Alternative Futures: Assessment of the 2027 Afghan Opium Trade

Chris Wozniak is an independent analyst. He holds a BA in Political Economy from the University of Washington. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Alternative Futures: Assessment of the 2027 Afghan Opium Trade

Date Originally Written:  July 3, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  October 3, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a United Nations report outlining the rise Afghan heroin production and the consequences both within and beyond Afghan borders.

Summary:  A sudden exit of western troops from Afghanistan has fostered dramatic expansion of the already robust opium trade. Peace, profitability, and cynical policy calculations have led Afghan and regional players to embrace cultivation and trafficking at a cost to their licit economies, public health, and security. International players seem to think that Afghan peace on these terms is worth the corrosive influence that opium exports are carrying abroad.

Text:  In this 2027 30th anniversary edition of the World Drug Report, we have added an auxiliary booklet with an unprecedented singular focus on Afghanistan’s global impact on the drug supply chain and the threat it poses to security and development across multiple continents. This booklet covers the political landscape that allowed Afghanistan to become the world’s heroin epicenter and key players in the heroin trade. It also addresses the international response to the crisis and the global implications of the Afghan drug economy.

Five years after China’s 2022 acquisition of the port of Karachi through predatory One Belt One Road loans and a cooling in relations with Russia following the annexation of Belarus, major sea and air resupply routes to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were closed or compromised, making sustained operations in Afghanistan logistically untenable. The subsequent departure of all ISAF troops removed a principal roadblock in peace talks with the Afghan Taliban (Taliban): withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The resulting hastily negotiated peace deal formalized a power sharing agreement between the existing Afghan government and Taliban shadow government in exchange for renunciation of support and safe haven for transnational terrorists. In practice, a crude federalization has taken effect that leaves the Taliban politically represented in Kabul and in control of the majority of arable countryside used for poppy growth. The Western-supported government of Afghanistan largely retains control of urban centers and major highways needed for processing and export. This delicate equilibrium is largely sustained due to recognition that uninterrupted Afghan opium production is in the interest of both Afghans and international stakeholders and any violence would negatively impact profitability.

Within Afghanistan, an influential lobby shaping the political environment that has had a hand in the opium trade for decades is the transport mafia. Afghanistan has historically been a crossroads of trade and transport interests have long exploited opportunities for profit. The modern transport mafia became robust beginning in 1965 following the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA). The agreement allowed the duty free trade of goods from Pakistan into Afghanistan, leading to smuggling of the same goods back across the border for illicit profit. Soviet-Afghan war transport mafia activities included cross-border smuggling of arms to the mujahideen and smuggling of opium on the return journey. Post 9/11, theft of American supplies shipped via Karachi and destined for Afghanistan was another common scheme[1]. The influence of transport mafia interests in Afghanistan is profound in the political and developmental arenas as well. Popular support of the Taliban in the 1990s was largely attributable to the Taliban elimination of highway bandits, making transport much more predictable. Following the improvement in conditions, the profitability of opium smuggling by transport interests proved too popular for even the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation and opium. Following the 2001 arrival of American and ISAF personnel, transportation interests continued to grow alongside poppy cultivation, and in 2017 cultivation reached an all-time high of approximately 420,000 hectares – seventy-five percent of the global total[2]. Yields have continued to improve in the years since as Afghans have repaired irrigation infrastructure all over the south and east of the country. Reconstruction of qanats destroyed in the Soviet-Afghan war when they were utilized as tunnels for covert mujahideen movement has been especially important to year-over-year poppy yield increases. Many of the improvements were enabled by international donations until media coverage revealed poppy farmers to be the chief beneficiaries. Subsequent donor fatigue has depressed additional rounds of Afghan development funding, making improvements in health care and education unlikely. With few alternatives, most Afghans are now completely dependent on either poppy cultivation or the transport enterprise for their livelihoods.

Regional players surrounding Afghanistan all reap unique rewards by allowing opium trade to continue. Pakistan has doubled down on the idea of “strategic depth” in any conflict with India that is afforded to them by a friendly Afghan power structure. Allowing the proliferation of poppy farming in Taliban-controlled districts and refining labs throughout the Hindu Kush has benefited Pakistan by restoring a major proxy force that is now self-sustaining. Moreover, extraction of rents from producers and traffickers by Pakistani military and intelligence factions supports asymmetric operations against India in the disputed Kashmir region. Iran has been exploiting the European heroin epidemic by extracting concessions from European stakeholders in nuclear talks in exchange for closure of their border with Afghanistan, thereby closing a major trafficking highway to Europe. Iran’s border closure has had the unforeseen consequence of driving the flow of narcotics north into the Central Asian states and the Russian Federation. Subsequently, Russia has made heroin trafficking into Europe their latest asymmetric effort to disrupt European cohesion, with reports that tacit support of the Russian Mafia by the state has expanded the volume of the Moscow trafficking hub from one third of all heroin being trafficked to Europe to two thirds today[3]. As for the United States, the domestic political atmosphere continues to reward an exit from Afghan affairs despite the diplomatic and security costs incurred abroad. For all of these actors, inaction or an embrace of Afghan heroin is a devil’s bargain. In Pakistan, the drug economy has further hollowed out the licit economy, risking the stability of a nuclear state and calling into question the security of its nuclear materials. For Russia and Central Asian States, drug use has skyrocketed and Russia’s population has been particularly hard hit by a corresponding rise in HIV/AIDS, tripling from an estimated one million citizens in 2016 to just over three million in 2025[4].

