To the west of India, a great empire of opium is rising. New Delhi needs to act, fast

The climax of the Afghan heroin story could now be approaching: cut off from the international financial system, the economy in ruins, and millions on the edge of starvation, the thick-white milk lanced from the poppy-plant is the closest thing the Taliban have to gold

Praveen Swami September 24, 2021 06:08:47 IST
To the west of India, a great empire of opium is rising. New Delhi needs to act, fast

Poppy cultivation. Image courtesy FishInWater/Wikimedia Commons

From a spur on the Muqam range, one February morning in 1519CE, the Emperor gazed out at the spectacular mountain vista, crowned by the tomb of Usman Marwandi, the great mystic still revered by millions as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.  He was less than pleased by the ornament on the landscape. “It occurred to me”, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur recorded, “that a heretic wandering dervish had no business having a tomb in such a pleasant spot, so I ordered it reduced to rubble”.

The Emperor celebrated this blow for his faith in a manner the pious might not have approved: “since it was an agreeable place and the air was so good, I had some ma’jun [a sweet made from opium and poppy-husk] and sat there for a while”.

To the west of India a great empire of opium is rising New Delhi needs to act fast

Earlier this week, the Department of Revenue Intelligence seized almost 3,000 kilograms of heroin—claimed in media accounts to be worth up to $2.9 billion, and by more conservative United Nations price data at some $60-90 million—from the port of Mundhra in Gujarat. The seizure, one of the largest in history, is alleged to have been sent from Afghanistan, via Iran, to a Chennai-based firm, likely to be routed to markets in Europe or Australia.

For India, a new challenge is looming. The country isn’t a major market for heroin; data shows lower-cost synthetic methamphetamines, made in Myanmar, Bangladesh and in the North East, are drawing the bulk of young users. But as the United States has learned in the course of its long war on drugs, the enormous profits from heroin fuel organised crime, and wash up a grim tide of dead bodies.

Ever since 2020, police forces across the world have been discovering enormous shipments of heroin: in recent months, a staggering 23,200 kilos were found stashed inside five shipping containers in Antwerp and Hamburg; 600 hundred kilos off the coast of Sri Lanka; 1,452 kilos in Romania, 400 kilos in Kosovo. Large consignments are also being interdicted by multinational naval forces operating in the Persian Gulf: the Canadian frigate Calgary, for example a 1,286-kilo consignment in April.

To the west of India a great empire of opium is rising New Delhi needs to act fast

Each of these gargantuan seizures involved unprecedented international cooperation, often involving the intelligence and police services, as well as the military, from over 150 countries.

The bad news is this: these seizures aren’t doing much to hit the availability of heroin globally, a market which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organised Crime, UNODOC, estimates at 350 tons. In 2018, the last year for which global data is available, 96 tons of heroin and 726 tons of opium—the equivalent of 72 tons of heroin—were seized. Thus, about two-thirds of all heroin shipments are reaching markets, with distributors simply building the losses into their price structure.

From their base in Afghanistan or Iran, the traffickers who sent the 3,000-kilo consignment to Mundhra would have shipped similar containers out from ports in Iran and Pakistan to East Africa, Indian Ocean islands like Sri Lanka or Mauritius, and even directly to Europe—knowing most of their cargoes would make it through.

Like so much else to do with the world, the surge in large-consignment seizures has something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. For two months in 2020, the great ports of the world shut down commercial operations, and with them the heroin cartels lost their principal route. “Large quantities of drugs are typically trafficked hidden among legal cargo”, UNODOC notes, “and such trafficking seems to have been affected by the global reduction in the trade in merchandise”.

Even small scale operations, relying on ‘mules’ to physically carry consignments on flights, or on corrupt airline staff, were hit by Covid restrictions.

Across the western Indian ocean, traffickers adapted by using Dhows—often manned by Pakistani fishermen from the Makran coast—to move heroin from their Afghan fields to the Indian Ocean islands, like Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Maldives. There, the cargos were consolidated, and stored to await the resumption of ocean-going traffic.

To the west of India a great empire of opium is rising New Delhi needs to act fast

From the middle of 2020, as maritime trade routes opened rapidly, the cartels moved to meet pent-up demand in Europe and Australia,  by shipping unusually-large large consignments hidden inside containers carrying normal merchandise.  Although overland routes also existed—from western Afghanistan into Iran, or nothwards into the Central Asian states—periodic local Covid border closures made them relatively unreliable.

The UNDOC data tells us heart of the heroin business—the arid Afghan fields which pump out some 80 percent of the world’s opium—is blossoming. Last year, acreage under poppy, the plant from opium is extracted, rose 31 percent over 2019, to 224,000 hectares. The economic devastation in Afghanistan, a severe drought and with dislocations to export routes from fruit and onions, will likely push more farmers to grow the hardy poppy plant.

Last year, opium production stood at something over 6,000 tonnes, or roughly 600 tons of processed heroin; farm-gate values fell to a record low of $350 million all told, reflecting disruptions in demand due to Covid. The Taliban’s on-ground operations placed tithes and taxes on these operations.

