The New York Times and other major U.S. media sources commonly report on the production of opium in Afghanistan as though it were under the control of the Taliban. The facts on the ground, however, tell a different story. Who dominates the Afghan opium trade? Foreign Policy Journal investigates.
By Jeremy R. Hammond -- World News Trust
Dec. 4, 2008 (World News Trust) -- The New York Times reported last week that the Taliban have cut back on poppy cultivation and are stockpiling opium, grossly overstating the group’s role in the Afghanistan drug trade.
“Afghanistan has produced so much opium in recent years,” the Times reported, “that the Taliban are cutting poppy cultivation and stockpiling raw opium in an effort to support prices and preserve a major source of financing for the insurgency, Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations drug office, says.”
Mr. Costa’s remarks came as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) prepared to release its Afghan Opium Survey 2008 report, the executive summary of which has already been available for some time. The now released report shows that poppy cultivation was reduced in much of Afghanistan and is even more highly concentrated in the south, with Helmand province being by far the biggest producer.
The Times states that the Taliban “have for several years ‘systematically encouraged’ opium cultivation as a way to finance their insurgency, the study said.” It notes that the UNODC has estimated that “the insurgents made as much as $300 million from the opium trade” last year.
“But after three years of bumper crops, including this one,” the Times continues, “the Taliban have succeeded almost too well, producing opium in amounts far in excess of world demand.”
Despite production far exceeding global demand, prices for the drug have not fallen as much as might be expected based solely on the supply and demand principle of the market. One explanation that has been put forward is that opium is being stockpiled.
According to the Times’ summary of Mr. Costa’s remarks, “The fact that prices had not collapsed already, he said, was evidence that the Taliban, drug lords and even some farmers have stockpiled the opium, more and more of which is also being processed in Afghanistan. ‘Insurgents have been holding significant amounts of opium,’ Mr. Costa said.”
In addition, “This year, the Taliban are taking a ‘passive stance’ toward cultivation, apparently putting less pressure on Afghan farmers to plant opium poppy. ‘They have called a moratorium of sorts as a way of keeping the stocks stable and supporting the price,’ Mr. Costa said.”
The Times thus acknowledges the role of non-Taliban actors, the “drug lords and even some farmers”, but nevertheless downplays their role and characterizes the cultivation of poppies and production of opium as being predominantly controlled by the Taliban. But this is not an accurate representation of the facts on the ground, as the findings of the UNODC report itself makes clear.
While the Times suggests the amount of opium produced is under the direct influence of the Taliban, in fact the decision to cultivate or not is made by individual farmers.
While the Times suggests the Taliban have “systematically encouraged”, citing the UNODC study, those words in fact do not appear in the report. Nor does it make any similar claim.
As part of the survey, the UNODC asked farmers their reasons for growing or not growing the crop. Most farmers who have never chosen to cultivate poppies cited as their reasons that it was against Islam and otherwise illegal. Of those who did cultivate poppies this year, 92 percent cited poverty alleviation as the driving motivation. Importantly, of those who had grown in the past, but stopped, the government ban was cited as the predominate reason for doing so. The second most common answer was that the choice was based on decisions of the shura and elders.
The two main reasons given in the report for the reduction in the amount of land used for opium cultivation are “successful counter-narcotics efforts in the northern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan” and “unfavourable weather conditions that caused extreme drought and crop failures in some provinces”, mostly in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have little or no presence.
Still other factors were the reduction in farm-gate prices for opium, which, coupled with the drought in the north, led farmers to switch to alternative crops. One such alternative crop has increasingly become cannabis. “Farmers growing cannabis,” the UNODC report notes, “may earn the same net income per hectare as farmers who grow opium, or even more, because cultivating cannabis is less labour intensive than opium.”
Furthermore, poppies grown in the south have a higher opium yield than in the north, so another factor in the trend seen this year is simply the result of market conditions. With supply far exceeding demand, driving down farm-gate prices, coupled with drought and lucrative, lower-labor alternatives, it is only natural, whatever other factors are at work, that the cultivation has lessened in the north and east and increased in the south, where the crop produces a higher yield.
Instructively, while the amount of land used to cultivate opium decreased in 2008 by 19 percent, the estimated opium production was still only down 6 percent from last year due to the higher overall yield.
Contrary to what the New York Times suggests, the UNODC report gives no indication that the reason cultivation was cut back had anything whatsoever to do with any kind of direction or control over the crop by the Taliban.
The implications that the Taliban group itself grows the crop and is involved in trafficking are also misleading. According to the UNODC, the Taliban’s profits from the trade come principally from ushr, a 10 percent tax on all agricultural crops, and from offering protection for traffickers involved in moving the opium.
David Mansfield is an independent consultant who has advised governments and organizations such as the World Bank on policy and issues relating to the Afghan opium trade. Mr. Mansfield told Foreign Policy Journal, “Ushr is charged on all agricultural produce and traditionally goes to the mullah for his services to the community. There are reports that this is being absorbed by ‘the Taliban’ -- which is not a monlith.” He added that another situation which occurs is half the tax going to the mullah and the other 5 percent to the Taliban.
Thomas Pietschmann, a research officer with the UNODC Statistics and Surveys Section who is credited in the 2008 report, told the Journal that an estimated $50 million-$470 million is made by warlords and Taliban from the farmers. An additional $200 million-$400 million is made from the traffickers. But, he explained, “We do not have any good idea of how this income is divided up between warlords and Taliban.”
Mr. Pietschmann also confirmed to the Journal that, while they did profit from ushr and from offering security, “We also have not seen strong indications of much direct exporting of opiates by the Taliban.”
In commentary attached to the UNODC report, Mr. Costa asks, “Who collects this money? Local strong men. In other words, by year end, war-lords, drug-lords and insurgents will have extracted almost half a billion dollars of tax revenue from drug farming, production and trafficking.”
Notably, Mr. Costa does not answer his question with “the Taliban,” but includes a much broader range of participants who profit from the trade that includes, but is in no way limited to, the Taliban.
When Mr. Costa told reporters, “They have called a moratorium of sorts as a way of keeping the stocks stable and supporting the price,” the Times reported that “They” meant “the Taliban.” But it seems more probable the UNODC Executive Director intended his use of the pronoun to include other groups as well. In fact, the word “Taliban” does not appear in the report outside of Mr. Costa’s comments. The report refers instead more broadly to “anti-government elements,” or AGEs.
The Times actually underreports the total estimated amount made by such elements as being $300 million, as opposed to nearly $500 million. But it attributes these profits to “the insurgents” -- which it uses nearly synonymously with “the Taliban” -- rather than differentiating between warlords, drug lords, and other insurgent groups besides the Taliban. As Mr. Pietschmann told the Journal, the UNODC did not estimate how much of that half million dollars is specifically going to the Taliban.
There are a number of other important facts to consider that the Times does not share with its readers. The total export value of opium and its derivatives (morphine and heroin) this year was estimated by the UNODC to be $3.4 billion. Therefore a logical corollary of the Times’ own account is that the majority of profits from the opium trade are going to non-insurgents.
It should be noted that this conclusion, too, may be inaccurate, as there are simply too many unknowns. But what is clear is that the Taliban, while profiting from the opium trade, do not control it.
The Times misleads on other counts, as well. The UNODC does suggest that opium is being stockpiled as one possible explanation for why costs haven’t dropped in direct correlation with the vast over-supply. Mr. Costa has said that “Lack of price response in the opium market can only be the result of stock build-ups, and all evidence points to the Taliban.” But Mr. Costa himself appears to be politicizing the report's actual findings with this remark. The market price of opium against the estimated supply does suggest stocks are being withheld, and the Taliban does profit from the trade. But there appears to be only this circumstantial evidence that the Taliban is responsible for the theoretical stockpiling; and even if we assume that stockpiling is indeed taking place, there are also non-Taliban warlords and drug lords who may be responsible.
Mr. Pietschmann, in his comments to the Journal, presented the notion of stockpiling by Taliban as merely a possibility. While there aren’t strong indications of direct exporting by the Taliban, “They may, however, hold some of the stocks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and/or ‘protect’ those holding the stocks as well as ‘protect’ the laboratories and some of the convoys.”
Indeed, Mr. Costa’s own commentary in the UNODC report contains numerous caveats, such as “If the Taliban are holding major drug stockpiles…” (emphasis added), suggesting this is only a possibility, not a certainty.
This is a point Mr. Mansfield emphasized in comments to the Journal. With regard to the suggestion that opium is being stockpiled, he said, “This assumption is based on an estimate of global demand of 4,000 metric tons, but is that estimate accurate? Does it adequately reflect use in what are thought to be growing consumer markets such as China and India? It is of course also based on an assessment of Afghan yields, but how accurate are these? The US would seem to systematically estimate lower yields compared with UNODC, to the equivalent of around 2000 metric tons of opium this year. Is some of the ‘surplus’ which UNODC suggests is stockpiled actually a problem of estimates of supply and demand? How much?”
