Wednesday, 06 June 2001

THE ‘ANDEAN SYNDROME’? REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE TALIBAN OPIUM ERADICATION

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By Svante Cornell and Marcela Londoño (6/6/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: It is well-known that the trade in illegal drugs, with the high risks it entails, is driven by the huge profit margins at all levels of the commerce. A farmer growing coca or opium earns up to five times as much as if he was growing wheat or rice; yet this pales compared to the profits made by the middlemen that refine the drugs and carry them from producers through international borders to customers. Added to this is the addictive qualities of narcotics, especially heroin and cocaine, which makes the demand for these drugs close to inelastic: no matter the price, the user needs to have them, and will go to great lengths to get them.

BACKGROUND: It is well-known that the trade in illegal drugs, with the high risks it entails, is driven by the huge profit margins at all levels of the commerce. A farmer growing coca or opium earns up to five times as much as if he was growing wheat or rice; yet this pales compared to the profits made by the middlemen that refine the drugs and carry them from producers through international borders to customers. Added to this is the addictive qualities of narcotics, especially heroin and cocaine, which makes the demand for these drugs close to inelastic: no matter the price, the user needs to have them, and will go to great lengths to get them. Consequently, the drugs industry is demand-driven. Hence a decrease in supply in one producing area almost automatically leads to an increase in supply elsewhere. The highly organized character of drugs trafficking further ensures this is the case. The Andes region of South America is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Colombia may today be the world’s largest producer of cocaine; however this is a recent phenomenon. In the 1980s, Bolivia and Peru both produced larger quantities of coca, which were partly refined and distributed through Colombia to markets mainly in North America. U.S.-supported eradication efforts in those two countries ultimately led to production itself moving to Colombia. This development was natural, given the protracted civil conflict in the country that denies the state effective sovereignty over large tracts of its territory. The underdevelopment and widespread poverty in those regions further aggravated the problem. A symbiosis emerged between drug traffickers, rebellious guerilla movements, and paramilitary groups. The conflict situation provided suitable conditions outside government jurisdiction for the production of coca, the trafficking of drugs; ‘taxing’ the drugs trade provided needed funds for the guerillas and paramilitaries. Colombia presently produces an estimated 80% of the world’s supply of cocaine. Until recently, Afghanistan supplied 75% of world production of opium, the raw material of heroin. Almost all heroin consumed in Europe still emanates from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban eradication of opium poppy, which has now been confirmed by numerous independent observers, creates a serious disruption in supply. The price of opium inside Afghanistan has skyrocketed. However, as Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000 produced far more opium than is consumed in its traditional markets, traffickers still have stocks of drugs, meaning that the effects of eradication are not yet tangible in neighboring countries. Isolated reports from the trafficking routes most integrated with Afghanistan – Tajikistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan – nevertheless signal that a disruption of the trade is gradually taking place there, leading to price increases and unemployment problems.

IMPLICATIONS:  As coca production was partly eradicated in Bolivia and Peru, the drugs industry engulfed Colombia to an even higher degree than before, and bolstered – but also commercialized – the  guerillas and the paramilitary groups. Ultimately, the conflict-drugs nexus has come to threaten the integrity and stability of the Colombian state, and regional security in the entire Andes region. As stockpiles in Afghanistan diminish, the disruption in supply, together with the inelastic demand, will challenge traffickers to find new production areas for their industry. They are likely to look for three things: a climate suitable for opium production, an area with weak state control; and ideally, located on or near their existing trafficking routes. Based on these criteria, a tangible increase in drug-related activity is likely in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and perhaps also in Pakistan’s NWFP. An increase in poppy cultivation has already been observed in the ca. 10% of Afghanistan controlled by the opposition to the Taliban, the ‘Northern Alliance’. This testifies to the fact that traffickers are able to work on both sides of the war front between the rivaling Afghan factions, and have transported drugs across the frontline. What took place in the Andes has already happened in Central Asia: the blurring of lines between politically motivated movements and drug traffickers. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has mounted insurgencies on the territories of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for two consecutive years, is known to be a key actor in drug trafficking from Afghanistan via Central Asia to Europe. The ‘commercialization’ of the IMU, much like the Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries, means that the IMU is acquiring a vested interest in the perpetuation of instability in Central Asia. As instability is necessary for its economic activities, it becomes increasingly difficult to co-opt the movement or reach a compromise with it. Living of the drugs trade, its leaders are simply not interested in peace and development. Quite to the contrary, the eradication of poppy in Afghanistan is likely to have significant consequences for the IMU. First of all, it is likely to gradually worsen its relations with the Taliban regime; secondly, it gives the IMU an interest in contributing to the expansion of poppy cultivation in Central Asia. The fact that IMU operations have been concentrated to mountainous areas in the weakest states of Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where it has bases – is illustrative. In fact, it becomes an economic interest for the IMU to ensure continued instability in Tajikistan, and to further the destabilization of Kyrgyzstan, especially its southern regions.

CONCLUSIONS: If the Andean experience is of any guidance, a major increase in drug-related activities is to be expected in southern Central Asia. This is likely to be accompanied by increased unrest and the weakening of state authorities and their control over territory. If governments are economically and politically unable to respond effectively to these developments, the nexus between guerrillas and drug trafficking is likely to grow deeper and more intractable, especially as local inhabitants become economically dependent on income from opium cultivation. On a broader scale, this goes to show two points pertaining to the drugs trade in general. Firstly, whether in South America or in Central Asia, combating the drugs trade is unlikely to be effective if done  through unilateral activities in, or directed toward, one country. The ‘Andean Initiative’ currently under way shows an emerging understanding of this fact. The trade in narcotics is transnational, and needs to be addressed regionally. If this is not the case, a success in combating drugs in one country can be a direct cause of a deterioration in another. Secondly, the drugs trade is demand-driven. As long as demand for heroin and cocaine in the industrialized world remains high, the immense margins of profit imply that drugs will be grown somewhere to satisfy that demand. Only if demand in North America and western Europe is checked can global supply effectively be limited.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Svante Cornell edits the Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst, and lectures at the departments of peace and conflict research and East European studies of Uppsala University. Marcela Londoño is an advisor on international affairs in the Vice-Presidency of the Republic of Colombia. The views expressed in this article do not in any way represent those of the Government of the Republic of Colombia.

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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