Peace in Afghanistan has been achieved at the cost of the public health, security, and economies of nations across the Eurasian landmass. Moreover, it is a peace sustained by a tenuous illicit economy and cynical policy calculations that steadily erode the licit economies of neighboring nations and transit states. Without multinational cooperation to address the corrosive fallout of Afghan heroin exports, the international community will continue to feel the negative effects for years to come.


Endnotes:

[1] Looted U.S. Army Gear For Sale in Pakistan,
Chris Brummitt – http://www.nbcnews.com/id/39542359/ns/world_news-south_and_central_asia/t/looted-us-army-gear-sale-pakistan/#.XR0AcZNKgb0

[2] World Drug Report 2018 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.18.XI.9).

[3] Crimintern: How the Kremlin Uses Russia’s Criminal Networks in Europe,
Mark Galeotti – https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/crimintern_how_the_kremlin_uses_russias_criminal_networks_in_europe

[4] Russia At Aids Epidemic Tipping Point As Hiv Cases Pass 1 Million – Official,
Andrew Osborn – https://www.reuters.com/article/russia-aids/russia-at-aids-epidemic-tipping-point-as-hiv-cases-pass-1-million-official-idUSL2N1551S7

Afghanistan Alternative Futures / Alternative Histories / Counterfactuals Assessment Papers Chris Wozniak Drug Trade

Assessment of Rising Extremism in the Central Sahel

Chris Wozniak is an independent analyst. He holds a BA in Political Economy from the University of Washington. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of Rising Extremism in the Central Sahel

Date Originally Written:  May 15, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  July 8, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a civilian analyst with an interest in national security, diplomatic, and development issues. This article is written from the point of view of a United States committed to its strategic objective of denying transnational terrorists safe havens in ungoverned spaces. 

Summary:  Violent extremist organizations in the Central Sahel (the Fezzan in Libya’s south, Niger and the Lake Chad Basin) are exploiting environmental change, economic grievances, and longstanding social cleavages to recruit and expand. United States Africa Command is explicitly tasked with countering significant terrorist threats but fluctuating resources and underuse of diplomatic and economic tools risks allowing extremists to consolidate their gains and establish safe havens. 

Text:  The 2018 National Defense Strategy advocates for the use of multilateral relationships to address significant terrorist threats in Africa. Tasked with the execution of this goal, the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) has adopted a “by, with, and through” approach emphasizing partner-centric solutions in a challenging operating environment. Africa’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050 while climate change continues unabated[1]. These twin pressures increase food insecurity and exacerbate social cleavages, providing opportunities for violent extremist organizations (VEOs) to operate, recruit, and expand. African governments struggling to respond to the threat find themselves resource constrained, lacking training, and derelict in their governance of vulnerable areas.  As one of the regions most vulnerable to these pressures, the Central Sahel is a key area for USAFRICOM to mobilize its limited resources in the global campaign against extremism in order to deny terrorists access to ungoverned territory where they can consolidate their organizations.  

USAFRICOM faces intensifying VEO activity in the Central Sahel and efforts to stem the violence have centered primarily on joint exercises with partner nations. The number of reported violent events linked to militant Islamist group activity in the Sahel has doubled every year since 2016, with 465 instances recorded in 2018. Reported fatalities have also risen from 218 in 2016 to 1,110 in 2018[2]. Joint training exercises such as the annually recurring Operation Flintlock incepted in 2005, are designed to enhance the capabilities of the G5 Sahel nations (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger), foster coordination with regional and western partners, bolster the protection of civilians, and deny VEOs safe havens. Mali’s 2012 crisis underscores the need for these exercises. In the absence of adequate training and security coordination between Sahel and western nations, a coalition of extremist Islamist groups and separatists – chiefly Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine and Tuareg separatists – were able to cooperate and seize several cities. It ultimately took a multiple brigade, eighteen-month unilateral French military intervention to oust the extremists. Mali remains the epicenter of violence in the region, accounting for roughly 64 percent of the reported events in the region in 2018[3].