He confirmed that withholding of opium takes place and that he has come across “some wealthier farmers who keep opium and speculate on whether the price will increase” but nevertheless characterized the notion of massive stockpiling to the amounts of “thousands of tons,” as suggested by the UNODC, as being an “assumption.”
By overemphasizing the role of the Taliban, the Times serves to obfuscate the apparent role of local leaders and, more importantly, government and law enforcement officials in the drug trade.
Mr. Mansfield acknowledged to the Journal, with regard to corruption within the Afghan government and police force, that “some raise the question as to who makes more money from the opium economy -- AGE or corrupt government officials.”
Mr. Pietschmann also acknowledged that, “Corruption is indeed a problem and there are indications that it may go to rather high levels.” He added, “It is, however, difficult to estimate to what extent the trade is controlled by major players within the government. We do not have any indications that the bulk is being controlled by some of these individuals. There seems to be more of a problem with parliament where drug lords have strong influence over individuals and/or are even personally involved.
“A UNODC study done in 2006 concluded that there may be 35 major criminal groups in Afghanistan, of which 15 are located in southern Afghanistan (Helmand/Kandahar) controlling much of the business. None of them had its criminal head in government. But they seem to influence politics, including who gets the job as police chief at the regional level.”
And while much of the U.S.-led effort to combat the trade in Afghanistan has involved eradication of poppy fields, most experts seem to concur, including in reports from both the UNODC and the World Bank, that, at best, eradication has had only very limited success and is at worst counterproductive because it targets the farmers, most of whom grow the crop only in an effort to alleviate poverty, rather than the big players who control the actual trade in the drug.
Mr. Pietschmann observed, “Our Executive Director has repeatedly made the point that there is a need to target corruption as well as the drug markets, drug convoys and the laboratories, and not the farmers.”
And yet U.S. policy on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan seems to focus largely, if not predominantly, upon eradication. This may actually help increase the profit margin of the major players, and may actually be used by warlords and drug lords with strong influence in the government either at the state or local level to target competitors in the trade.
A research policy paper for the World Bank by William A. Byrd, for instance, notes that eradication helps drive up the “risk premium,” thereby driving up farm-gate prices and helping to cause “greater extortion of ‘protection money’ from farmers by various authorities.”
The World Bank report also noted “where sharp reductions in cultivation were achieved, physical eradication accounted for only a very small proportion of the decrease in cultivated area.”
It also states that “most of the limited physical eradication of poppy crops that has occurred has been under the leadership of provincial Governors. There are serious concerns however that due to the close ties between many local officials and drug interests, Governor-led eradication is especially vulnerable to corruption in implementation.”
The paper adds that “such corruption tends to result in eradication disproportionately affecting the poor, who lack political connections or resources to pay bribes to avoid eradication.” Moreover, “eradication can exacerbate poverty” among poor farmers and their families, whom are mostly targeted.
Similarly, a UNODC Assessment of Organized Crime in Central Asia noted that “The leaders themselves usually belong to the leading clans and occupy positions of high status in a family. In addition, the leaders are usually well connected to the apparatus of government power, whether in the political leadership or local administration.”
The assessment also notes that while there is often cooperation amongst criminal groups or organizations, there is also a great deal of competition, and that “What is perhaps most interesting here is the degree to which state actors are often involved. This can be illustrated through examining government crackdowns on competing clans. It is highly probable that at least some of the crackdowns on organized crime by government and law-enforcement agencies are carefully targeted against rival clans, while criminal organizations that are linked to the dominant clan obtain ‘preferential impunity’ and are able to continue to accumulate wealth from their criminal activities.”
And there’s an even bigger picture to consider with regard to the Afghan opium trade. The UNODC report estimates farm-gate prices and the export value of the opium, and also notes that rates of seizure of the drug indicate that it is going to Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. Some of this opium is “exported by sea or by air,” Mr. Pietschmann told the Journal. “Direct exports from Pakistan go to the UK. The UK estimates that 20-25 percent comes directly from Pakistan and 75 percent comes via the Balkan routes and the Netherlands into the UK.”
But, he said, from Afghanistan, “Most of these opiates then go to Iran,” which he confirmed “is a major transit country.” He added, “Most is then trafficked from Iran to Turkey.”
Once the opium has left Afghanistan its cost increases exponentially, which is where the real profits are made. For example a Development Research Group report for the World Bank by Peter Reuter noted that “the principal costs … are associated with distribution rather than production.” In 2000, “A pure kilogram of heroin produced in Afghanistan for less than $1,000, was exported from Turkey for $10,000, and by the time it reached consumers in Western Europe it was priced at $175,000.”
