The Silk Road, about 400 years ago, was a giant trade corridor covering a colossal swath of geography with diverse climatic conditions from Turkey to China served as a platform where the East and the West, apart from exchanging spices, silk and exotic jewelry, interwove cultural and religious practices.
One of the landmark features of the Silk Route then was the zeitgeist of art, architecture and religion. Arabic architecture was openly embraced by the east while presenting the Arabs with eastern art and science. It was this time when cities like Damascus, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kandahar rose to glory, primarily because of their status as the key transit routes of the Silk Road.
Today, the Silk Road is a transnational menace, rooted in the Opium Wars of the British Empire with Imperial China in the 19th century, because of the unbridled cultivation, production, consumption and transportation of opium into the global markets. Afghanistan is at the heart of the notorious opium trade.
Decades of conflicts have disconnected Afghanistan from the more lucrative above-ground global economic engagement. While certain specific Central Asian economies like Mongolia and Kazakhstan have enjoyed respectable global profiles due to their vast mineral resources, Afghanistan has failed to deliver the potential despite of homing a vast amount of natural riches under its rough and hard to penetrate mountainous regions primarily due to political turbulence – periods of civil unrest and wars.
Southern Afghanistan is the epicenter of global opium trade according to a report compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2011. The report lists the Southern Afghan cities of Hilmand, Kandahar, Farah, Nimroz and Uruzgan as the key locations for cultivation of opium and processing of heroine.
If in the 16th and 17th centuries, Damascus, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kandahar were the key transit hubs for silk, spices and jewelry, today Hilmand, Kandahar, Farah, Nimroz and Uruzgan are the key transit hubs for opium and heroin.
Taliban And Opium
The rise of Taliban in mid-1990s was a tax imposed on Afghanistan’s growth and development. The brutal regime with little regard for industrialization took the country back to the Stone Age. If under Soviet rule Afghanistan had 142 industrial units, under Taliban rule none of these made any meaningful advancement. Afghan economy in the ‘90s was mainly powered by agriculture.
Opium trade, initially, did not flourish much during Taliban rule. With the intent of receiving official recognition for its regime, Taliban destroyed a vast geography that was under opium cultivation, except the Northern provinces which were ruled by the Northern Alliance.
Civil war among the war lords which took the life of the forward-looking Ahmad Shah Masood of the Northern Alliance has made agriculture a risky affair.
Farmers were skeptical of making new investments in the farms as they didn’t expect the farms to last until the harvest season due to increased combat operations by the allied forces and dangers of reprisals from Taliban. Harvesting, transporting and marketing the produce to the agricultural markets became a trecherous affair.
Between 1998 and 2000 opium cultivation was on the brink of extinction as Taliban imposed capital punishment on the cultivation and trade of opium in most of the Afghan provinces.
The US-led invasion after September 11, 2001 changed the perception of Taliban toward opium cultivation. An objective of US war on terror is to clamp down on terror financing vehicles which use underground global money laundering to channel drug money, in part, to fight asymmetric guerilla wars with global powers. Now, therefore, Taliban believes opium money can help them fund their resistance against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) efforts to bring normalcy to the chronically war-torn country.
Toward A Hapless Future Of Addiction Or Hope?
The consequence of Afghan resistance to NATO operations is the addiction of about 1 million Afghans to opium and heroin in a country of 30 million. Similarly the consumption of opium and heroin has increased drastically in the neighboring Central Asian countries as well. There are approximately over a million drug addicts in Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. It is believed that in the Russian Federation alone 60,000 to 100,000 drug addicts are dying every year due to intake of opium and heroin. Other central and South Asian countries – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan are also affected by the inflow of opium into their territories.
The response of the US and NATO commanders, unfortunately, has been baffling at best and disappointing overall. NATO spokesman James Appathurai made their position very clear:
“We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income of people who live in the second-poorest country in the world without being able to provide them with an alternative. It is no surprise then that even the ruling Afghan regime endorses the US and NATO’s line of thought. During a December 2010 interview with a Russian channel the Afghan Counter Narcotics Minister Zarar Ahmad Osmani admitted openly “If we destroy opium poppy fields, farmers will join the Taliban.”
Viktor Ivanov, Russia’s drug enforcement chief, accuses US and NATO of acting with conflicting interests while tackling drug related matters in different parts of the world. As per his observation the US destroys 2,300 Square Kilometers of coca crops annually in Colombia. In sharp contrast, in Afghanistan it is a mere 20 Square Kilometers of poppies. Further, recent atrocities committed by US and NATO forces (Quran burning incident in Baghram, Civilian shootings in Kandahar by US army personnel, pictures of coalition forces urinating on Talibani corpses and pictures of US forces posing with the body parts of Taliban suicide bombers) has left the US and NATO army in a pincer-like situation.
In an environment that is growing hostile every passing day the coalition commanders do not want to initiate any action that could topple the ruling Hamid Karzai’s regime. Social unrest is the last thing the coalition forces and Hamid Karzai want to experience in a war-torn country especially because that would provide a window of opportunity for the Taliban to bounce back.
Afghan opium, akin to coca in the Americas, has become the eradicable untouchable of the netherworld of the Eurasian political-economy. Taliban is standing in the way of a New Deal for Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan.