Saturday, June 19, 2010




Moscow, June 9-10, 2010


Your Excellency Mr. Viktor Ivanov, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates and Ladies & Gentlemen,


At the outset, let me express my word of appreciation to be accorded the privilege of addressing this prestigious forum of well-known of experts and policymakers on the Afghan problem.


An advantage of speaking at the advanced stage of a conference is that it is possible to speak with the benefit of hindsight, as so much thoughtful discussion has taken place on this floor on the problem of narcotic-drug production in Afghanistan.


I wish to digress a bit and take a largely South Asian perspective. My emphasis will be on two core issues, namely, the effective development of regional cooperation to tackle the problem and on the approaches to a peace settlement in Afghanistan as a precondition for social and economic development.


The problem of drug production in Afghanistan seriously undermines the security and stability of the region. Pakistan is the region's major consumer of the drugs produced in Afghanistan, estimated to consume almost 10 percent of the total production.


Pakistan is also a major transit route for drugs from Afghanistan, estimated to account for roughly one-fourth to one-third of that country's total drug production, via Baluchistan to Karachi and on to Western Europe by sea as well as via an air route to Russia and Central Asia. Besides, according to a new United States State Department report released in March titled "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2009", Pakistan is also a transit country for drug traffickers who import precursor chemicals used for processing raw opium poppy in Afghanistan into heroin and morphine.


Historically, traffickers exported raw opium produced in Afghanistan to Pakistan for processing into heroin and other opiates, but in the recent years, the country has emerged as one of the biggest producers of refined products.


What complicates the security scenario is the nexus that has formed involving the drug traffickers and the extremist groups based in Pakistan.


But here I must delve into a bit of history. This nexus is not a recent happening. Unfortunately, along with Islamic militancy and terrorism, drug trafficking is also a legacy of the "Afghan jihad" of the 1980s. The sponsors of the 'jihad' – US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia principally – condoned drug trafficking as the price of military success. Opium surfaced for the first time as a potent force in Afghanistan's politics during the Pakistan-based, US-backed Mujahideen's covert war against the Soviets.


Not many would recollect that as the "jihad" was winding down, in May 1990 to be precise, Washington Post published a front-page article detailing how the then rising star of the "jihad", Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was operating a chain of heroin laboratories inside Pakistan under the protection of Pakistan's Inter-Servies Intelligence [ISI]. The "jihad" transformed the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, which had zero heroin production in the mid-1970s, into the world's largest heroin producing region.


The Washington Post graphically described how once the Afghan Mujahideen brought opium across the border, they sold it to hundreds of Pakistani heroin labs operating under the ISI's protection. Unsurprisingly, between 1980 and 1990, Afghanistan's opium production grew 10-fold – from 250 tonnes to 2000 tonnes. Even after the "jihad" ended and its western sponsors pulled out, ISI continued to fund its favourite warlords in pursuit of the long-term goal of gaining "strategic depth" in Afghanistan.


Thus today's formidable nexus of drug traffickers and jihadis with the state security agencies has a long history. The ominous trend is that the very same threat that India faced during the past couple of decades from this nexus is now beginning to haunt Central Asia, if the developments in Ferghana and the twists and turns to the "color revolution" in Kyrgyzstan are any indication.


That is to say, what is at stake here is much, much more than a matter of effectively destroying poppy fields and plantations or interdicting the drug traffic routes or locating the secret laboratories or even good governance.


Quite obviously, the drug cartels are run by rich and powerful khans who at the local level enjoy near impunity. Afghanistan's poppy crop is grounded in networks of social trust that tie people together in each step of the chain of production. Crop loans are necessary for planting, labor exchange for harvesting, stability for marketing, and security for shipment.


I wish to highlight three aspects. First, the big question is how to roll back the slow transformation of Afghanistan from a diverse agricultural system – with herding, orchards and over 60 food crops – into the world's first economy subsisting on the production of a single illicit drug? The modern firepower in war has devastated the herds, damaged snowmelt irrigation systems and destroyed many of the orchards. Without any aid to restock herds, reseed fields or replant orchards, Afghan farmers found sustenance in poppy cultivation, which requires nine times more labor per hectare than wheat. Opium cultivation offers immediate seasonal employment alone to more than a million Afghans.


The challenge, therefore, is to rebuild Afghanistan's rural economy making it possible for young farmers to begin feeding their families without joining the Taliban militia. Evidently, there is no alternative to the costly, long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan's agriculture. Quick fixes can only backfire. Rapid drug eradication without alternative employment will only plunge the country into greater misery and stoke the fire of mass anger. The only realistic choice is serious rural development – that is, reconstructing the Afghan countryside through countless small-scale projects until food crops become a viable alternative to opium.


In this connection, I should underline the need for the international community to set aside geopolitics and to seriously consider reviving Afghanistan's Soviet-era projects that offer an immediate means of employment generation. Again, where are the tens of thousands of Afghan experts and specialists and technocrats who were trained in the former Soviet Union? Setting aside geopolitics, the time has come to re-integrate them. The fact remains that on balance, thanks to Soviet assistance, Afghanistan scaled unprecedented heights of social formation. 


Second, an approach predicated on an expanded international military presence driving back the drug traffickers and handing over pacification to the Afghan forces in the downstream cannot succeed. The choice is clear enough: end the war, vacate the foreign occupation and refocus on helping renew that ancient, arid land by replanting its orchards, replenishing its flocks, rebuilding its irrigation systems ruined in decades of war and foreign interference.


In short, a political solution is needed. An enduring solution t the drug trafficking problem cannot be found except within the framework of an Afghan settlement. Here, the imperative of a regional initiative cannot but be stressed. As frontline states that are facing the brunt of the ascendancy of the forces of militancy, venality and terrorism, the regional countries have huge stakes. For Afghanistan's neighbours, which include India and Russia, the challenge is to work for a neutral Afghanistan, free of foreign interference, stable and democratic. A settlement that is inclusive and reflects the plural character of the Afghan society is an absolute prerequisite of durable stability. And the search for political reconciliation needs to be Afghan-led with the regional countries acting as guarantors and facilitators.


Finally, there is the issue of Afghanistan's regional integration. A window of opportunity arises with Afghanistan's membership of the SAARC [South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation]. It is a matter of time now before Afghanistan ratifies the SAFTA, the framework envisaging the region's free trade. Conceivably, given its huge stakes in Afghanistan's security and stability, India will be more than willing to open its vast market to Afghanistan's agricultural produce.


No matter the differences in India-Pakistan relations, a cooperative attitude on the part of Islamabad in allowing transit through its territory for Afghan-Indian trade will immensely strengthen the cause of regional stability.


In sum, the range of measures that this forum is expected to adopt with regard to the coordinated strategies internationally for combating the drug production in Afghanistan has an important regional dimension as the long-term security and stability of the South Asia is at the crosshairs.


Amb. M.K. Bhadrakumar

       Mr. M.K.Bhadrakumar served in the Indian Foreign Service for three decades and served as ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey . Apart from two postings in the former Soviet Union, his assignments abroad included South Korea , Sri Lanka , West Germany , Kuwait Pakistan and Afghanistan . He served thrice in the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan Division in the Ministry of External Affairs, including as the Head of the Division in 1992-95.


       Mr. Bhadrakumar sought voluntary retirement from the IFS in 2002 and has since devoted himself to writing. He contributes to various publications in India and abroad and is a regular columnist for Asia Times and The Hindu. He has written extensively on Russia , China , Central Asia, Iran , Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the geopolitics of energy security. He normally resides at Delhi , when not traveling and lecturing abroad.