US sanctions will push Afghanistan to rely on drug trafficking

By Najib Shah

Bengaluru, September 3 (newsin.asia): William Dalrymple in his book, ‘The Return of the King’ mentions a prescient comment of Rev. G. R. Gleig in his memoir, written shortly after his return from the First Anglo-Afghan war. The army chaplain wrote: “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military has been acquired with this war.  Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

This was written in 1843. Nothing has changed. The US army retreat from Afghanistan in 2021 leaving the country in the hands of the battle-hardened Taliban, eerily resembles the earlier retreat of the British-and the Soviets who left after 20 years of trying to subjugate the locals.

Afghanistan today is a country ravaged by war and disturbances, by corruption and inefficacy, by apathy and poverty. With a population just under 34 million, 54% of whom live under the national poverty line, ranked among the countries with the lowest gross domestic product by capita at US$ 580.82. It desperately need economic aid.

But the world is choking Afghanistan by denying what is it’s due. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) established in 1944 is meant to help countries tide over economic crises by offering loans and technical assistance. The IMF is funded by a quota system where each country contributes depending on the size of its economy. In 1969, the IMF had created Special Drawing Rights (SDR) a type of international reserve asset to supplement official reserves. The US with a 17.4% share and being the largest contributor, has the largest percentage of voting rights in the IMF. What this means is that they have a huge influence on the functioning of the IMF. This has manifested now with IMF coming under pressure from the Biden administration to block Afghanistan from accessing emergency reserves.

The justification for this is that the Taliban government in Afghanistan has not been recognized. The country was to receive about US $ 455 million in SDR’s as part of the recently approved proposal of IMF to release US $ 650 billion into the pandemic hit global economy. They will not get it as of now. Further, the US Treasury Department has frozen US $ 9.4 billion of reserves held by DAB, the Afghan central bank, in the New York Federal reserve and US based financial institutions. These will trigger a huge financial and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Return to Drugs

The financial crisis will mean that the Taliban will necessarily turn to drugs to fund their activities. It should not be forgotten that Afghanistan produces nearly 90% of the world’s illicit opium from where heroin is distilled. The poppy plant requires little water, can survive in drought conditions making Afghanistan ideal for its cultivation.

Thus, as per UNODC, a humongous 224,000 ha of land is estimated to be under opium cultivation in Afghanistan.  In the absence of any alternate crops and given the money which it generates, poppy cultivation has become both a choice and necessity for the average Afghan farmer.

The UNODC estimates that it is extensively cultivated in 22 out of the 34 provinces of the country. In 2020 the UN had estimated that nearly 6300 tons of opium were cultivated- with a farm gate value of US$ 350 million which, when it reaches Western markets, is worth many folds more. It is estimated that opium trade is worth between 6-11% of Afghanistan’s GDP.

The poppy moves from the farmer to the trader to the drug trafficker who runs the heroin processing labs which dot both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. It gets added value at every stage. Most of the processed heroin moves through the Balkan route – Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe to feed drug lovers in the West, in the US, Russia, Italy and UK. The value of drug trafficked through this route is estimated to be around US$ 28 billion. The UNODC World Drug Report further estimates that the number of opioid users has doubled since 2010. It is estimated that today there are more than 31 million users of opium or heroin providing a huge market for the drug

While the Taliban did curb opium cultivation in their previous stint in power in the 1990’s since ‘addiction is not permitted in Islam ‘, it is unlikely to do so now. The Taliban spokesman recently mad a very brave statement that ‘Afghanistan will not be a country for cultivation of opium anymore’. But the financial stress and chaos the country is facing will force Taliban to resort to even more unchecked cultivation of opium. And the country itself will become a fertile ground for the disgruntled, drug addicted youth, to fall easy prey to the influence of the Taliban.

Western countries, which have not been able to curb the demand for drugs, will get large supplies of illicitly cultivated opium and heroin. Drug trafficking apart from hurting societies, triggers a whole host of other criminal activities and worse, financial terrorism.

Afghanistan has also discovered that the ephedra plant which is a major source for methamphetamine, grows there, providing yet another means to make illicit money.

The US President, in his address to the nation after the withdrawal of his troops from Afghanistan did mention that the US must learn from its mistakes by setting clear goals when it goes to war. This is welcome. But the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent choking of funds meant for it, will hurt Afghanistan. In turn, the Taliban will hurt the ordinary citizens of that beautiful country even more. The long-suffering Afghans deserve better. Any solution to the country’s problems will need to ensure that politics does not override humanitarian concerns.

(Najib Shah is a retired Chairman of India’s Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs)

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