Hardnews Exclusive: Opium of the rich

There is a mountain of historical evidence to prove that the ballooning opium production and trade in Afghanistan is not possible without support of the Americans and the British 
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

Early last year, Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations office of Drug and Crime (UNODC) made a serious allegation that funds from drug trade helped to keep afloat banks reeling under global slowdown. Costa explained that the drug money was the only capital available when the "crisis spiralled out of control".

In a subsequent interview, Costa claimed that the "majority of $352 billion of drug profits were absorbed in the economic system" during the period of slowdown. The fact that 90 per cent of the global opiates originate from Afghanistan and its profits helped sustain the tanking global economy raises fundamental questions about the motives and conduct of the United States and the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Although, Costa links revenue from narcotics to Taliban insurgency, crime and now, with ready capital to help the global financial sector from a threatened meltdown, he does not make the most obvious but significant identification of the vested interests comprising of western covert operatives working with Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and a cabal of senior Pakistani and Afghan army officials.

A UNODC report titled, Addiction, Crime and Insurgency- the transnational threat of Afghan opium, shows that Taliban get only 4 per cent of the opium proceeds, while about 75 per cent is captured by government officials and regional power brokers who are supported by NATO and US.  A New York University report mentions how one General Mahmad, a warlord, controls a significant portion of the lucrative trade and also provides security to German reconstruction. There are many others who are dubiously supported by international security forces that are engaged in the opium business. 

The report also states that out of the $ 65 billion per year turnover of the global market of opiates, only 5-10 per cent gets laundered through the informal banking system of 'hawala' and the rest is washed through the international banking system.

The support stated in the document is euphemism for the active involvement of covert operatives from western countries that have been shipping heroin outside Afghanistan. Corroboration to Costa's allegations and UNODC report came from Afghanistan government sources that told Hardnews about 'heroin flights' taking off from Kandahar airport. "Everyday, four to five flights carrying heroin leave the airport. The frequency of these flights has increased over the last one year. What is disturbing is that this airport is controlled by the US Air Force," says this source.

The inferences that can be drawn cannot be supported by the US government-sponsored narrative, but there are a mountain of historical references, statistics, anecdotal evidence and testimonies to support the charge that the ballooning opium production and trade would not have been possible until it had the support of the Americans and the British. For eight years that the British controlled the Helmand province, the land under opium cultivation increased substantially.

For the first time in 2009, the UNODC report showed a fall in opium production, but the report recognizes that this could be due to market correction backed by a very high per acre yield. UNODC in September 2009 shows opium inventory pile up to a gargantuan 10,000 tonnes far more than the standard 5,000 tonnes buffer stock needed for every possible need. This is a worrisome development as it sustains the very circumstances that have been responsible for instability of the Af-Pak region.

Interestingly, reliance of the international financial system on Afghan opium proceeds and how it sustains the vexed situation in that region is unlikely to figure in the London Conference organised by the British government to find a solution to the Afghan imbroglio. Common sense would suggest that the international community could disengage itself from opium based financing of its profligate military enterprise only if it finds a lucrative alternative.

In many ways, the structures created by the CIA-ISI to fund and arm the Mujahideens against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan are similar to the ones that are used now. Besides the shipments from Kandahar, opiates also move through the Karachi route. Former US Ambassador to India, John Gunther Dean, in his oral testimony available in the Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, mentions about the interview of an Air America pilot who admitted in 1989 that he was flying out heroin from South Asia. He also claimed that he was a select cadre of Pakistani army that is involved in these nefarious activities. Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, Dean alleges, was involved in laundering drug money for Israelis.

Through his 80 odd page of testimony, the former ambassador comes to the conclusion that opium and the revenue that accrued to the drug lords and their patrons in various western agencies was an important factor in the anti-Soviet operations. Dean also reveals that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of USA routed its reports through the CIA. And, despite having many of their top-level operatives based in Pakistan, drug offenders were not arrested.

It was common knowledge then that President Zia Ul Haq was closely linked with the drug lobby, His adopted son, Hamid Hasnain, who was arrested under international pressure, had control of the president's saving accounts.

Besides the presence of the opium factor in present day Afghanistan, the issue of who will rule the country after the American army decides to pack their bags in 18 months has a ring of déjà vu, that is, when the Soviets decided to retreat. At that time, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had pleaded to the then US President Ronald Reagan that US should allow the continuance of President Najibullah to ensure that Kabul was not overrun by cruel religious fundamentalists. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardenadze had flown to Islamabad to convince the Pakistani leadership to allow Najibullah to continue as he was willing to accommodate a section of Mujahideen leadership in the governing structure, but Pakistan, under the sway of Washington, had refused to oblige.

Ahmed Rashid in a recent article in the New York Times recalls the cataclysmic picture Shevardenadze had painted if fundamentalists took over Kabul. A prophecy that turned out to be true after Najibullah was castrated and hung by a piano wire at the centre of Kabul by the merciless Taliban fighters. For a brief while, Pakistan and ISI enjoyed complete sway over Afghanistan till aircrafts crashed through the World Trade Centre in New York one September morning in 2001.

US President Barack Obama, who presides over an economy and a financial system that needs, according to the UN Drug report, the intoxication of opium to stay afloat, is very keen to pack its bags and get out. Provision of a few billion dollars has been made to buy the loyalty of the 'good Taliban' who want to cross over to President Hamid Karzai's government, which is fighting serious charges of corruption and poor governance.

Indian government sources claim that the international coalition is also trying to put to good use some of the funds that have come from Japan to win the recalcitrant over to their side. However, this is easier said then done as the vested interests that have been living off opium would not like to give away their control over the sprawling treasures of the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military establishment, which is in cahoots with its western benefactors, cannot give up its fondness from proceeds from this criminal enterprise. To save its control over the opium economy, it has been using tired concept of 'strategic depth' to demand greater control over its western neighbour, once the US drops out of this un-winnable Great War Game.

The Pakistan army routinely raises the spectre of being surrounded by India if the US is not mindful of their interests. Intelligence sources recount a recent interaction between US Admiral Mike Mullen with Pakistani army chief, Ashfaq Kiyani, during his visit to Islamabad. The Pakistani chief, according to these sources, was unusually aggressive and it seemed as if he was calling the shots and not the other way round.

It is apparent from this interaction that the relationship between the US and Pakistan is far deeper and layered than understood by New Delhi. The strategic community in Delhi, blinded by recent improvement in ties with the US, is living under the mistaken belief that Pakistan would split up; but they forget the importance of the Pakistan military establishment to Washington and its ability to create a parallel drug based economy to attain certain strategic objectives.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2010