Mali is not only the focal point of violence in the Sahel, it is also exemplary of how efforts to stamp out VEOs must address the inter-communal conflicts, lack of economic opportunity, and poor governance that fuel them. Operating in central Mali, the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) has exploited these factors to operate, recruit, and expand.  Invoking the memory of the 19th century Macina Empire – which was primarily composed of the Fulani ethnic group – the FLM has exploited the absence of economic opportunity available to Fulani herdsmen to drive a wedge between them, local farmers, and the Malian government[4]. FLM leadership relentlessly propagandizes longstanding tensions between Fulanis and farmers with whom they compete for land, pasture, and water resources in an increasingly arid environment. The growing intensity of competition increasingly boils over into tit-for-tat ethnic violence, driving desperate herdsmen into the arms of VEOs in search of security and a reliable wage[5]. Malian government attempts to provide security and basic services in the area have been followed by complaints of corruption, poor oversight, and retaliatory violence[6]. Similar cleavages exist in all Sahel nations and the cost of economic, environmental, and governance problems that drive VEO recruitment in the Central Sahel are quantifiable; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was the only operational group in 2012 compared to more than ten active groups in 2018[7]. 

USAFRICOM’s capability to address this proliferation of VEOs has been complicated by fluctuations in resources and autonomy that the command is able to wield in the region. Currently USAFRICOM commands approximately 6,000 troops supported by 1,000 civilians or contractors, but plans to cut personnel ten percent overall by 2022. This reduction will disproportionately affect operations troops, who will experience a fifty percent reduction[8]. Cutbacks in special operations troops will be keenly felt given that they are well suited to carrying out the training and assist operations core to USAFRICOM’s strategy. Over the same timeline, the United States plans a tenfold increase of military equipment support for the Burkinabe military totaling $100 million from a total of $242 million in military aid to the G5 Sahel as a whole[9]. The effect of reducing training resources yet increasing equipment and funding remains to be seen. However, the memory of a well-equipped Iraqi army’s 2014 defeat by Islamic State militants is still fresh. Operational autonomy within USAFRICOM has also been curtailed following the widely publicized 2017 Niger ambush that left four American Special Forces Soldiers killed in action. Restrictions stemming from fallout of the ambush include a requirement for sufficient Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) resources and stricter mission planning[10]. USAFRICOM can expect a reduction in the number of operations it can conduct overall due to the frequently limited availability of ISR platforms. Fewer personnel and tighter oversight could make it more difficult for AFRICOM to provide a healthy security environment crucial to any diplomatic or economic project addressing the causes of VEO proliferation. 

Nearly twenty years into the war on terror, VEOs continue to thrive and proliferate amid escalating violence in the Sahel. USAFRICOM’s multilateral strategy has enhanced the Sahel G5 nations’ ability to cooperate and mitigate the risk of campaigns analogous to Mali’s 2012 crisis. However, the strategy has been slow to address underlying causes of extremism. U.S. diplomatic and economic instruments will play a key role in any future moves to address the environmental pressures, economic grievances, and governance issues plaguing the region and fueling extremist activity. Reducing the U.S. footprint in the area does not signal USAFRICOM will be equipped to provide the security environment necessary for such projects. If the United States neglects the increasingly stressed Central Sahel region, it risks allowing extremist exploitation of ungoverned areas that has historically enabled VEOs to consolidate, train, and launch international attacks.


Endnotes:

[1] United States, Department of Defense, Africa Command. (2018, March 13). Retrieved April 3, 2019, from https://www.africom.mil/about-the-command/2018-posture-statement-to-congress

[2] The Complex and Growing Threat of Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel (Rep.). (2019, February 15). Retrieved April 12, 2019, from Africa Center for Strategic Studies website: https://africacenter.org/spotlight/the-complex-and-growing-threat-of-militant-islamist-groups-in-the-sahel/

[3] Ibid 

[4] Le Roux, P. (2019, February 22). Confronting Central Mali’s Extremist Threat (Publication). Retrieved April 17, 2019, from Africa Center for Strategic Studies website: https://africacenter.org/spotlight/confronting-central-malis-extremist-threat/

[5] Dufka, C. (2018, December 7). “We Used to Be Brothers” Self-Defense Group Abuses in Central Mali (Rep.). Retrieved April 18, 2019, from Human Rights Watch website: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/12/07/we-used-be-brothers/self-defense-group-abuses-central-mali

[6] Le Roux 

[7] Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2019, February 15

[8] Schmitt, E. (2019, March 1). Where Terrorism Is Rising in Africa and the U.S. Is Leaving. The New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/world/africa/africa-terror-attacks.html

[9] Ibid

[10] Department of Defense, United States Africa Command. (2018, May 10). Department of Defense Press Briefing on the results of the Investigation into the October 4, 2017, Ambush in Niger [Press release]. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from https://dod.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1518332/department-of-defense-press-briefing-on-the-results-of-the-investigation-into-t/

Africa Assessment Papers Chris Wozniak Lake Chad Niger Violent Extremism