Multilateral Treatment for Afghanistan’s Drug Problem

On February 16, the third ministerial conference of the Paris Pact Initiative partner countries took place in Vienna to intensify global efforts to stem the flow of opium and heroin (opiates) from Afghanistan. The seriousness of the topic was underlined by the fact that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as well as foreign ministers from Austria, France and Russia, took part in the conference.

This 55-country initiative, which began in Paris in 2003, is designed to promote partnerships to counter the trafficking and consumption of opiates originating in Afghanistan. Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, most of which is trafficked to Iran and Pakistan, as well as Russia and Western Europe via Central Asia.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), some 16.5 million people use opiates annually, generating a $68 billion global market. But this problem can not only be tackled at the source. It is a shared responsibility among all countries affected by the demand, trafficking, and supply of one of the world’s deadliest drugs.

Key Conclusions

The Paris Pact is a manifestation of shared responsibility among all countries affected by Afghanistan’s massive drug problem. Because of its size, this problem can only be tackled by effective multilateral cooperation. Furthermore, focusing on more effective interdiction is insufficient: unless more is done to reduce supply and demand for Afghanistan’s opiates, traffickers will continue to make huge profits that generate instability and pervert economies. Increased information sharing—such as through the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Center (CARICC) and in tracking precursor chemicals—seems to be improving, and joint counter-narcotics operations—such as the Triangular Initiative, involving Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan—are also producing results.

What is badly needed, as acknowledged in the Vienna Declaration of February 16, are increased efforts to detect and block the financial flows linked to opiate trafficking. Despite all of the positive statements coming out of the Vienna meeting, one question remains unanswered: if, after major international efforts to curtail the problem, the Afghan opiate trade is still booming, what will happen when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdraws?


Afghanistan is notorious for holding a virtual monopoly on the world’s supply of opium – the raw material for heroin. While opium cultivation today is significantly lower than it was in 2007 (when it peaked at 193,000 hectares), the amount of land used for poppy cultivation in 2011 was 131,000 hectares (an increase of 7 percent over 2010), and opium production shot up by 61 percent from 3,600 metric tons in 2010 to 5,800 metric tons in 2011. (stats from UNODC’s Afghan Opium Survey 2011).

This far exceeds global demand. Indeed, supply has far outstripped demand for several years, to the point that UNODC estimates the amount of opiate stocks in Afghanistan and along major trafficking routes is now over 12,000 (opium equivalent) tons! Where is all that opium or heroin? More bizarre is the fact that opium prices are rising, which runs counter to the principle of supply and demand.

Drug profits are being used to fund insurgency and terrorism as well as fuel organized crime and corruption. Drug use is causing addiction (not least in Afghanistan), and spreading blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. In short, as the Vienna Declaration acknowledges, despite major efforts by the international community, illicit traffic in opiates, including heroin, is still a growing problem.

In order to contain the problem, the Vienna conference called for greater cooperation in relation to: regional initiatives; stemming financial flows related to the drug trade; preventing the diversion of precursor chemicals (needed to turn opium into heroin); and reducing drug abuse and dependence.

One regional initiative that seems to be working is the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Center. CARICC, based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is designed to improve counter-narcotics information exchanges and cooperation among the five Central Asian republics, plus Russia and Azerbaijan. Recently, CARICC-facilitated operations have led to major seizures of Afghan drugs (5.7 tons in October 2011, 5.8 tons in January 2012).

The Triangular Initiative involving Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan has coordinated a number of simultaneous operations that have seized major quantities of drugs. This UNODC-brokered initiative is designed to promote joint operations to improve border management and counter narcotics. It is also a confidence-building measure among three countries that otherwise find it difficult to work together.

There has also been cooperation—such as through Operation TARCET and in relation to container security—in tracking and seizing precursor chemicals like acetic anhydride, which are produced legally but illegally diverted to Afghanistan where there is no licit need for them.

More work is needed in finding, following, and cutting the money trail that is the lifeblood of the drugs trade. Opium generates revenue equivalent to around ten percent of GDP in Afghanistan, making it a major source of revenue for anti-government forces and a lubricant for corruption. The value of the drugs increases exponentially with every border that is crossed, creating a lucrative source of revenue for criminal groups along heroin trafficking routes through Central Asia and the Balkans, into Russia and Western Europe. That is why a greater focus is needed on anti-corruption measures, financial intelligence, and seizing the assets of crime.

Greater cooperation in this area was stressed at the Vienna meeting. One of the major problems is that many of the drug profits are moved through informal money transfers, particularly the hawala system (an Islamic system of transferring money without actually moving it). This issue deserves closer attention.

The Vienna Declaration also underlined the need for doing more to prevent and treat drug abuse. Opiate abuse is a major problem in Afghanistan and Iran, while heroin addiction is creating major health problems (and thousands of deaths per year) in Russia, Central Asia and Western Europe. If there was less demand for opiates, trafficking them would be less lucrative.

A major question remains: If counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency have gone hand-in-hand in Afghanistan for the past few years, and if opium cultivation has been more or less limited to areas of the country under the control of the Taliban, what will happen when ISAF withdraws? Arguably, the Paris Pact will take on increased importance as states will work more around Afghanistan rather than in Afghanistan to contain the flow of opiates.

Walter Kemp is Director of the Europe and Central Asia Program at the International Peace Institute

About the photo: A US soldier crosses a poppy field in Marjah, Afghanistan, April  2011. Photo credit: US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Alberto B. Vazquez