From eradication to interdiction: Evolution of counternarcotics policy

opium cultivation afghanistan reuters pic.jpg

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Notwithstanding the strenuous efforts by government and the international community to dissuade farmers in Afghanistan from opium plantation, the year 2013 again proved to be a damp squib, as the fields growing poppies in the country alarmingly increased to 209,000 hectares, according to UN’s Afghanistan Opium Survey for 2013, conducted in collaboration with Ministry of Counter Narcotics, Afghan government. Afghanistan continues to be the world’s top opium producer, and interestingly the area covered by the opium in Afghanistan equals to the total area of Mauritius.

“This is the third consecutive year of increase in poppy cultivation,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Afghanistan Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. According to UN officials, the poppy farming is unlikely to drop before the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and it might only get worse after that.

The question hovering on everyone’s mind, however, is: Who benefits most from this opium cultivation and why the government efforts to curb it have proved a disaster? How will this burgeoning poppy economy play out after the withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of this year?

With the security situation rapidly deteriorating and the international forces getting ready to bid adieu to the beleaguered country, the opium producers and their backers are making merry. Opium fields in Afghanistan are the main sources of revenue to power lords and source of sustenance to poor farmers. According to UNODC-Ministry of Counter Narcotics 2013 survey, there was 36 percent increase in the area under opium cultivation in 2013. The opium production went up to 5,500 tonnes, registering 49 percent jump from 2012. Faryab and Balkh, the two provinces that had been declared poppy-free went back to square one.

The question hovering on everyone’s mind is: Who benefits most from this opium cultivation and why the government efforts to curb it have proved a disaster?

“The prime factors responsible for this jump in opium cultivation are insecurity and poverty,” says Abdul Qayoom Samer, Spokesman for Ministry of Counter Narcotics. He says there is a strong network of insurgents and International drug mafia in Afghanistan. “The increase in opium cultivation is basically in the five southern provinces of country including Helmand and Kandahar, which are infested with these elements.”

The staggering value of opium makes it alluring to farmers who have to support their large families. According to experts, the increase in value of opium in 2012 was one of the prime factors behind the boost in opium cultivation in 2013, mostly in southern and western parts of Afghanistan. “The farmers were definitely encouraged by the jump in opium prices in 2012, which resulted in the increace of 36 percent in opium cultivation in 2013,” says Mohammad Hashim, social activist. The grinding web of poverty in these provinces is also a big factor for them to cultivate poppy, says Mr. Samer.

According to information from Ministry of Anti Narcotics, an astounding 89 percent of total opium production in 2013 was reported from nine provinces in southern and western Afghanistan. Helmand province continued to be the major poppy-cultivating province with 34 percent cultivation, followed by Kandahar with 16 percent. In the eastern part of country, which accounts for mere 9 percent of total opium cultivation, Nangarhar recorded fivefold increase and Laghman saw increase by 41 percent. In the northeast region, Badakhshan witnessed an increase in poppy cultivation by 23 percent.

Evolution of anti-narcotics policy

At a time when opium economy is on rise, the counternarcotics policies of Afghan government and international community have assumed critical importance, not only for curbing the cultivation of opium but also for security and rule of law in the country. Much to the chagrin of those leading the anti narcotics movement, the counternarcotics policies have failed to bring down the illicit economy of opium in the country.

“When the international forces intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, their single point agenda was to oust Taliban and facilitate transition from anarchy to democracy,” says Nawaz Noorani, a political analyst. “Counternarcotics did not figure prominently on their agenda.” In 2002, UK’s assistance mission in Afghanistan was entrusted with a task of eradicating narcotics. They started warily, with ‘compensated eradication’ program, under which the farmers who voluntarily eradicated the poppies got compensation. But, it was hindered by corruption and abandoned midway. The ‘eradication’ program was followed by ‘interdiction’ program in 2004, and it was targeted largely against small dealers while the big fishes sitting atop the illicit trade were left untouched.

“There was a calculated shift in the counternarcotics policies adopted by U.S. in 2009, when Obama administration made a big gamble, which has only proved a disaster,” says Mr. Noorani. The shift was from the 30-year old policy of eradication or annihilation to interdiction or prohibition. Eradication policy of counternarcotics, which was applied for 30 years, was based on force, where officials used to forcibly eradicate the illicit crops. On the other hand, interdiction policy, adopted in 2009, exhorted opium producers and traffickers to shun the practice.

