The illegal narcotics trade constitutes one of the main financial sources of the insurgency groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but, more importantly, it feeds narco-terror, globally. The American withdrawal in 2021 means that the countries of the region and beyond will have to play a greater role in the management of their borders and confront questions about their capacity to stop potentially destabilising trends emerging from Afghanistan, as per a new report published by the NATO Defence Education Enhancement Program (DEEP).
According to this 2022 report titled “Narco-Insecurity, Inc., the convergence of Pakistan and Afghanistan narco-trade”, such trade was made possible with the help of Pakistan’s military spy agency the ISI, who launched several covert operations with sympathetic jihadist groups, all of whom relied heavily on narcotics trafficking to fund their operations, expanding the trafficking route even further through their regions, launching the Balkan, northern, and southern routes of the global narco-trafficking pipeline.
The central aim of this NATO academic report written by David R. Winston is to analyse the growth of the narcotics industry stemming from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and the nexus that has formed between narcotics trafficking and terrorism/extremism. The Taliban have long used narcotics as their main source of revenue. Without the poppy crop, they may never have grown to be the massive organisation that they are today that was capable of toppling the Ghani government, as per the writer. Through examining the history of narcotics and its connection to terrorist groups, this report identifies how the world fell down this perilous path, and offers possible solutions to deal with this new dynamic.
The most substantial networks mentioned in the report is the Haqqani network, a criminal enterprise situated along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border that was founded on smuggling. The Pakistani military saw the Haqqani network as a key ally, given their location and alliances with numerous jihadist groups, and began investing in their bases while using them as a proxy for engagement with other non-state actors. The prominence of the Haqqani network within the Taliban’s current leadership is being witnessed while there is uncertainty as to who may succeed after Sirajuddin Haqqani in the coming years, which can be a further alarming development.
With the control of Afghanistan by the Taliban last year, the terror group has acquired control over the opium cultivation in the country.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) November 2021 Report, Afghanistan accounted for around 85 percent of global opium production in the year 2020 and supplied to approximately 80 percent of the world’s opium consumers. The total value of opiates (opium, morphine, and heroin) was 9 per cent to 14 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. Methamphetamine and cannabis are two other major drugs which have expanded production in Afghanistan in recent years.
The Western withdrawal that precipitated the swift takeover by the Taliban, has led to increasing instability such as internal conflict within the Taliban and growing local opposition to the Taliban, fueling further growth of narcotics trafficking.
While the Taliban publicly states they will not traffic narcotics, that depends on whether or not they would make enough from other revenue sources to sustain the country, and whether they believe trafficking will impact their international standing enough to threaten their control of the country, according to the Afghan Diaspora Network (ADN).
With Afghanistan facing its worst humanitarian crisis due to economic collapse and climate change, the Taliban would not want to ban the drug which has funded its insurgency against the US and NATO-sponsored previous Afghan government, ADN adds in its latest research report.
“The Taliban needs the drug money to keep control over their cadres. Although drug production and consumption are un-Islamic, in their previous regime the Taliban did not ban the production and trading of opium cultivation for the longest time. The drug money has also played an important role in the Taliban’s rise to power for the second time and it would not want to jeopardise it,” the ADN says.
With Pakistan sharing 2400 kilometres of largely porous border with Afghanistan, it has served as a transit corridor for drug traffickers. According to independent estimates, more than 40% of Afghan drugs transit Pakistan before they reach the international markets.
Tonnes of opiates and meth are trafficked from Afghanistan to the Torkham border crossing, Ghulam Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, from where they are sent to Lahore and Faisalabad, reassembled into huge consignments.
Pakistan’s role in drug proliferation is validated by a number of arrests of its nationals in other countries on charges of drug trafficking. Shahbaz Khan, a Pakistani national, was the leader of a drug trafficking organization (the “DTO”) based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which produced and distributed massive quantities of narcotics around the world. He was arrested by Liberian authorities in December 2016 and later deported to the United States, where in 2019 he was sentenced to 15 years for conspiring and attempting to import heroin into the U.S.
In May 2017, officials for the U.K.’s Border Force impounded a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight from Islamabad at London’s Heathrow airport. Later, the National Crime Agency said that a quantity of heroin had been found hidden in different panels of the plane.
In March 2018, two members of the cabin crew of a PIA flight, travelling on an Islamabad-Paris flight (PK-749), were caught smuggling narcotics on board the flight.
There is also the famous case of Mir Yaqub Bizenjo who appeared on a White House list of the world’s four leading drug barons in 2009.
The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a notice under Obama administration saying that he operated from Balochistan, a Pakistani province sharing borders with Afghanistan and sends his durgs consignments out of Jiwani, Turbat and Gwadar.
In 2002, Mr Bizenjo vowed to work for the success of General Musharraf through front-page ads in newspapers. He is currently involved in real estate projects with the Pakistani military, and his family is part of the Pakistani parliament, according to a previous South Asia Press investigation.
It is reported that Pakistan has established smuggling networks over the last years into India – and especially within the Kashmir valley – so as to ensure a steady supply of narcotics and weapons. The recurring, major terrorist attacks, for example in Uri and Pulwama, and the subsequently increased security measures by the Indian armed forces led to the suspension of traditional smuggling routes in the area and forced the Pakistani to use other land-based trafficking options through Punjab and Gujarat. Also the sea-based smuggling gained significance for Islamabad’s crime-terror nexus. An increasing number of exposed consignments on the India–Pakistan border containing narcotics as well as arms and ammunition were seized by the Border Security Force/BSF, particularly in Punjab. This indicates expanding activities by terrorists and drug traders, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Moreover, it points to Pakistan’s ‘larger’ plans to carry out disruptive activities in India.
Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had once revealed how the Pakistani security establishment sells heroin to pay for the country’s covert military operations. This was reported in 1994, in an interview Sharif gave to The Washington Post.
Af-Pak Heroin networks, drug lords and their nexus with the Taliban and Pakistani military present a principal impediment to security, state-building, and democratic governance in Afghanistan and the region. Beyond the region, Afghan-originated drugs create enormous challenges for international security by financing terrorism, instigating corruption, and creating health emergencies. It is time to put an end to such “narco” trade originating from Afghanistan and supported by Pakistan.