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Embassy in the News

Winning the Afghan opium war

by James Emery

Middle East Times


A U.N.-Afghan nationwide survey in 2006 found nearly 1 million addicts of about 30 million people, including 60,000 children under age 15. Drugs of choice range from hashish, opium and heroin to pharmaceutical medicines. Some 5,000 children are addicted to opiates, and the remainder take cough syrup and other drugs, the survey found. The actual numbers are probably much higher, especially for children and women, the report said. (Photo by Sipa Press via Newscom)

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the export value of Afghanistan's opium production was about $4 billion last year, of which 24 percent went to those working at the lower to middle end of the opium chain. The bulk of the money goes to regional and international trafficking organizations that have ties with the Taliban, terrorists, and multinational criminal organizations.

"Counter-narcotics is one of the key challenges," said Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. "I think that unless we resolve the narcotics problem, it can undo many of our achievements, especially the governance and the rule of law. Narcotics traders are corrupting everyone that is not paid well; the police primarily, but also the judicial system up to institutions that constitute the face of the government."

The prevalence of corruption, combined with the severe lack of resources and the initiative to investigate it, make bribery and other forms of corruption a minimal risk venture. With Afghanistan facing an uncertain future, many officials are looking out for their own interest; at the lower levels, they are simply trying to survive. There is little chance of getting caught and a general lack of hard evidence and cooperative witnesses.

The ranks of police and government officials are littered with unsavory warlords and undesirables who paid a bribe to gain their appointment. Failing to expunge these powerful felons from government is equivalent to leaving a heroin addict in charge of drug seizures.

The task of eradication has been assigned to provincial governors, some of whom have a vested interest in the drug trade. In June of 2006, members of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan raided the offices of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who was then the governor of Helmand province, seizing nine tons of opium that was being stored there. Opium eradication has been plagued by tribal issues and corruption. Reportedly, a $200 bribe to the police or the government eradication teams will generally save your opium crop.

It would be advisable to have a frequent rotation of provincial governors and other government and police officials involved in overseeing opium eradication and counter-narcotics efforts in their respective province or district. The large drug traffickers buy officials as a form of investment for the help they can provide with future sales and profits. If these administrators are not going to be in place for a reasonable period of years, it makes the cash outlay to bribe them a costly, short-term investment, which is not in the trafficker's interest. The criminals will have to decrease the size of the bribes, making corruption less appealing to government bureaucrats.

Officials will also have more reason to fear exposure if they know their term of office will be short and that their unrelated, newly trained, law and order replacement is able to claim a lucrative bonus by exposing the corruption of his predecessor. Some replacements should come from the ranks of the Western-trained, Afghan narcotics force.

The training of Afghan police officers by the DEA and other international agencies is paying dividends in the war against drug traffickers. However, a good deal more effort is needed, including substantial pay raises and benefit packages that include medical care for the officers and their families. These should be made available to all police officers, with added remuneration, bonuses, and perks for the esteemed officers assigned to elite narcotics units.

Currently, one of the primary incentives for many Afghan police officers, who are grossly underpaid, undertrained, and underequipped, is graft from drug traffickers and criminal gangs, along with self-serving, slight-of-hand maneuvers to increase their earnings. It's been reported that many of the cops double as delivery agents, using their police cars to transport drugs.

"The police are local with the people," said Haidari, "so the police are critical to the legitimacy of the government." Corruption undermines law enforcement efforts and the credibility of the government. It also plays into the hands of the insurgency, providing them with complicit cops and propaganda points in the battle for Afghan hearts and minds.

Afghanistan is a collectivist culture with family ties and responsibilities that go well beyond the norm of Western countries. The average Afghan household may be eight to 10 people or more, including the married couple, their children, the husband's parents, and occasionally, other relatives. The average wage for an Afghan police officer is about 3,000 Afghanis a month, or $60. Most of the women in Afghanistan do not work outside the home, leaving police officers and government officials with the huge burden of supporting the clan on their small salaries. It makes them vulnerable to criminal influence and corruption.

If a policeman has to choose between duty to the state or survival of his family, there is no question what he will do. While excessive greed is a motivating factor in the corruption of Afghan cabinet members and higher officials, for most of the cops, it's basic survival. Unlike the warlords, most police officers are not buying Land Rovers and satellite dishes; they're buying food, clothing, and medical care.

One of the best investments in the future of Afghanistan is to train, equip, pay, and motivate all Afghan police officers. Most of the current police force is salvageable. Those who aren't should be imprisoned or terminated. After boosting their wages, they should be told that bribery and corruption will no longer be tolerated and if they cross that line, they will do jail time; no exceptions. The same rules and incentives should be implemented for all Afghan government officials and civil servants.

These salary increases and benefit programs can be paid for by aggressively targeting the middle and upper tiers of drug trafficking organizations and passing a law that mandates the seizure of all assets, in Afghanistan and abroad, of anyone involved in the drug trade. When these people come out of prison, the only thing they should own is their prison issued wardrobe and some prayer beads.

The Afghan population currently believes that large traffickers and complicit government officials are untouchable. Just the opposite should be true. If you want to destroy a rabid dog, you don't cut off the tail, you cut off the head. The same goes for drug traffickers. The top people, along with everyone involved in their operations should be taken down, regardless of family ties or political alliances.


Professor James Emery is an anthropologist and journalist who has reported on regional conflicts and the drug trade for over twenty years, including five years overseas. He's made several trips into Afghanistan, Myanmar, and other drug-producing and transit countries.

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