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Phantom War: Afghanistan’s Child “Chemists” and Counternarcotics
Matthew C. DuPée, 4/1/2009

“I’ve been in this business a long time, but it really disturbs me when I see the opium workshops in Mawand that are completely run with children labor.”

This is how Suleiman, a thuggish drug trader from southern Afghanistan, described Afghanistan’s narcotics industry to me during a trip to Kandahar this past June.

“They would line up around the compound each morning, just hoping and praying they would get picked to work for a wage that’s less than 40 Pakistani rupees (less than $1) a day. They become instant addicts cooking the opium in large vats.” 

Sadly, Suleiman’s story is not uncommon. According to UN statistics, nearly two-thirds of all Afghan opium, some 6,900 tons last year, is converted into morphine-base or heroin in grubby workshops described by Suleiman before being smuggled out of the country. That’s enough opium to make approximately 700 metric tons of heroin. Keep in mind the United States consumes approximately 10 tons of heroin annually for a population exceeding 300 million people.

Afghanistan’s unparalleled narcotics industry has produced over 90% of the world’s illicit opium and heroin for six years in a row. International efforts to curb the Afghan narcotics conundrum have been insufficient until recently. The Obama administration has overhauled the U.S. counternarcotics strategy this year, removing forced eradication measures and encouraging interdiction, drug seizures and attacking clandestine drug refinement labs across the country.

The renewed strategy is apparently having an affect. According to the UNODC, during the first half of this year NATO and Afghan operations destroyed over 90 tons of precursor chemicals used in the production of illicit drugs, 450 tons of opium poppy seeds, 77.5 tons of narcotics and 27 laboratories.

Although interdiction is a step in the right direction, not nearly enough is being done to target the essential precursor chemicals smuggled into Afghanistan to foster the capabilities of drug refinement workshops described by Suleiman. Ninety-tons of chemicals sure sounds like a lot, but consider Afghanistan’s annual requirement of nearly 14,500 tons of such chemicals to refine opium into a usable substance. Last year less than 68 tons of precursor chemicals were interdicted.

During my travels north of Kabul in late June, I saw dozens of heavy transport trucks carrying shipments of precursor chemicals likely to have been acetic anhydride, the key ingredient used to refine opium into morphine base and heroin. The trucks used main thoroughfares while their drivers made no effort in concealing their illicit cargo. Political protection for these types of convoys are said to penetrate the highest levels of the Afghan government. In areas controlled by insurgents like the Taliban, commanders are providing the necessary protection of the drug shipments and precursor chemicals under the guise of “transit-taxes,” earning insurgents well over $75 million annually in protection fees.

Afghanistan’s narcotics industry continues to erode security and stability initiatives, entrenches corruption deep within the Afghan central government and feeds a growing generation of heroin addicts across South Asia. Meanwhile, the spreading of diseases like HIV/AIDS continues at unprecedented rates due to the increase in IV-drug use.

Afghanistan’s narco-problem will not simply go away on its own. Pro-active efforts in combating corruption and establishing security, long enough to allow meaningful agricultural assistance, core infrastructure improvements such as the creation of cold-storage depots, improved and secure roadways, and the availability of micro-financing for farmers,  is only the beginning of what is needed in turning the tide of Afghanistan’s entrenched drug industry.

Without properly addressing the narcotics problem, Afghanistan will be consumed by its own corruption, bad governance, and a thriving insurgency fueled by narco-profits and criminality.

Matthew C. DuPée is a Research Associate for the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is currently working on his M.A. in Regional Security Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School while conducting research on the Afghan insurgency and narcotics industry.