At a time when opium economy is on rise, the counternarcotics policies of Afghan government and international community have assumed critical importance

“The policy of eradication only helps drug producers and traffickers as they benefit from huge stockpiles of poppy that they sell at a staggering price because of increased demand,” says Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. The two main elements of interdiction policy in Afghanistan has been interdiction of drug traffickers and rural development. The idea is to deprive armed insurgents weapons, money and drugs and force them to retreat. Thousands of interdiction raids have been carried out and tons of opium has been seized, yet the cultivation and trafficking has not stopped.

A report by Center for International Cooperation (CIC) challenged this assumption. “Current counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan is financially benefiting – rather than hurting – insurgents,” it says. The policy should be refocused to discriminate against illegal armed groups and corrupt officials in enforcement, it suggests.

The U.S. policy encompasses the counternarcotics ‘alternative livelihood’ program. In 2009, the then Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal distributed free wheat seeds to discourage farmers from cultivating poppy. The program clicked and was extended to other provinces as well. “Alternative livelihood programs are an essential component of the overall counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan,” read the 2010 report by the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control

Scenario post 2014

At a panel discussion held by International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and U.S. Institute of Peace on U.S. counternarcotics policies in July last year, the former Minister of Counter Narcotics Zarar Ahmad Muqbel emphasized on having a ‘long-term, balanced and comprehensive approach’ to the challenge of combating drugs in Afghanistan and draw direct link between narcotics and insurgency. “The narcotics of all forms are a serious threat to the peace and security of Afghanistan,” he noted.

With the change of guard in Kabul now, followed by the withdrawal of international forces, the concerns over the effectiveness of current counternarcotics policy have gained ground. The latest reports about cultivation of opium touching a new high in 2013 and 2014 are signs of what lies ahead. Experts fear the lack of security might make ground fertile for the return of large-scale opium trade. However, it will depend on the effectiveness of Afghan security forces.

Samer, however, sees no direct connection between counter-insurgency and opium cultivation. “I do not think the withdrawal of foreign forces will affect the opium business,” he says. “But, there is a possibility of security situation deteriorating after 2014, and insecurity is linked to opium, so there is an indirect link.”

 (First published in Afghan Zariza)


How Dr. Abdullah lost the plot in runoff

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The widely anticipated preliminary results of the presidential runoff announced on Monday by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), after much dilly-dallying, is generating intense debate in political and intelligentsia circles. While many people have hailed it as a thumping victory of democracy in this war-weary country, the damning allegations of fraud and rigging have cast a murky shadow over these historic elections, which will mark the first political transition here.

In the preliminary results announced by the IEC, former World Bank official Dr. Ashraf Ghani with 56.44 percent votes is in the lead, while his rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is trailing behind with 43.56 percent votes. Dr. Ghani, according to preliminary results, has garnered 4.485 million votes and Dr. Abdullah has got 3.461 million votes, with the massive difference of 1.024 million votes.

In the first round held on April 6, Dr. Abdullah was leading with 45.00 percent votes, and Dr. Ghani was trailing behind with 31.56 percent votes. The equation changed dramatically in the period between first and second round and in all likelihood Dr. Ghani is going to succeed Hamid Karzai as the next President of Afghanistan.

The past few months have been insanely hectic, not only for the presidential hopefuls but also for the voters. Being asked to rush to polling stations twice in two months, considering the precarious security environment and the ominous threats from born-again armed insurgents, is never easy. The success of these elections is a tribute to the resilience and never-say-die spirit of Afghan voters, besides the Afghan security forces who did commendable job in protecting the voters.

While these preliminary results have brought cheer to people in southern areas, it has drawn outrage and anger in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. The southern provinces, with majority Pashto population, have massively given their verdict in favor of Dr. Ghani. The northern provinces, with majority Tajik population, expectedly voted for Dr. Abdullah. However, compared to first round, Dr. Ghani managed to garner higher percentage of votes from southern provinces this time, while Dr. Abdullah’s vote share from northern provinces did not see any significant increase.

