US shifts Afghan opium strategy

US Marines and Afghan forces uncovered and destroyed hundreds of tons of poppy seeds, opium and heroin in southern Afghanistan this month in raids that officials say are part of a shift in counter-narcotics strategy. Marines in Helmand working alongside DEA-trained Afghan police seized 297 tons of poppy seeds, 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of heroin and 300 pounds (135 kilograms) of opium in raids in mid-July. Some 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) of hashish and 4,225 gallons (16,000 liters) of chemicals used to convert opium to heroin were also seized. Said US envoy Richard Holbrooke: “This wasn’t an accident. This was planned interdiction.”

Michael G. Vickers, the Pentagon’s top civilian official for counter-insurgency strategy, said: “We are reorienting our counter-narcotics strategy rather significantly for Afghanistan to put much less emphasis on eradication and to shift the weight of our effort to interdiction.” The new strategy will “particularly focus on going after those targets where there is a strong nexus between the insurgency and the narcotics trade, to deny resources to the Taliban.”

Vickers, who was the principal CIA strategist for arming anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, also said there will be “more focus on other agricultural initiatives” in the coming year. One short-term solution being urged by senior Defense Department officials is to pay Afghan farmers not to plant poppies. (AP, July 26; NYT, July 23)

See our last post on Afghanistan and the opium wars.

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  1. Afghan drug lords on US hit list
    From the New York Times, Aug. 10:

    U.S. to Hunt Down Afghan Drug Lords Tied to Taliban
    WASHINGTON — Fifty Afghans believed to be drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban have been placed on a Pentagon target list to be captured or killed, reflecting a major shift in American counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, according to a Congressional study to be released this week.

    United States military commanders have told Congress that they are convinced that the policy is legal under the military’s rules of engagement and international law. They also said the move is an essential part of their new plan to disrupt the flow of drug money that is helping finance the Taliban insurgency.

    In interviews with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is releasing the report, two American generals serving in Afghanistan said that major traffickers with proven links to the insurgency have been put on the “joint integrated prioritized target list.” That means they have been given the same target status as insurgent leaders, and can be captured or killed at any time.

  2. UN report sees global reach of Afghan “narco-cartel”
    From the New York Times, Oct. 23:

    Report Shows Afghan Drugs Reach Deep in the West
    UNITED NATIONS — The Afghan opium harvest is feeding a $65 billion global trade in heroin each year, which now kills many more people in NATO countries in a year than the number of NATO soldiers who have died on the battlefield in Afghanistan since 2001, Antonio Maria Costa, the senior United Nations official on drugs and crime, said Thursday.

    “If we do not address this, it will be hard to solve all the other problems in Afghanistan,” Mr. Costa said, adding that the lucrative nature of the heroin trade is creating a “narco-cartel” in Afghanistan that includes corrupt government and security officials.

    It is easier to try to uproot the heroin trade at its source, where opium is grown, than its destination, he said, particularly because heroin trafficking is disrupted less effectively in affluent Western countries, despite their financial and police resources.

    Mr. Costa was summarizing a report from the office he heads, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which was released on Wednesday.

    The opium crop from Afghanistan is refined to produce 375 tons of heroin, which makes up the bulk of the trade worldwide.

    Drawing on figures supplied by the countries themselves, the United Nations report says that Iran intercepts 20 percent of the 105 tons of heroin that flows through its territory, Pakistan 17 percent of the 150 tons that comes in and Central Asian countries only 5 percent of the 100 tons that enters these nations.

    Europeans consume about 88 tons of heroin per year, and the authorities seize only 2 percent of the heroin that enters Europe, mostly through Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, according to the report.

    The annual death toll in all NATO countries from heroin overdoses is estimated to be more than 10,000, an annual total that is about five times higher the number of NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years, the report said.

    The proceeds from the heroin trade help fuel the Taliban insurgency. When the Taliban were in power a decade ago in Afghanistan, heroin produced $100 million a year in taxes, the report said. The insurgents are now estimated to be gaining $160 million a year from trafficking in the drug.

    Mr. Costa recommended that NATO forces concentrate on trying to dismantle the drug cartels in Afghanistan, instead of striking at individual farmers and crops.

    By bombing drug laboratories, along with attacking traffickers and open drug markets, NATO troops have had limited success, he said, but they need to extend their reach.