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Drugs for guns

By Kellie Tranter - posted Friday, 15 October 2010

The real purpose for the presence of allied forces in Afghanistan must be encrypted. Publicly we’ve been told it’s about rooting out al-Qaida; then the Taliban; then humanitarian efforts and training the Afghan National Police. And now it’s about “stabilising” Afghanistan because the Taliban pose a threat to regional stability, and Pakistan is al-Qaida headquarters and has 100 nuclear weapons and a very strong Taliban movement.

The fact that there is this succession of "reasons" may raise an eyebrow, but isn't what we're hearing now a little odd? How exactly did Pakistan get its nuclear weapons? Who issued the invoices?

Issues often defy understanding when we don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. Is it too much to ask or expect that after embroiling us in a decade of conflict our elected representatives might finally seek out and tell us the truth behind this war?


Much has been written about alternative agendas at play in Afghanistan, like pipelines, mineral resources, debt cancellation programs in return for “economic reforms”, proxy wars and other geo-political sweeteners, but let’s consider one we don't often hear about. The issue of transnational drug trafficking is another piece of the puzzle, and probably a critical one.

General Petraeus recently accused the Karzai Government of being a “criminal syndicate”, but are we expected to believe that the “syndicate” is confined to the borders of Afghanistan? That the story begins and ends in Afghanistan?

Operation Hoffman, the drug investigation led by the Australian Crime Commission or the Sinaloa Drug Cartel shows how corruption, money and power transcends borders. It’s nothing new, and readily explained. Sociologist C Wright Mills wrote in 1956:

The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater significance than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organisations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of power and the wealth and celebrity which they enjoy.

Now consider Afghanistan’s drug industry in light of these premises:

1. The Taliban had successfully imposed a ban on poppy cultivation in 2000: opium production declined by more than 90 per cent in 2001.

2. The global heroin market is estimated at US$55 billion.

3. Afghanistan is now the source of 90 per cent of the world's opium.

4. Sixty per cent of Afghanistan’s opium is converted to heroin or morphine before leaving the country.

5. Pakistan is a major transit country for precursor chemicals illegally smuggled into Afghanistan for use in processing heroin.

6. It costs less than $1,000 to purchase enough opium from Afghan farmers to produce 1kg of pure heroin that fetches well over $100,000 on "first world" streets. Quite a mark up!

7. Interpol confirms that:

… two primary routes are used to smuggle heroin are the Balkan Route, which runs through southeast Europe, and the Silk Route, which runs through Central Asia. The anchor point for the Balkan Route is Turkey, which remains a major staging area and transportation route for heroin destined for European markets. The Balkan Route is divided into three sub-routes: the southern route runs through Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy; the central route runs through Turkey, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and into either Italy or Austria; and the northern route runs from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania to Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany. Large quantities of heroin are destined for either the Netherlands or the United Kingdom.

Although the Balkan Route is considered the primary supply line for Western Europe, Afghan and Central Asian traffickers smuggle heroin along the Silk Route into Russia, the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and other parts of Europe. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are vital transit countries …

8. The Australian Crime Commission and Australian Federal Police say Afghanistan is becoming the dominant source of heroin in Australia, accounting for as much as two-thirds of the drug imports in recent years.


We've all heard claims that the Afghan heroin trade is fuelling the Taliban insurgency. We also hear that aid money is funding the insurgency. Maybe it’s both? Either way, it’s a lot of money.

The global distribution of heroin requires growers, processors, smugglers, high level dealers, mid-level dealers and retailers, and money launderers to hide illegally gained money.

So we need to pay attention when we hear reports that brother of Afghan Leader and drug lord Ahmed Wali Karzai is said to be on the CIA payroll, or suggestions - denied, naturally - that British and Canadian troops have used military aircraft to ship heroin out of Afghanistan; when Afghan politician Malalai Joya suggests that the Afghans aren't the only ones involved in drug trafficking, and when Russian arms dealers trade Russian guns for Afghan drugs.

It’s all strangely reminiscent of the tales of heroin trafficking in South-East Asia during the Vietnam war, and about the funding of the Contras against Nicaragua's Sandinista government during the 1980s after the Boland Amendment cut off Congressional funding.

With the huge web of participants in the international heroin trade, many rich and powerful, it’s no surprise that Afghans are wondering why the opium crackdown hasn’t worked. Australia can send an army of Australian Federal Police officers to Afghanistan to train Afghan National Police but it won’t do anything to thwart a US$55 billion a year industry, even assuming they’re actually targeting it in the first place.

Before our elected representatives can have an informed debate on the war on Afghanistan they need some insight into the interplay between the war and the heroin trade. They need to know exactly who is involved instead of letting identities disappear in the generic collective epithet “criminal syndicate”, so they can understand whether the players in Afghanistan and beyond are training and arming the insurgency - fighting our troops and killing innocent civilians - in return for an effectively unchecked free market in a product far more valuable than money: heroin.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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