The World Bank report noted that “The cost of production, as opposed to distribution, is a trivial share of the final price.”
Mr. Pietschmann made a similar observation in response to inquiries from Foreign Policy Journal. “We have not as yet done the global calculations for 2008,” he replied, “but it is quite clear that the overwhelming profits out of opiates produced in Afghanistan are made outside Afghanistan,” such as “in the transit countries to Europe and even more so, within Europe.”
The role of the Taliban in the opium trade is often greatly exaggerated by the U.S. corporate media. But even if one were to accept accounts like those the New York Times gives of the Taliban’s role, it nevertheless still remains self-evident that the Taliban’s cut is “trivial” if one considers the bigger picture.
That is not to say the profits gained by the Taliban and other insurgent groups are not significant. As Mr. Costa notes in the UNODC report, given an estimate of nearly $500 million going to insurgents, it is not surprising that “the insurgents’ war machine has proven so resilient.”
While acknowledging that, “the Taliban will only receive a rather small fraction of the overall Afghan income from the opiate trade,” Mr. Pietschmann also emphasized, “But even the ‘little money’ of, let’s say US$150 milliion-$200 million, is a lot for financing insurgency activities. Our information is that Taliban fighters earn several times more than people in the Afghan army.”
The question still remains of who is really responsible for the lion’s share of the highly profitable Afghan opium trade. Mr. Pietschmann suggested a role of Kurdish groups in trafficking the drug from Iran into Turkey.
In Turkey, some have suggested the existence of a shadow government, or what is termed the “deep state,” that really controls things behind the scenes. Even a former president and seven-time prime minister of Turkey, Suleyman Demirel, has said, “It is fundamental principle that there is one state. In our country there are two.” He added, “There is one deep state and one other state. The state that should be real is the spare one, the one that should be spare is the real one.”
Writing in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, John Gorvett, a free-lanced journalist based in Istanbul, said: “Defining the ‘deep state’ is not so easy, however. Some argue that it is a hangover from the Cold War, when Western powers sought to establish a network of armed groups that would stay behind in countries that might have fallen to the Soviet bloc. While these groups were then abolished in most countries when the Soviet Union collapsed, the theory is that in Turkey this never happened. Instead, the group continues to operate, an unofficial underground army tied to organized crime and a bevy of corrupt politicians, police and bureaucrats.”
In one case, a heroin trafficker on Interpol’s wanted list named Abdullah Catli died in a car accident in 1996 near the town of Susurluk and was found carrying a diplomatic passport signed by the Interior Minister of Turkey. Writing in Druglink Magazine in 2006, journalist and television producer Adrian Gatton commented, “The Susurluk Incident became Turkey’s Watergate, exposing the deep links between the Turkish state, terrorists and drug traffickers. It revealed what Turks call the Gizli Devlet, or Deep State -- the politicians, military officers and intelligence officials who worked with drug bosses to move drugs from Afghanistan into Europe.”
That corruption extends to the United States, according to former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds. According to Ms. Edmonds, U.S. officials were involved in helping foreign intelligence agents acquire sensitive nuclear secrets. She also says she was approached by a mole within the FBI who attempted to recruit her. The woman who approached her was a member of the American Turkish Council, which was the target of an FBI investigation because it was suspected of being involved in, among other things, drug trafficking. When she went to her superiors with concerns over possible misconduct and espionage within the FBI, she was fired. The Department of Justice then gagged her under the “state secrets privilege.”
Ms. Edmonds later formed the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, which includes as a member Daniel Ellsberg, the former special assistant to the Secretary of Defense who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Mr. Ellsberg has said, with regard to Ms. Edmonds, “Al Qaeda, she’s been saying to congress, … is financed 95 percent by drug money -- drug traffic to which the U.S. government shows a blind eye, has been ignoring, because it very heavily involves allies and assets of ours -- such as Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan -- all the ‘Stans -- in a drug traffic where the opium originates in Afghanistan, is processed in Turkey, and delivered to Europe where it furnishes 96 percent of Europe’s heroin.”
If such allegations are correct -- and Ms. Edmonds is not alone in making them -- then it might perhaps explain why the U.S. government is so keen on solely blaming the Taliban for the production of opium in Afghanistan and the lucrative drug trade.
And, as the reporting during the run-up to the Iraq war amply demonstrated, the U.S. mainstream media -- not the least of which includes the New York Times -- is only too willing to parrot government propaganda while failing to question the official line or critically examine key issues.
Peter Dale Scott contributed research to this report.