Killer crop: Afghan opium fuels addictions, finances terrorists

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 21, 2009 

MOSCOW -- Afghan opium kills more people every year than any other drug on the planet, claiming up to 100,000 lives annually, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

Although U.S. officials have pointed to the last two years of lower production in Afghanistan, the country still produces 90 percent of the world's opium, which the report says now threatens to sow havoc in much of Central Asia.

"The catalog of casualties caused by Afghan narcotics is gruesome," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the U.N. office on drugs and crime, says in a note in the report's summary. "We need to go back to the dramatic opium addiction in China a century ago to find comparable statistics."

In addition to drug-related deaths, Afghan opium and heroin pay for weapons that anti-U.S. insurgents use to kill American troops.

From 2005 to 2008, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan earned an average annual income of some $125 million from the opium trade, not including money gained from drug-processing facilities or other related business in neighboring Pakistan, according to the report.

The Afghan opium crop, used to produce heroin, dropped from 7,700 metric tons in 2008 to 6,900 this year, but because of massive overproduction there are now more than 12,000 metric tons of opium in stockpiles, enough to meet world demand for more than two years. Criminal and insurgent groups probably are holding most of those reserves, the U.N. said.

The U.N.'s findings sounded a strong warning about the Central Asian opium-trafficking route, which has become a virtual conveyor belt for heroin between Afghanistan and Russia, referring to it as the "most sinister development yet."

"The perfect storm of drugs, crime and insurgency that has swirled around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for years is heading for Central Asia," Costa said. "If quick preventive measures are not put into place, a big chunk of Eurasia could be lost."

McClatchy published a series of articles earlier this year that traced the flow of opium from Afghanistan through Tajikistan -- a main Central Asian conduit -- to Russia.

The articles found that Western inaction during the years after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan opened the way for Afghan opium to fuel corruption throughout Afghanistan, turn Tajikistan into a borderline narco-state and create thousands of new addicts in Russia.

Russia is now the world's largest consumer of heroin, according to the U.N. report. At least 70 tons of Afghan heroin were consumed in Russia last year, the report says, more than three times the amount in the United States and Canada combined and higher than previous estimates.

The number of addicts in Russia has multiplied 10-fold during the past decade, and there are now 30,000 to 40,000 Russian drug-related deaths each year, according to Russian government figures cited by the report. Official Russian news services have said that up to 30,000 of those deaths are due to Afghan heroin.

Russian leaders repeatedly have voiced their anger about the lack of a Western crackdown on Afghan opium, and the issue was brought up during President Barack Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visits to Moscow this year.

In May, the head of Russia's federal drug-control service, Viktor Ivanov, said that about 180 Afghan drug cartels were trafficking heroin to Russia.

"The majority of these 180 drug cartels are based in the U.S. and NATO areas of responsibility," Ivanov said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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