Fitful efforts to take on the Afghan opium trade drug trade continued through to 2018, with limited results. A scholarly study of one operation, targeting a drug-refining lab, carried out by London School of Economics scholar David Mansfied, concluded that it had almost no impact. The likely loss to the Taliban was $190,750, if calculated as the street value of processed heroin, and just $2,863 as tax. The flying cost, per hour, of the F22 bombers, by contrast, was $70,000 per aircraft.

In just weeks, drug labs wiped out by air strikes or ground operations became operational again; worse, the raids earned the Afghan government the anger of local communities, who suffered the human costs of air raids and the destruction of their limited irrigation infrastructure.

To the west of India a great empire of opium is rising New Delhi needs to act fast

Ever since opium began to be used, societies have known its dangers. The death of Babur’s father, Umar-Shaykh Mirza, by falling from a dovecote at Akhsi fortress—who he described as “rather fond of ma’jun, and under its influence, he would lose his head”—might well have had something to do with drug use. Following a ma’jun party, Babur and his inebriated friends were once attacked by Afghan bandits; one member of the group, Amir-Muhammad Tarkhan, decided the best way of saving a friend who would not wake from captivity was by cutting off his head.

Eighteenth-century British was responsible for transforming the small imperial pleasures of Babur’s era into an industrial operation. Imports of commodities like porcelain and tea had led to significant trade imbalances with China, estimated by economic historians at an average of five percent each year. In 1773, thus, opium became a monopoly of the East India Company, with production centres in what are now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh feeding the market in China.

In 1775, British merchants exported some 75 tonnes of opium to China; by 1850, it was nearly 3,200 tons. Even though China, aware of the catastrophic social impact of addiction, banned opium several times, British military campaigns in 1839 and 1858 secured the right to continue selling it.

As historian Carl Trocki has pointed out, opium was thus “a source of virtually free capital which allowed the English to get their foot into the door of the Asian commercial system”.

Late in the 19th century, though, an international drug control regime began to spring up—spearheaded, among others, by American missionaries active in East Asia.  Imperial British authorities were compelled to cut back production in India. Afghanistan stepped in to feed the market, although at very limited volumes.

Explosive surges in opium production took place in the 1980s, as the Islamist mujahideen groups that fought the Soviet Union looked for means to fund the  insurgency. Gretchen Peters, the author of an authoritative work on the Taliban’s narcotics operations, has described how insurgent commander Mullah Muhammad Nasim Akhundzada “set production quotas, implemented a predatory loan service to small poppy farmers,” and “reportedly threatened farmers who failed to plant poppy with castration or death”.

The Inter-Services Intelligence-operated smuggling routes used to bring in weapons, medicine and food took back opium. The drugs were shipped to Europe and the United States through criminal cartels in Karachi, who in turn laundered their finance through the stock exchange and the property markets.

War, interestingly, played its own role in creating an ecology for drugs. Afghanistan’s ancient karez irrigation system—a system of hand-dug tunnels that tapped groundwater—were bombed-out in the course of years of conflict. The social cohesion needed to maintain the system, moreover, disintegrated under the impact of war. In many cases, warlords took control of the system, and began demanding payments for irrigation water.

In 1997, the Taliban came to power, promising to crush opium. The reality turned out to be at some odds from that promise. In 1996, Afghanistan had produced 2,250 metric tonnes of opium. That number soared in 1999 to 4,580 metric tons. The Islamic Emirate, by then, controlled most of the country by 1999; 97 percent of the country’s production is estimated to have been grown in Taliban-held areas.

From 2000, though, the Taliban moved to end drug cultivation, advertising it as an effort to secure an end to global sanctions. In one of the most remarkable reversals of narcotics production globally, cultivation fell from 82,000 hectares to 8,000 hectares. The Taliban, however, continued to hold on to opium stockpiles, and used the production cut to raise prices. A kilo of opium was selling for as much as $746 on the eve of 9/11, falling to just $95 inside weeks, as stocks were dumped.

From 2006, as the Taliban reemerged from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, narcotics became an increasingly significant source of revenue. In 2007, when the jihadist organisation briefly seized control of the town of Musa Qala, it is reported to have imposed an $8 monthly tax on opium-growing families. In subsequent years, the Taliban institutionalised these operations, imposing cesses on opium-transporting trucks, processing laboratories, and cartels convoys headed into central Asia or Pakistan.

The climax of the Afghan heroin story could now be approaching: cut off from the international financial system, the economy in ruins, and millions on the edge of starvation, the thick-white milk lanced from the poppy-plant is the closest thing the Taliban have to gold. In a lawless land, even the limited interdiction measures that were in place will be impossible.

Iran and Mexico, where hundreds of police officers die fighting trafficking cartels each year, hold out a warning of the risks to India as this great tide of heroin flows out of the heart of Asia. New Delhi needs to upgrade its policing system to deal with the challenge. From international experience, moreover, it’s clear coercive measures do little to address demand; even Singapore and Iran, which threaten traffickers with the death sentence, have severe addiction problems.  An enlightened system of education and treatment to to reduce demand among young addicts will be vital—and India hasn’t even taken the first steps.

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