July 8, 2012: Russia has a serious problem with Afghanistan and it has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism or the Taliban. For the last four years Russia has been publicly demanding that the U.S. do more to stem the flow of heroin out of Afghanistan. Russia even offered to supply intelligence on the drug gangs inside Afghanistan. The Russian intelligence network knew a lot about the smuggling gangs that moved the heroin through Central Asia, Russia, and into Europe. But apparently, the Russians also had good sources inside Afghanistan. This collaboration has done great damage to the Afghan drug gangs but the heroin keeps coming.
The Russians care more about the drug gangs than they do the Taliban. While the Russians have some problems with Islamic terrorism, heroin addiction does a lot more damage. There are over two million heroin and opium addicts in Russia, and about a quarter of the 40 million such addicts worldwide are in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. Many Afghan government officials are on the drug gang payrolls, as are officials in neighboring nations that can help with getting the drugs smuggled into major markets (Europe, North America, the Middle East, and East Asia). All the countries on the receiving end are very eager to shut down the heroin production in Afghanistan, or at least keep the stuff from being smuggled into their countries. Alas, corruption in many of these nations makes it difficult to battle the drug gangs.
Because Pakistan is the most corrupt of Afghanistan's neighbors, a little over half of the heroin is exported via Pakistan. The rest goes through Iran (on its way to the lucrative Persian Gulf market) and Tajikistan/Kazakhstan/Russia (and then to Europe). The smugglers are many but nearly all the opium (that is refined into heroin) comes from Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. These two provinces are also the Taliban homeland and where they are strongest. This is no coincidence. The Taliban have supported themselves from the heroin trade for over a decade. Only about ten percent of Afghans profit from the drug trade while most of the rest are victimized by it.
The drug gangs prefer to sell opium to people in the region because that drug is cheaper and is smoked rather than injected. Given the poverty in the area (Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on the planet), that makes sense. But the export market wants heroin and morphine, for which opium is the main raw material. But that requires industrial chemicals for the conversion and that stuff has to be imported and mini-chemical factories set up to carry out the refining.
Heroin is much less bulky than opium and easier to smuggle. Ten tons of opium (worth about $45 a pound or $99 a kilogram) can be refined into 1.3 tons of heroin (worth $2,000-$4,000 a kilogram depending on how much is available). This conversion requires 2.6 tons of acetic anhydride, an industrial chemical. This is a clear liquid that is flammable and poisonous if you inhale it. There is no legal use for acetic anhydride inside Afghanistan. With bribes and transportation costs, the drug gangs pay about $2,000 per ton to get it to Pakistan. Then it has to be smuggled into Afghanistan, by truck. There are a limited number of roads, with the border manned by guards who are accustomed to being bribed. There are several other chemicals needed to refine the opium (to morphine, then to heroin) but acetic anhydride is the hardest to get and the one needed in the largest quantities. Smaller quantities of hydrochloric acid are also needed, but this is a more common industrial chemical.
The drug gangs took in some $2 billion in the last year from sales of opium, heroin, and hashish (a concentrated form of marijuana). That's about 15 percent of Afghanistan's GDP. It's not all profit, with at least half of it going to pay poppy and marijuana farmers, the refining of opium into heroin, and marijuana into hashish. Once you get this stuff into a neighboring country its value doubles and it increases considerably when it reaches the consumer market.
Pakistan drove the heroin trade out in the 1990s, in part by interfering with the supply of acetic anhydride. The heroin trade, like the cocaine trade in South America, brings with it another big problem: armed religious or political movements team up with the drug gangs to supply security (or else) for cash. Thus the alliance of the Taliban, and other Islamic terrorists, with the tribe-based drug gangs to produce most of the world's heroin is not unique. For decades after World War II most of the heroin came from the remote Burma (now Myanmar)-China border area, where the drug gangs could afford to raise and equip private armies (complete with uniforms and flags). But both of those nations eventually cracked down on that business, and it moved to Pakistan for a while but was forced across the border into Afghanistan. In both earlier cases controlling the supply of acetic anhydride played a major role in crushing the heroin trade.
The Afghan government is reluctant to shut down the heroin trade, partly because many senior government officials are being bribed and partly because it would cause more tribal warfare (most of the tribes oppose the heroin trade, and only a few of the Pushtun tribes in the south control most of the heroin production). Moreover, there is the likelihood that the poppy growing and heroin production would just move to another Central Asian nation. The Islamic terrorists would follow. So the problem really is to crush, or otherwise neutralize, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other Islamic radicals who are sustaining their violence via drug profits. The Taliban earns $50-100 million a year from helping protect the drug gangs. This also makes the Taliban hated throughout Afghanistan. But the Taliban doesn't care. They have always been a violent minority that preferred being feared to being loved or respected.
It is interesting that the two major illegal drugs are both produced in small regions, areas that are dominated by outlaw armies and a general absence of law and order. Cocaine is largely from Colombia, where the drug gangs and their political allies (the leftist FARC) almost brought the government to its knees, before politicians and most of the population rose up and fought back. In Afghanistan, NATO and U.S. commanders have finally convinced their governments to go after the money: the heroin trade.
That means manufacturers and distributors of acetic anhydride have been under scrutiny and pressure to control the supply of the chemical entering Afghanistan, for nearly a decade. The smugglers have been very resourceful, using bribes and threats to get past government restrictions. The chemical enters Afghanistan from all neighboring countries, except Iran (which has a small army of incorruptible troops on the border trying to keep out the opium and heroin). The acetic anhydride is often bought in Europe or Russia, labeled as some other product, and sent on its way to Pakistan or one of the Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan, where bribes or threats are used to get it into southern Afghanistan, where the processing labs are. This smuggling network is now under major attack. Russia is determined to control their growing addiction problem by keeping the smugglers (who bring drugs in and chemicals out) away from the border. But all this effort is crippled by the corruption and lawless nature of the border area. The example of Colombia shows that you can fight back. But it's not easy and progress is slow.
Russia and Iran are the two local countries that are fighting the heroin trade the hardest. Pakistan is cursed with several million opium/hashish/heroin addicts, but the government and police are easy to bribe and no real effort has been made to stop the flow of drugs. Most Central Asian nations are too poor to buy much of these drugs, even at low prices (because of proximity to the source). The big markets are farther away and those nations would all like to see the flow of heroin stopped.
Promises to eliminate drug addiction are one of the reasons Islamic radicals gain popular support. But the alliance between the Taliban and the drug gangs in Afghanistan is becoming widely known, and believed, in the Islamic world. The Islamic terrorists can't have it both ways. They will eventually have to decide what comes first: righteousness or riches.