In southern Khost province, for instance, Dr. Ghani received 97.09 percent votes compared to Dr. Abdullah’s 2.91 percent votes. In the first round, Dr. Ghani had received 74.01 votes and Dr. Abdullah 3.57 percent votes. There is no significant jump in the vote share of Dr. Abdullah, but Dr. Ghani has got higher percentage of votes. The votes garnered by Qutubuddin Hilal (11.92 percent) and Zalmai Rasool (7.62 percent) in Khost province in the first round also went to Dr. Ghani in the second round, which shows Mr. Rasool’s campaigning for Dr. Abdullah backfired in Khost, like in other southern provinces.

In Kandahar province, Dr. Ghani bagged 84.01 percent votes compared to Dr. Abdullah’s 15.99 percent. In the first round Dr. Ghani had managed just 13.90 percent votes in this province, which means a significant jump of 70 percent. Dr. Abdullah, who got 10.61 percent votes, saw mere 5 percent increase in his vote share, so it is safe to suggest the votes that went to Mr. Rasool (53.96 percent) and Gul Agha Sherzai (16.02 percent) in the first round went to Dr. Ghani in the second round. Interestingly, both Mr. Gul Sherzai and Mr. Rasool had endorsed Dr. Abdullah in the second round.

In Kunar province, Dr. Ghani received 87.97 percent votes compared to Dr. Abdullah’s 12.03 percent. In the first round, Dr. Ghani accumulated 64.76 percent votes here, which means a jump of 23 percent. On the other hand, Dr. Abdullah got 12.35 percent votes in the first round, so his vote share remained static. Mr. Rasool’s (11.09 percent) and Rab Rasool Sayyaf’s (6.91 percent) votes also went to Dr. Ghani in the second round.

The votes garnered by Qutubuddin Hilal (11.92 percent) and Zalmai Rasool (7.62 percent) in Khost province in the first round also went to Dr. Ghani in the second round, which shows Mr. Rasool’s campaigning for Dr. Abdullah backfired in Khost, like in other southern provinces

In Nangarhar province, Dr. Ghani received 77.63 percent votes compared to Dr. Abdullah’s 22.37 percent votes. In the first round, Dr. Ghani got 59.80 percent votes here and Dr. Abdullah got 19.00 percent votes, which shows how the former took away the votes of Mr. Rasool (7.53 percent) and Mr. Sayyaf (7.17 percent), both of whom supported Dr. Abdullah in the second round.

In northern provinces like Panjshir, Balkh, Badakshan, Kunduz, Dr. Abdullah managed to prevail, though there was no significant increase in his vote share. In Panjshir, his home province, voters reposed confidence in him with 93.65 percent votes, compared to Dr. Ghani’s 6.35 percent votes. But, quite astonishingly, both the candidates saw 6 percent jumps in their vote share, which did not happen in any southern province where Dr. Ghani prevailed quite convincingly.

In Badakhshan province, Dr. Abdullah again prevailed over Dr. Ghani, accumulating 79.32 percent votes against Dr. Ghani’s 20.68 percent votes. In the first round, Dr. Abdullah got 64.85 percent votes here while Dr. Ghani got 14.43 percent votes. While the vote share of Dr. Abdullah has seen a jump of 15 percent, Dr. Ghani has also boosted his vote share by 6 percent. Contrary to what we saw in some southern provinces, the vote share of Dr. Abdullah in northern provinces did not jump so massively.

In Kapisa province, Dr. Abdullah received 87.36 percent votes against Dr. Ghani’s 12.64 percent votes. In the first round, Dr. Abdullah got 78.81 percent votes here while Dr Ghani ended up with mere 4.12 percent votes. In the second round, the jump in vote share is almost same for both the candidates, which has surprised many political pundits who expected former to put up a better show.

In Herat, one of the biggest provinces in Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah received 63.65 percent votes while Dr. Ghani managed 36.35 percent votes. In the first round, Dr. Abdullah got 61.15 percent votes against Dr. Ghani’s 11.08 percent votes. To the surprise of many Dr. Abdullah votaries, his vote share decreased by almost 3 percent while his rival’s vote share jumped by 25 percent. This arithmetic must force Dr. Abdullah’s team to introspect to see where they lost the plot.

