May 27, 2010: Russia has been a lot more helpful to NATO forces in Afghanistan lately, especially if it involves fighting the Afghan drug gangs. All that heroin coming out of Afghanistan has created over 2.5 million heroin and opium addicts in Russia. Each year, 30,000 Russians die from drug related problems (usually overdoses). Russia would like NATO to cripple Afghan heroin production as soon as possible, and regularly criticizes NATO for not doing enough against the drug gangs. To that end, Russia is supplying lots of high grade intelligence on the drug gangs, especially their connections with drug operations (that distribute the drugs locally, and smuggle it on to more distant markets) in neighboring countries. Russian intelligence has been all over the drug gangs for years now, and they have access that Western intelligence agencies lack. Russia wants the U.S. Treasury Department to use its well known influence on the world financial system, to go after the vast fortunes the drug gangs have acquired. But more importantly, Russia wants NATO to target the labs in rural Afghanistan that turn opium into heroin. Russia is also providing information on those who smuggle the chemicals needed to make those labs work. Russia wants some action, and it wants it fast.
For many years, NATO and the United States had a hands-off policy towards the drug gangs. This was believed to be a tactic to get more cooperation out of the Afghan government, in the battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda. This did not work. More and more government officials joined the drug gang payroll, and the drug gangs sought to move some of their production out of Helmand province (where most of Afghanistan's heroin was produced.) Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world heroin supply. But the drug gangs had made one big mistake. They made a deal with the Taliban. The drug lords would provide the Taliban with millions (some say up to $100 million) a year to protect drug operations (production and movement to the smuggling routes crossing into Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia.)
This infusion of cash, enabled the Taliban to increase their efforts to overthrow the government. So now the Afghan officials, even those still taking payoffs from the drug gangs, have come to realize they have made a deal with the devil, and that they are doomed unless they destroy the Taliban, al Qaeda and, as much as it hurts (financially) the drug gangs.
Heroin and opium addiction is becoming a major, and growing, problem in the entire region. This has been an issue for over twenty years, ever since heroin production got started in Pakistan. In the 1990s, the Pakistanis drove most of the drug lords out, and the heroin trade just moved across the border into Afghanistan. By the late 1990s, there were five million heroin addicts in Pakistan, three million in Iran, and one million in the Xinjiang province of western China. There were millions more in Central Asia and Russia. Hashish (concentrated marijuana) and other drugs were also popular, and Pakistan estimated that five percent of adult Pakistanis were addicted. But the Taliban punished drug users in Afghanistan, and kept the number of addicts down. When the Taliban were driven from power, the Pushtun drug lords began selling opium and heroin to fellow Afghans on a larger scale. There are now over a million addicts in Afghanistan, and the number in neighboring countries has increased as well.
Ten years ago, when the Taliban still ran Afghanistan. Back then, Afghanistan produced over 70 percent of the world's opium, with 96 percent of that coming from Taliban-controlled areas. Northern Afghanistan was never conquered by the Taliban, and managed to prevent the heroin production from getting established in the north.
The Taliban encouraged the heroin business, even setting up model farms in Herat. Farmers from throughout the south were brought in to show them the best way to cultivate the poppies whose sap was turned into opium, and then heroin. The Taliban collected a 20 percent tax on all opium and heroin sales. The same kind of tax was collected in the north, but the drug production was controlled, not encouraged, up there. Since the Taliban were driven out of power in 2001, the heroin trade was practically wiped out in the north.
While the Taliban ran the country, Al Qaeda got a share of the heroin income, in return for their assistance in keeping the Taliban in power. Al Qaeda formed a brigade of gunmen who were used as enforcers for the Taliban. This was done because the Taliban had a hard time getting tribesmen to fight other tribesmen. The Taliban were mainly from some of the Pushtun tribes around Kandahar, and most of the territory they controlled in Afghanistan was controlled by other Pushtun tribes (who account for 40 percent of Afghanistan's population.) Letting the largely foreign al Qaeda gunmen discipline troublesome Pushtun tribes, the Taliban avoided starting long lasting blood feuds between Pushtun tribes. Al Qaeda used their cut of the heroin taxes to finance terrorism outside the country. One could say that the September 11, 2001 attacks were paid for with drug money. The al Qaeda drug money also financed Islamic terrorism in Central Asia, western China (where most of the population is Moslem), India (Kashmir) and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, and surrounding countries, opium and heroin addiction is seen as a curse and a growing problem. The addicts become economically useless, and turn to crime to feed their habit. These nations cannot afford to jail or treat all these addicts, but do know that if they can eliminate the source of the drugs in Afghanistan, the number of addicts will decline. It's a simple matter of economics. Coming from nearby Afghanistan, the drugs are much cheaper, costing less than a tenth what addicts in Western nations pay. If the source of most of the world's heroin were farther away, the cost to local addicts would increase to the point where most could not afford it. That was the situation before the 1980s, and such addiction was restricted to a small proportion of the wealthier classes. It's got nothing to do with religion, except in the sense that the Moslem clergy condemns the addiction. Many clergy who back Islamic radicalism are increasingly hostile to the Taliban and al Qaeda, because those two groups encourage the drug production and profit from it.