Sunday, November 24, 2013

The changing dynamics of the Afghan heroin trail, by Ioannis Michaletos

Developments, new routes, probable outcomes

The following data derive from an international closed conference on the subject held in a Southeastern European country in November 2013. 

The Afghan heroin and opiates production is by far the largest in the world with safe predictions for a 90% share on word production in 2014. Afghanistan is a county that can be classified as the “Saudi Arabia of opium production”. As the country of the House of Saud is the world largest exporter of oil and fully depended on it, so is Afghanistan in poppy cultivation in which it relies the main part of its GDP and a great deal of its social equilibrium between competing tribes that divide their districts of influence based on the control of opium. 

The country is also one of the major world producers of cannabis and can be broadly speaking classified as a “Narco-state”. A series of important geopolitical changes due to take place in the near future, the NATO withdrawal not withstanding, play a key role in any culminations relating to heroin production and illicit trade as well. 

The majority of the projects by international donors, states and organizations since 2002 that aimed at reducing the dependence of Afghan farmers to heroin, have effectively failed. On the contrary production has multiplied and at least 2,000 chemical laboratories for the production of morphine and heroin have been established across the country. Thus, it is unquestionable that the failure of the international forces (ISAF) and the multitude of multilateral bodies that were supposed to assist Kabul in this sector; has been of spectacular nature. 

The broad assessment by experts is that after 2014 and the mass exodus of foreign troops the situation will likely get worse in terms of the rule of law with great probabilities of renewed rounds of tribal and ethnic conflict that will further deteriorate the internal political and economic situation in Afghanistan. A country that will be affected more than nowadays is Pakistan which has already paid a heavy price over the past generation by the Afghan heroin industry and the various sectarian wars. 

The Taliban's share in Afghan heroin production is not more than 5% according to the findings of specialized researchers in the issue, ending a "myth" of the supposed heavy involvement of these groups in this illegal sector. In fact the majority of the local production is effectively controlled by elements that are either directly or indirectly related to the Karzai government. 

These groups of people have now attained world class clout, since they are able to influence an at least 300 billion USD heroin industry that spreads into the entire planet, which is essentially, nominally monetary leveraged indirectly by the global financial system and has two focal axis regarding the chain of contraband. The first is the so-called "Balkan axis", which in fact is the route from Afghanistan-Iran-Turkey-Balkans to the main EU markets", and the other is Eurasian axis from Central Asia to the Russian federation to Baltics and Ukraine. 

The UNODC which monitors the Afghan heroin sector in a timely fashion observes a new emerging route which runs from Afghanistan to Baluchistan and from then onwards through vessels to East African countries. Whilst still 55% of the heroin traverses through the Balkan route, a 5% share has been noted over the past year through the new Indian Ocean-Africa route. It is speculated that proceedings of that contraband are directed to the Islamists groups in African countries. Moreover around 700 Km of borders between Iran-Pakistan and Afghanistan in Baluchistan are not controlled thus this route may gain in prominence, depending on the crop production and the local balances of power. 

The trafficking to Europe has also been noted by the threat analysis section of UNODC to have increased through Pakistani ports, while the African shipments are re-exported to various international destinations including North America. Little intergovernmental collaboration exists in the Indian Ocean states to curb these phenomena for the time being. 

Another interesting aspect is the substantial increase of morphine production in Afghanistan which is increasingly sent to the Syrian battlefront to fill the needs of wounded and injured. The number of opiates addicts across the MENA region is also steadily increasing presenting new target groups for Afghan producers and the intermediate traffickers, at the same time that the European addict population has been stabilized with projection for decrease of a medium level in the coming years. 

Lastly it should be noted that the expanding illegal international pharmaceutical sector, especially in the field of painkillers is also another importer of Afghan morphine and it could be safely assumed that labs of that nature would be established in greater scale in the coming years in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The heroin traders are consider nowadays extremely sophisticated, being able to procure the latest technology applications, to bribe officials in the highest level and to infiltrate state institutions at ease in a number of countries. 

The exit of NATO from Afghanistan will have a wide range of ramifications for the country and the region and has already mobilized the political authorities of states such as Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Iran. The latter is trying to forge a deal with its nuclear program with USA, based mostly in Teheran's advantage to assist in the stabilization of Kabul and in effect of the American long-term interests there. In terms of heroin production various scenarios could be formed, with the most likely one being the decrease in heroin production due to increased domestic violence which will have as an effect the rise of the heroin wholesale and retail price across the world. 

Regarding the Balkans that means in general, the consolidation in a greater scale of the local heroin organized criminal groups that will become in financial terms even more powerful, while "cutting off" smaller intermediates from the transit route. Further the stabilization of the European addicts market will shift the importance of the Balkans from the route Bulgaria-FYROM-Kosovo-Bosnia-Serbia-Croatia to the MENA regions, meaning Bulgaria-FYROM-Albania & Montenegro and from then on via vessels to the expanding heroin addicts "markets" of Libya, Egypt, and Syria-Iraq. The role of Turkey will remain unquestionable as the main geo-economic axis of that trade with the regions neighboring to the Southern Arab neighbors gaining in strength. 

Effective countermeasures for curbing the illicit trade could only come about by international G-G cooperation, the practical inclusion of specialized private services, the prioritization of the issue for the political authorities involved and of course by the stabilization and normalization of the social context in the Af-Pak region, as well as, in all countries from where the main routes are traversing. 

Conclusively since a "market" of tens of millions of addicts is already well in placed, even if heroin production is decreased considerably in Afghanistan the criminal syndicates that are global in nature will shift their production bases elsewhere, as they have done before, with the most likely new facilities being established in East Africa between Somalia to Mozambique.