corruption among the police and military, especially among border guards. Furthermore, the opium trade has entailed rapid increases in rates of heroin addiction and HIV/AIDS in the intermediary states.

While Afghan farmers sometimes describe the hearty opium as a miracle crop and frequently protest eradication efforts, the vast majority of opium profits go to drug smugglers instead of the farmers themselves. Smugglers often find that Iran is the most profitable country for opium exports as Iran reportedly has the highest rates of opium addiction in the world, and the high demand and strict punishments for smuggling combine to drive up prices.

In the 2000s, the extreme profitability of opium smuggling caused confrontations between smugglers and officials in Iran to become shockingly violent. Nearly 4,000 Iranian border police were killed battling gangs of smugglers along the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran’s concentration of resources on the border and increased use of execution as a punishment for smugglers has netted results at the border between Afghan and Iranian Baluchistan.

Despite this, Iran remains the largest importer of Afghan opium. Smugglers have simply adjusted their routes in Baluchistan to include a stop in Pakistan. Increasingly, smugglers also have the support of some Baluch leaders, who encourage their followers to eschew drug use, but often either turn a blind eye or offer active help to smugglers.

Iran remains the hardest hit by the opium trade, particularly in terms of addiction levels. However, Afghanistan’s northern neighbors in former Soviet Central Asia may have an even harder time combatting the opium trade because of high level corruption and weaker security forces.

Tajikistan in particular has been wracked by corruption over the last decade due to opium smuggling. Afghan smugglers increasingly view Tajikistan as the most convenient option for smuggling opium on to Russia and Eastern Europe. Smugglers have developed well-organized trafficking networks on both sides of Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s long and poorly guarded border.

The Tajik government has made some attempts at increasing border protection, including asking for international support. In part because of corruption among Tajik officials, international efforts have not been enough to cure Tajikistan’s border forces of their chronically low pay. Low pay and the dangers of working on the border mean that Tajik border guards are prime targets for smugglers seeking to benefit from widespread corruption.

Last summer, the Tajik government blamed the month-long violent struggle in Tajikistan’s remote Badakhshan province on involvement of regional elites in drug trafficking. While in reality the altercation had a number of other causes as well, it is undeniable that opium smuggling across the Afghan-Tajik border has enriched regional elites and has become increasingly violent.

As NATO and the Afghan government struggle in vain to eradicate opium production and smuggling and offer alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers, Afghanistan’s neighbors are wracked by violence brought on by smugglers.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, poppy cultivation increased by 18% between 2011 and 2012, even after eradication efforts. If this trend continues, particularly after NATO security forces depart in 2014, Afghanistan’s neighbors may sink further into a cycle of corruption, violence and addiction.

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