Winning: Cash Is King In Helmand


September 9, 2014: In Afghanistan the Special Operations commander in Helmand province (where most of the Afghan heroin is produced) revealed that he had been trying to work out some sort of truce with the drug gangs and their Taliban allies. This is not a good sign but the Afghan security forces are on their own in Helmand now as foreign troops prepare to leave the country by the end of the year. The foreign troops did most of the damage to the drug operations in Helmand, especially the Taliban gunmen who provided security for the drug gangs. Helmand used to produce over 80 percent of the world’s heroin but in the last decade Helmand production has taken heavy damage and over 10,000 Taliban and drug gang gunmen have died trying to protect the heroin operations. The remaining heroin operations are in more remote areas and heavily defended. The Afghans would take heavy casualties going after the gangs, especially without a lot of foreign air power (and transport helicopters). At the same time the drug gangs are corrupting army and police commanders as quickly as they can, in addition to using the threat of assassination, or kidnapping their children, to coerce reluctant commanders to back off. While some Taliban are driven by religion, both drug gangs and Taliban are motivated by the economic angle. All that money is something to die for.

Afghanistan is losing its dominant share of the world heroin trade. In 2011 year, Burma went from producing five percent of the world's heroin, to 12 percent and that is now nearly 20 percent. Afghanistan is down to under 70 percent. That should be no surprise, as heroin, and the opium used to produce it, has long been considered a curse in Afghanistan. That's because only about ten percent of the population benefits from the heroin trade, and a higher percentage of Afghans suffer from it. Islamic terrorism (Taliban and similar outfits) is staying alive because of huge profits derived from this drug production and smuggling. In a relationship that has been used many times before (Colombia, Burma), the drug gangs pay the religious or political rebels for security services. As long as illegal drug production thrives in Afghanistan, so will the Taliban, and any other group wanting to be free of government control. This situation is worst in Helmand, where the local economy lives or dies success of the heroin business.

For five years NATO and the United States concentrated more of their military efforts against the drug trade. Often, the government tried to interfere with this. That's because the drug gangs bribe government officials, and expect something for their money. The government could not protect all the drug producers all the time. So the gangs went looking for safer areas to operate in but there really weren't any. The drug gangs need farmers that are willing, or can be coerced, into growing poppy plants and scraping off the opium when the plants mature. It's easier to do this among people you have tribal or ethnic ties with. Thus most of the poppy crops in Afghanistan are found in two provinces (Helmand and Kandahar, where the most pro-Taliban tribes are).

Drugs also determine where the Taliban are most dangerous. Most Taliban activity occurs in two (Kandahar and Helmand) of the 34 provinces. Some 40 percent of the Taliban violence is in ten Kandahar and Helmand districts (out of 398 in the entire country). Why that concentration of Taliban activity? It’s because of the heroin. The Taliban put most of their effort into protecting the districts where most of the heroin in Afghanistan is produced. The other areas cursed with Taliban presence are ones that smuggling routes (to get the heroin to the outside world) go through. The Taliban don’t like to talk about this and they terrorize local media to stay away from it. International media avoid it as well, but on the ground it’s all about drugs and the huge amounts of cash they provide for the drug gangs and their Taliban partners.

At the consumer level heroin brings in about $70 billion a year. While only about ten percent of that ends up in Afghanistan that is about 20 percent of the GDP. But only about 15 percent of the drug income that stays in Afghanistan goes to the farmers who grow poppies. The rest goes to various middlemen who spread it around to ensure their survival. Nearly all drug production is still concentrated in a few districts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces down south. These areas have become battlegrounds and it gets harder and harder to keep production going. But the rest of Afghanistan is still quite hostile to drug production (and any more of their young men becoming addicts). Efforts to get poppy production going elsewhere tend to fail because local police and warlords respond violently to that sort of thing.

The Afghan Special Forces commander was not denounced for talking to the Taliban because most Afghan officials know how dangerous, or generous, the drug gangs can be. Bodyguards and fortified family compounds are big business in Afghanistan, as is the market for second homes in other countries (the United Arab Emirates being a favorite). The Afghan security forces have to deal with the fact that cash is a potent weapon and the drug gangs have a lot more of it.



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