When NATO leaders meet for their summit in Riga, Latvia, at the end of this month, there will be a ghost at the feast: Afghani-stan's opium. Afghanistan is in danger of falling back into the hands of terrorists, insurgents and criminals, and the multi-billion-dollar opium trade is at the heart of the country's malaise. Indeed, NATO's top general, US Marine General James Jones, has called drugs the "Achilles heel" of Afghanistan.
This year's record harvest of 5,534 tonnes of opium will generate more than US$3 billion in illicit revenue -- equivalent to almost half of Afghanistan's GDP. Profits for drug traffickers downstream will be almost 20 times that amount.
Opium money is corrupting Afghan society from top to bottom. High-level collusion enables thousands of tonnes of chemical precursors, needed to produce heroin, to be trucked into the country. Armed convoys transport raw opium around the country unhindered. Sometimes even army and police vehicles are involved. Guns and bribes ensure that the trucks are waved through checkpoints. Opiates flow freely across borders into Iran, Pakistan and other Central Asian countries.
The opium fields of wealthy landowners are untouched, because local officials are paid off. Major traffickers never come to trial because judges are bribed or intimidated. Senior government officials take their cut of opium revenues or bribes in return for keeping quiet. Perversely, some provincial governors and government officials are themselves major players in the drug trade. As a result, the Afghan state is at risk of takeover by a malign coalition of extremists, criminals, and opportunists. Opium is choking Afghan society.
Within Afghanistan, drug addiction is rising. Neighbors that used to be transit states for drugs are now major consumers, owing to similar dramatic increases in opium and heroin addiction. Intravenous drug use is spreading HIV/AIDS in Iran, Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. In traditional Western European markets, health officials should brace for a rise in the number of deaths from drug overdoses, as this year's bumper opium crop will lead to higher-purity doses of heroin.
What can be done?
First, the veil of corruption in Afghanistan must be lifted. Afghans are fed up with arrogant and well-armed tycoons who live in mansions and drive top-of-the range Mercedes limousines -- this in a country where barely 13 percent of the population have electricity and most people must survive on less than US$200 a year.
It is time for the Afghan government to name, shame and sack corrupt officials, arrest major drug traffickers and opium landlords, and seize their assets. Donors have trained police and prosecutors and built courts and detention centers. Now it is up to the government to use the judicial system to impose the rule of law.
It will be difficult, but not impossible, to re-establish confidence in the central government. Putting major drug traffickers behind bars at the new maximum-security prison at Pul-i-Charki, near Kabul, would be a good start.
Of course, Afghanistan does not bear sole responsibility for its plight. The heroin trade would not be booming if Western governments were serious about combating drug consumption. It is a bitter irony that the countries whose soldiers' lives are on the line in Afghanistan are also the biggest markets for Afghan heroin.