PAKISTAN: AN EMERGING TRANSIT HUB FOR GLOBAL NARCOTIC SMUGGLING
Afghanistan is the prime source of opium supplier to the world drug markets. With the
control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has acquired control over the opium cultivation in the
country. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) November
2021 Report, Afghanistan accounted for around 85% of global opium production in the year
2020, and supplied to approximately 80% of the world’s opium consumers. The total value of
opiates (opium, morphine, and heroin) was 9% to 14% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic
product (GDP) in 2020. Methamphetamine and cannabis are two other major drugs which
have expanded production in Afghanistan in the recent years.
After the Taliban takeover, the international sanctions, loss of foreign aid, economic
contractions due to COVID-19 have led to a relentless increase in opium cultivation. When
Taliban came to power in August 2021, its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced that
they would ban the production and trafficking of the illicit drugs. But, few months into the
announcement, it does not seem that Taliban has any intention to ban the poppy cultivation.
With Afghanistan facing its worst humanitarian crisis due to economic collapse and recurring
droughts, the Taliban would not want to ban the drug which has funded its insurgency against
the US and NATO sponsored previous Afghan government.
Banning of the opium cultivation would cripple the finances of Taliban. Drugs had been the
major source of revenue to the Taliban during the rule of the Afghanistan government.
Taliban needs the drug money to keep a control over their cadres. Although drug production
and consumption are un-Islamic, in their previous regime the Taliban did not ban the
production and trading of the opium cultivation for the longest time. The ban was there for a
short duration in 2000 to gain international legitimacy but very soon they realised that it was
not sustainable. The Taliban derived its legitimacy from the illegal un-Islamic narcotic trade,
and most of the population in Afghanistan was engaged in the cultivation of opium. Official
government licences were provided for opium cultivation to regulate the narcotic economy.
The political costs for Taliban would have been a lot more if they had placed the ban on the
production of opium and continued to be a patron of the opium cultivation. The drug money
also played an important role in the Taliban’s rise to power in the second time and it would
not want to jeopardize it. Also, sometimes the Taliban fighters and middle-level commanders
gain from the illegal narcotic business and they will not antagonize the opium farmers and the
ethnic warlords who have been thriving due to the illicit narcotics trade.
Taliban is significantly involved in the opium cultivation, from financing the farmers to
exporting and transporting it to the neighbouring countries. Along with supporting opium
cultivation, Taliban is also supporting the cultivation of the ephedra plant for the
manufacturing of meth. Over the past four years, Afghanistan has been producing
methamphetamine at a large scale according to a November 2020 report by the European
Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). Having huge takers in the
international drug market, this drug is processed by using ephedrine that is extracted from the
ephedra plants in Afghanistan. Very soon, Afghan meth is going to overtake the opium
cultivation, as the production of opium is labour-intensive and involves high budget as
compared to meth. The profit margin of meth has made it more attractive for cultivation.
Drugs trafficking from Afghanistan poses a threat to the entire world. The Afghan marked
meth has been found in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Africa (particularly South Africa which has
become a major meth market), Turkey, Europe and Australia.
Although produced and processed into morphine or heroin in Afghanistan, the drug networks
operate from Pakistan. Pakistan plays the crucial role of being a transport hub through its
various drug routes into the international market. The geographical location of Pakistan
makes it one of the prominent drug transit points along the Southern route. Pakistan shares
2400 kilometres of border with Afghanistan, which is largely porous. And this has served a
transit corridor for drug traffickers. Forty percent of Afghan drugs transit Pakistan before
they reach the international markets.
Tonnes of opiates and meth are trafficked from Afghanistan to the Torkham border crossing,
Ghulam Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, from where they are sent to Lahore and
Faisalabad, reassembled into huge consignments. Then they are transported to Karachi and
Gwadar, and fishing vessels in Makran coast are used for drugs transport to the South Asian
markets. Balochistan has also been an important drug transit route in Pakistan. Around 60
alternative drug routes are working through the Balochistan province alone, with major areas
being Chaman, Noshki, Chagaghi, Dalbandeen, Panjgor, Turbat, Gawadar and Jeewani.
Pakistan’s political leaders and the armed forces have been two groups with competing
interests. The political instability has only prolonged the drug trafficking in the country and
Pakistan has been a standard example of how the drug economy thrives when there is a nexus
between the drug lords operating in Pakistan and the politicians, and between the drug lords
and the army. Most of the time the drug lords enjoy immense political power. Both the
politicians and the army rely on the support of the drug lords to pursue their political
interests. It is a common knowledge that no drug business can survive without the tacit
support of a section of the armed forces in Pakistan.
Pakistan is also facing a huge drugs problem. Meth is easily available to college students in
Pakistan. Use of synthetic drugs is increasing in Pakistan especially among the youth and the
members of the upper class. There are close to 27 million drug users in Pakistan, according to
the country’s anti-narcotics force.
The spill over effect of the Afghanistan – Pakistan drug trade is felt in the other countries in
the region. Pakistani based drug syndicates have been using the maritime routes now for drug
trafficking in the South Asian region, along with land and air routes. The sea routes provide a
safe route and high seas, which are not part of the territorial seas give a safe protection for the
transfer of drug consignments. Pakistan has been using the Sri Lankan sea route to smuggle
drugs to Europe. Recently in December 2021, 250 kg of narcotics were seized by the Sri
Lankan Navy in international waters. 290 kg of heroin was seized in August 2021. But the
trade continues unabated. Maldives also faces a similar situation; two heroin consignments of
100 kg and 215 kg was seized in October 2021.
Due to India’s close proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the narcotics that are produced in
Afghanistan are smuggled into India via Pakistan though the porous borders in Punjab and
Jammu & Kashmir. Majority of Afghan narcotics transited by road reach Punjab in India. On
September 13, 2021, 3000 kg of heroin was seized in Gujarat’s Mundra port. On December
19, 2021, heroin worth 400 crores were seized, in the Indian waters off the Gujarat coast. In
Punjab’s Ferozepur a huge amount of heroin was confiscated on December 26, 2021.
The drug trafficking between Afghanistan and Pakistan is intrinsically linked with the
Islamist terrorist organisations operating in this region. The drug economy has been the major
source of funding for terrorism in the region. Pakistan is also depending on the narcotic trade
for sponsoring terror in India. Pakistan has been the breeding ground to use the illicit drug
economy to sponsor militant groups in India. The drug-trafficking is going to be more
problematic over the coming years with the re-rise of Taliban and will pose acute threat over
the regional security in South Asia.
The Afghanistan narcotic challenge is of international concern. The Taliban might want to
portray to the world that they would ban the opium cultivation in Afghanistan to gain
recognition from the western world. But the drug seizures across the South Asian region say a
different story from what the Taliban wants the world to believe. Opium cultivation and the
thriving drug economy is here to stay in Afghanistan and it is only going to be major part of
Narco-Jihad against India in particular. The political and economic turmoil that Afghanistan
is in now will only prove beneficial to more opium cultivation and this will prove to be
problematic for India and the South Asian region in whole.