The biggest surprise, however, came from Kabul. Dr. Ghani, who managed just 31.62 percent votes in Kabul in the earlier round, got 51.83 percent votes in the second round. Dr. Abdullah, who was the clear winner in Kabul in the first round with 49.62 percent votes, got 48.17 percent votes in the second round, with one percent decrease. The vote share of Mr. Rasool (8.26) and Mr. Sayoof (7.53 percent) went to Dr. Ghani, much to the surprise of both the former presidential hopefuls.

Dr. Abdullah, who was the clear winner in Kabul in the first round with 49.62 percent votes, got 48.17 percent votes in the second round, with one percent decrease

The preliminary results show that Dr. Abdullah did not actually lose his vote bank in northern provinces, where he still yields considerable political clout. What dented his prospects is the fact that Dr. Ghani not only improved his tally in southern provinces but also increased his vote share in northern provinces. Dr. Abdullah could not do that in southern provinces, where his rival made a clean sweep.

The endorsement by former presidential hopefuls like Mr. Rasool, Mr. Sayyaf and Mr. Sherzai, who have large following in southern provinces, did not help the cause of Dr. Abdullah. The votes of these three candidates went to Dr. Ghani in almost all the provinces, which proves the Afghan voters do not follow anyone blindly. It also shows that the tribal affiliation continues to dominate the political discourse and who the presidential candidate is matters more than what he says or promises.

The reports about fraud and rigging in elections cannot be entirely dismissed though. Yousuf Nuristani, the Chief of IEC, also acknowledged the incidents of fraud did happen in runoff, but he said the IEC took all possible measures to ensure transparency in the results. Election frauds are bound to happen in a post-conflict country where democratic institutions are still evolving but it is the level of fraud that determines the success and failure of elections.

According to IEC, 8,109,403 people cast their votes in the second round of elections, of which 37.63 percent were female voters and 62.37 percent were male voters. Dr. Abdullah’s team, however, says they expected 7 million turnout in runoff, and 8 million turnout defies logic, especially in some provinces where the number of votes cast is alarmingly higher than the number of eligible voters.

The negotiations between the two candidates, facilitated by local and international mediators, are going on. The mediation by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), however, has drawn sharp criticism from the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC). The Chief of IECC Abdul Sattar Sadat a few days back asked the IEC to not allow international organizations “interfere” in the election process.

Last week, President Karzai appointed his deputy to resolve the issues that have cropped up in the wake of allegations of fraud leveled by Dr. Abdullah’s team. UNAMA also arranged a meeting between the two presidential candidates, which was attended by many senior foreign diplomats including the U.S. Ambassador to Kabul. That perhaps did not go down well with IECC Chief, who saw it as “interference” in the work of election commissions.

Coming out all guns blazing against the IEC, Dr. Abdullah’s team rejected the preliminary results, alleging industrial fraud. They accused the IEC of not segregating clean votes from fraudulent votes. Their concerns are not totally unwarranted and they are within their rights to raise the complaints of fraud and rigging; however, accepting the people’s verdict should be the only way forward.

Both the teams have already agreed to reevaluation of 7000 ballot boxes, and before announcing the final results, the IEC and IECC must make sure all the complaints of fraud are addressed dispassionately. That will not only soothe the nerves of Dr. Abdullah’s supporters but also restore the faith of young voters in the democratic institutions of this country.

Summer fun in the mountains of Panjshir

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Last week, driving up the magnificent Panjshir valley in northeastern Afghanistan, 150 km north of Kabul, I saw beauty in its most pristine form. The spectacular landscape that leaves you gasping for breath; crystal-clear waters surging down the glacial heights; shimmering lakes moving with faultless rhyme and seamless rhythm; brooding and majestic mountains invisible through a shroud of damp white mist; lush green meadows spread like a beautiful carpet; serpentine roads with towering cliffs, and gentle breeze blowing freely.

The drive from Kabul to Panjshir, meandering through rugged mountains, is nothing short of spectacular. The beauty of this valley, sitting in the lap of Hindu Kush Mountains, has inspired many poets and artists over the centuries. The picturesque peaks and the gurgling waters make you fall in love with it.

Panjshir valley, which translates into ‘valley of five lions’, gets the name from five brothers who quite astonishingly made a dam here for Sultan Mahmoud Ghazni in early 11th century, the prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid empire. Their small, modest shrine greets visitors at the entrance of valley.

