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AFGHANISTAN: Traffickers Step Up Import of Heroin-Making Chemicals

Sananda Sahoo

WASHINGTON, Mar 3 2010 (IPS) - Drug traffickers are increasing imports of precursor chemicals used for processing opium poppy into heroin and morphine, according to a new State Department report released here Monday.

They are channeling the chemicals through new routes and diverting them from legal commerce and gray markets, said the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2009.

West Asia and Africa are the new key transshipment points to smuggle and divert chemicals.

“Trafficking throughout Afghanistan continues to be a big challenge,” David Johnson, assistant secretary at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told reporters here.

According to the survey of global counter-narcotics efforts, Afghanistan remains the world’s top producer of opium despite a 22-percent decline in the area under poppy cultivation there during 2009.

Historically, the raw opium produced in Afghanistan has been exported by traffickers to other countries for processing into heroin and other opiates. In recent years, however, the country has emerged as one of the biggest producers of these refined products, as well.

Drug traffickers in Afghanistan deal in all forms of opiates, including unrefined opium, semi-refined morphine base, and refined heroin.

The decline in poppy cultivation has as much to do with economics as security, according to independent experts here.

“The decline is fuelled by over-production of poppy which led to lowering of prices,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security expert with Brookings Institution and author of ‘Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs’.

“The market is saturated,” she told IPS.

The increase in precursor chemicals coming into Afghanistan poses major challenges for the U.S. and the international community’s efforts to fight drug-trafficking in the war-torn country. It suggests that traffickers intend to expand their refinery operations there.

Under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, Washington has altered its approach to tackling drug production in Afghanistan. The focus on eradication that prevailed for most of President George W. Bush’s tenure has given way to greater emphasis on efforts to interdict drug shipments and arrest traffickers. It has renewed efforts to promote the production of alternative crops and livelihoods for farmers who are now growing poppy.

The new report cited the arrest of some major drug traffickers in Afghanistan over the past year. But it also suggested that authorities have had less success in disrupting Afghanistan’s opium supply chain due to gaps in intelligence and limited international law enforcement expertise in detecting the chemicals.

The report also singled out Pakistan as a major transit country for precursor chemicals, as well as for opiates and hashish destined not only for Afghanistan, but for global markets as well.

In September 2009, for example, prosecutors arrested a Korean suspect who attempted to smuggle 10 tonnes of acetic anhydride, the primary precursor for heroin, to Afghanistan with the help of Pakistani intermediaries suspected of having shipped 6.6 tonnes of acetic anhydride to Afghanistan last February.

The change in U.S. policy from eradication to rural development and interdiction can work well with Washington’s overall counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and lead to a sustainable reduction in drug economy, Felbab-Brown said.

Last year, Afghanistan produced more than 90 percent of the world’s opium gum, the basic precursor to heroin, worth 2.8 billion dollars. “But how the two aspects of the policy are operationalised will determine their effectiveness,” she said.

Russia does not agree with U.S. policy shift. Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Control Service, said in an interview last week that this will flood Russian markets with heroin.

But Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, reiterated that eradication works against the larger purpose. “(W)e’re focusing on high traffickers’ interdiction and destroying drug bazaars, but that’s a tactical difference (with Russia),” he said in Washington on Tuesday after completing a visit to Central and South Asia.

Interdiction has proved to be a difficult counter-drug tactic. It was effective at times, such as in Peru during the late 1990s, when smuggling was conducted by air. But in Afghanistan, smuggling is done over land. “The border is a huge highway of illegal trade,” Felbab-Brown said.

Border interdiction in Afghanistan is hard due to the lack of resources available to protect its long, exceptionally rugged, and unpopulated borders with Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.

Moreover, “(i)nternal interdiction is hard because so much of the terrain is not under government control,” according to Felbab-Brown.

Many drug trafficking groups are not linked directly to the Taliban insurgency, which, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, earns about 70 million dollars a year from the drug trade. Some of the most important trafficking operations reportedly involve government officials and the police, while still others are independent and operate from outside Afghanistan, according to the report.

The Taliban has access to parts of the drug trade in Pakistan, but its access is limited. Nor does the group exercise control over smuggling channels and markets in Iran, Central Asia, Turkey, Europe and China.

“I am very sceptical that interdiction will be successful in stopping illicit flows,” Felbab-Brown said. “The goal of interdiction should be to prevent or minimise the corruption and coercive power of Taliban and government-linked traffickers and independent groups.”

Rural development is the administration’s other important approach to combating the drug trade. “But it takes a long time in Afghanistan where challenges are greater than anywhere else in the world,” Felbab-Brown said.

While northern Afghanistan has been far more secure than the southern and eastern border areas where the Taliban is strongest, rural development there has been slow in coming. In the north, marijuana has emerged as a competitor with legal crops.

The principal sources of precursor chemicals are believed to be China, Europe, Central Asia and India. Traffickers hide the sources of their chemicals by re-packaging or falsely labeling them, the report said. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), markets and processing facilities are clustered in border areas of Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Drug laboratories process a large portion of the country’s raw opium into heroin and morphine base, which reduces the bulk of the raw opium by about one-tenth and thus makes it easier to smuggle across foreign borders.

Primary trafficking routes from Afghanistan run through Iran to Turkey and Western Europe; through Pakistan to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Iran; and through Central Asia to the Russia.

Recent international interdiction efforts under the leadership of the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board have led to an increase in the number of large seizures in Afghanistan, the report said.

But Felbab-Brown said the flow of precursor chemicals is hard to measure. More seizures of precursor chemicals can indicate that interdiction efforts are working. But it can also indicate that more is flowing into the country.

Under Obama, Washington, which currently has some 70,000 troops deployed against the Taliban in Afghanistan, has shifted from poppy eradication to a greater emphasis on interdiction and rural development, primarily to avoid antagonising local farmers, Felbab-Brown said.

But the ongoing counter-insurgency operation centred on Marja in Helmand Province, a major poppy-production region, has included the confiscation of poppy seeds discovered by troops during house searches.

“And that is generating political capital for the Taliban,” Felbab-Brown said, noting that the some farmers have complained to reporters that the Taliban had let them grow and sell poppy.

“How we handle post-Marja operation will decide a lot,” she said. “If we equate good governance with poppy suppression before legal livelihoods are available, we can lose the majority of the population.”

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