Though the Afghan opium harvest has declined for the second consecutive year, a new United Nations report says, there is growing evidence that some Afghan insurgent forces are becoming “narco-cartels” — similar to anti-government guerrilla groups in Colombia — that view drug profits as more important than ideology.
Afghanistan’s multibillion-dollar illicit narcotics industry finances much of the country’s insurgency, and the influence of drug money is a major reason the Afghan government is considered among the most corrupt in the world.
Afghanistan’s production of opium, the raw material for heroin, declined by 10 percent this year, and the amount of land used to cultivate opium fell by 22 percent, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that is to be formally released Wednesday.
The smaller harvest, largely attributed to market forces and heightened interdiction efforts, is a rare bit of good news for the United States and the coalition of Western governments whose troops and taxpayers are supporting what even American commanders describe as a deteriorating situation as the war approaches its ninth year.
But while United Nations officials suggested that some opium-trafficking guerrillas were now less focused on Taliban ideology, they also reported that perhaps more than 10,000 tons of illegal opium — worth billions of dollars and enough to satisfy at least two years of world demand — is now secretly stockpiled. They said they were concerned that part of this stockpile could be a “ticking bomb” in the hands of people who could use it to pay for “sinister scenarios.”
Opium is easily smuggled and stored and “is an ideal form of terrorist financing,” Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an interview. “It’s a huge amount of money to have in the wrong hands.” He called on intelligence agencies to investigate the stockpiles.
American officials are also concerned that large stockpiles could bolster guerrilla war chests, despite recent military operations to curb the flow of drug money to the Taliban and other insurgent groups, a senior United States official said. The official, who did not wish to speak on the record, said that the stockpiles were believed to be in Afghanistan and that they were probably under the control of gangs that were principally involved in narcotics trafficking rather than directly controlled by “terror groups.”
But assuming the opium can be smuggled out of the country, the official added, “the real issue is that regardless of what impact we have in the near term on production, distribution and other aspects of the narco network, this level of stockpiles means that funding resources will remain fairly even.”
American troops and Afghan officials in some southern regions where opium proliferates say that the insurgency there appears to be increasingly influenced by financial loyalties rather than ideological or jihadist allegiances, as guerrillas move from taxing and extracting protection money from traffickers to smuggling and refining opium themselves. Estimates of the insurgency’s annual revenue from drugs across Afghanistan vary widely, from $70 million to $500 million, according to a recent Congressional report.
“A marriage of convenience between insurgents and criminal groups is spawning narco-cartels in Afghanistan linked to the Taliban,” Mr. Costa said.
As in some nations, including Colombia and Myanmar, the agency said in a statement, “the drug trade in Afghanistan has gone from being a funding source for insurgency to becoming an end in itself.”
Afghanistan in recent years has produced 90 percent of the world’s opium. United Nations officials said this year’s decline stemmed largely from a steep drop in the value of opium amid a huge supply glut; high prices last year for some other crops that caused farmers to switch; and more aggressive counternarcotics actions by Western and Afghan forces.
They said it was not clear whether the decline would continue, especially if the difference between prices for opium and other crops were to widen to previous levels. Just two years ago, for example, an acre of opium fetched 10 times as much as an acre of wheat, but that ratio has diminished to three to one.
“A market correction is going on while law enforcement has increased the pressure,” Mr. Costa said. “Now, military and economic forces are playing in the same direction.” Actual production of opium declined to 6,900 metric tons this year from 7,700 metric tons last year.
The most striking decline was in Helmand Province, the dominant producer, where cultivation fell by one-third. In addition to market forces and more robust counternarcotics efforts, the United Nations cited efforts by Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal, and an American- and British-backed anti-poppy program in the province.
Mr. Costa said efforts by the United States and other NATO forces to take a more direct role were becoming a powerful deterrent. But he also appeared to be critical of the recently disclosed decision by the Pentagon to place 50 Afghan traffickers on a target list to be captured or killed. American officials have said the 50 are also tied to the Taliban.
“Drug lords should be brought to justice,” he said in a statement. “Not executed in violation of international law or pardoned for political expediency.”