November 3, 2009: A recent UN report shows that the drug trade in Afghanistan is flourishing. According to the UN, there are 15 million addicts, worldwide, who depend on the 3,500 tons of opium produced each year in Afghanistan. Much of the opium is now consumed locally. For export, you want to take 7.7 tons of opium (worth about $800,000), with two tons of acetic anhydride (costing about $4,000), to produce one ton of heroin (worth about $3.5 million). The acetic anhydride has to be imported, and it's bulky. But the heroin is much more compact. The UN estimates that all this dope generates over $60 billion in economic activity each year. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda make over $100 million a year providing security for the production and smuggling of the drugs.
About 40 percent of the exported opium and heroin leaves via Pakistan (opium for the local addicts, heroin for wealthier customers farther east), 30 percent through Iran (opium for the local addicts, heroin for wealthier customers farther west) and 25 percent through Central Asia (opium for the local addicts, heroin for wealthier customers farther to the northwest). Ultimately, about 15 percent of Afghan drugs (in the form of opium or heroin) ends up in Iran, six percent in Pakistan, seven percent in India, 19 percent in China, 15 percent in Russia, six percent in Africa and six percent in the Americas (mainly the U.S. and Canada.) Only about 20 percent of the stuff is intercepted by police.
Europe (including Russia) account for a little over half the heroin consumption, while Iran is the words biggest consumer of opium (over 40 percent of the total). About 100,000 people die, each year, from overdoses (mainly of heroin). But the heroin users also spread AIDS and other diseases via the hypodermic needles they share. The addicts themselves often resort to crime in order to pay for the drugs, and this results in millions of criminal acts, thousands of them resulting in people getting killed. The UN believes that the Afghan drug gangs have 12,000 tons of opium inside Afghanistan, waiting to be processed into heroin, or exported as opium. The military operations in Helmand province this past Summer was, in part, an effort to find and destroy these stockpiles.
Ten years ago, Taliban run Afghanistan was the world's largest producer of heroin. 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 the south. Farmers from throughout the region 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.
Heroin and opium addiction is becoming a major, and growing, problem in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. 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. Opium 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 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.
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. The Pushtun tribes in southern Afghanistan now produce 90 percent of the worlds heroin, and most of it is produced in the Taliban heartland, particularly Helmand province. While there is a terrorism problem in Afghanistan, it's become mostly a drug problem.