Surrounded by majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering lakes and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold. The valley starts at Dalang Sang and stretches to 100 kms right till the Anjoman Pass, through extensive fields of wheat, maize, walnut and mulberry.

Panjshir has emerged as favorite destination of foreign tourists not only because of relative calm and pristine beauty, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place

The gurgling Panjsher River, which passes through the valley, is famous for fishing escapades. Many local restaurants serve you freshly fried fish taken from the trout-filled streams. For many foreign tourists and water sports enthusiasts, the river is ideal for kayaking, which has evolved into a popular water sport here.

Passing through well-irrigated farms, you come across a beautiful football stadium, which is still under construction. According to locals, celebrated Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud used to play football in the green fields here. Hailed as the ‘Loin of Panjshir’, Massoud quite famously fought Soviets and also the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the commander of Northern Alliance. He was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks, and his green-domed mausoleum on top of hills is among the prime attractions here. The destroyed Russian tanks lying next to his mausoleum tell the incredible tales of his chivalry.

Massoud has left deep and enduring imprints on the lives of people here. His portraits are everywhere from streets to shops to government buildings to cars plying on the road. People here have kept his legacy alive and it is pretty much evident. His close associate and former Vice President Mohammad Qaseem Fahim, who passed away recently, is also highly revered by people in Panjshir. His palatial bungalow on the banks of Panjshir River is a big attraction. Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who hails from Panjshir, has a huge following here. The people here seem disheartened because of the alleged fraud in Presidential runoff.

Panjshir valley was not just a hiding place for Massoud and his fighters, the emerald mines in mountains were the main source of revenue for his party. The legions of miners are still burrowing deep into the snow-capped mountains looking to extract some of the world’s finest emeralds. The huge deposits of rubies, sapphires and lapis lazuli, which are currently sold for about 200 million USD every year, could lay the foundation of robust gem industry here in future.

Panjshir has emerged as favorite destination of foreign tourists not only because of relative calm and pristine beauty, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place, which is the central setting of Ken Follett’s 1985 spy novel ‘Lie Down with Lions’. However, the desperate attempts to breach the security continue. Earlier last month, a powerful car bomb exploded at a checkpoint that marks the entrance to the valley. At least 12 people were killed in the attack. But comparatively, Panjshir province is by far the safest in Afghanistan. During the Taliban regime, many people had flocked here from Kabul and other provinces to escape the brutality of rulers.

Surrounded by majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering lakes and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold

The travel time from Kabul to Panjshir has considerably decreased because of well paved and maintained roads. The road that connects most of the villages and cuts through some of the most difficult mountain terrains was constructed by The United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The narrowness of roads and absence of street lights, however, make the drive difficult after sunset. Many accidents have occurred on this road, making it dangerous.

At the entrance of valley, there is a police check post where cars are stopped for security check. Security arrangements have been tightened especially since the May 1 suicide attack, which was a rare assault by armed insurgents in Panjshir. If you don’t carry passport, you might be grilled by security guards manning the gate.

Once you have entered the valley, the adventure trails begin. The small shops selling kebabs and tea dot the road along the Panjshir River. Kebabs are served with traditional Afghan bread. There are also shops selling cherry, mulberry and pomegranates. You also find some quirky cafes serving burgers and various desserts.

Along the road, there is a 40-bed hospital developed by the Afghan Ministry of Health in partnership with World Bank and Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which caters to thousands of people living in the area. The hospital is not too far from Bazarak, the center of valley. There are few more hospitals in the interior areas, which serve the local populace.

Many children, especially girls, can be seen walking long distance to reach their schools. Unlike in many other provinces of Afghanistan, the progress made in the area of education here is tremendous. As one local told me, Panjshiris understand that education is the key to a more promising future.

The villages in Panjshir are peaceful and calm and people are incredibly hospitable. The total strangers walk up to you and greet you in chaste Dari. Many of them even invite you home. All the houses in villages are made of mud, surrounded by lush-green orchards. Icy-cold water surging down the mountains feed the agricultural fields below. There are not many shops and lifestyle is simple. Unlike the villages in other provinces though, electricity here is uninterrupted.

The drive back to Kabul from Panjshir is again thrilling, but you tend to miss the place. The chaos and commotion of Kabul is in sharp contrast to peace and tranquility of Panjshir. This is also the one place that reminded me of home.