25 September 2021. MK.RU
Written by Andrey Yashlavsky
Translated by Elizaveta Ovchinnikova
The official spokesperson of Afghanistan interim government Zabihullah Mujahid said that the new county’s authorities, consisting the *Taliban representatives (a terrorist organisation banned in the Russian Federation), plans to destroy all drug smuggling routes leading abroad. And in this matter, Kabul is counting on Russia’s help. Meanwhile, according to experts, the Taliban have not yet demonstrated a real willingness to abandon crime schemes in favor of developing a legal economy.
President of the International Police Association Russian Section (IPA RS), Lieutenant General, Doctor of Law, Professor, Honoured Lawyer of the Russian Federation Yury Zhdanov told whether terrorists and bandits can become fighters against crime, including drug trafficking and corruption.
Yury, the Taliban spokesperson said the new Afghan authorities would fight drug trafficking and expressed hope that other countries, including Russia, would join their efforts. How sincere can these statements be considered?
– The Taliban (a terrorist group banned in the Russian Federation – MK.RU) is a mafia organisation financially based on drug trafficking. There may be temporary solutions to strengthen drug fight. But these will be tactical solutions for international recognition. The Taliban will NEVER give up the drug business, which helps them earn billions of dollars. It is a game, nothing more.
At the same time, Russia should cooperate with anyone in the fight against drug trafficking. The main thing is that there should be a result. Having an entire country at their disposal, the Taliban may come to the conclusion that they have new sources of income. For us, it is not declarations that are important but results. If drug trafficking touches our territory, then the game is worth the candle. And for the sake of this, we are to cooperate with absolutely anyone. Because for us, Russian citizens’ lives and health are the decisive factor. So it would be better not to close the door – a place of light in the darkness would be needed…
It is likely that drug trafficking from Afghanistan will not be defeated with the Taliban. But it is quite obvious that today it cannot be defeated without the Taliban.
More than a month after the seizure of Kabul, the Taliban has not yet passed the sense euphoria of victory? Have they already realised what huge challenges they will have to deal with as the rulers of a country drained of blood by years of conflict?
– They are beginning to understand. Afghanistan is on the verge of complete economic collapse. Inflation, drought, the coronavirus pandemic, internal displacement and mass emigration threaten to devastate an already war-affected country. The Taliban is under UN and US sanctions. Moreover, additional sanctions may be imposed due to the seizure of power by this group and human rights violations. Sanctions can have disastrous consequences further aggravating the Afghan economic problems.
The previous Afghan government depended on foreign aid for 75 percent of its budget. After the seizure of Afghanistan by the Taliban, it is unclear what this country will exist for. The IMF and the World Bank have already suspended the financing of Afghanistan, and the US has frozen the assets of the Afghan central bank. The Taliban will have to re-establish at least some kind of state with all its institutions, including law enforcement agencies. Otherwise, they cannot survive. But is this possible?
And what does Afghanistan live on now?
– For economists, this is a mystery (but not for criminalists). Afghanistan still basically operates as a cash economy. For many Afghans, recent weeks have exposed the worst-case scenario for a country on outdated financial rails – a nationwide shortage of cash, closed borders, a falling currency and rapidly rising prices for basic goods. Many banks are forced to close their doors due to the fact that they have run out of money. Western Union has suspended all services. Even the centuries-old hawala system, which facilitates cross-border transactions through a complex network of money exchangers and personal contacts, remains closed at the moment.
That gives the impression that the leaders of the Taliban have no opportunities to develop a legal economy. They will have to expand the drug business further. Can we talk about Afghanistan as a narco-state?
– Not only talk. We can state this sad fact. And for a long time. And not only the Taliban are to blame for this. I am not ruling out there will be an attempt to record the fact of recognition of such a quasi-state at the official international level. At a minimum, there may be the establishment of bilateral relations with some states. And this is already recognition. And how not to admit the obvious things?
The illegal drug economy of Afghanistan is unprecedented in its scale and has been deeply rooted in the country since the 1980s. What, no one ever knew that? Is this such a mind-blowing news for everyone? According to the UN, Afghanistan has been the main source of opium in the world for many decades. In 2007, the production of Afghan opium increased to 8,200 tons. It accounted for 83 percent of global production from 2015 to 2020.
The UN estimated the gross value of the Afghan opiate economy, including poppy cultivation, reprocessing into heroin and trafficking within the Afghanistan’s borders, at between 4.1 and 6.6 billion US dollars in 2017. However, a year later, due to the drought, prices and turnover decreased – from 1.2 to 2.2 billion. However, drug dealers have caught up.
Afghanistan’s opiate economy is now estimated at 6 to 11 percent of GDP. Taking into account the secondary economic effects, when drugs underlie most of other legitimate economic activities (such as construction and purchase of durable and non-durable goods), drugs make up a much larger part of the Afghan economy.
Moreover, even without taking into account the side effects of drug production, which make legal economic activity possible for many Afghans, the cost of drug trafficking exceeds the cost of Afghan exports of legal goods and services. Government revenues almost amount to the equivalent of the opium poppy production value.
Is it a relatively successful fully viable drug state existing for half a century? It remains only to officially recognise the obvious, so to speak, medical fact.
But the former Afghan government somehow countered this drug business, didn’t it?
– Most of the anti-drug measures taken since 2001 have been ineffective or frankly counterproductive from an economic and political point of view. Especially if we compare them with the efforts to fight the Taliban.
The elimination of opium poppy cultivation and its bans, which affected the poorest and most socially marginalised communities, created significant political capital for the Taliban and undermined efforts to combat it. But when the Taliban fighters themselves banned opium production at the time, they faced the growing anger of peasants, deprived of their means of livelihood. And now it can also provoke resistance to the new regime. For most of the rural population, opium poppy cultivation is an important source of basic livelihood.
How many people in Afghanistan are doing this?
– More than in all other sectors of the economy. For example, poppy cultivation and opium harvesting require five times more labour than wheat cultivation.
It turns out that wheat is easier to grow. So why isn’t it grown?
– It is unprofitable, including for ordinary peasants. If all poppy crops in Afghanistan are replaced with wheat, four-fifths of the country’s population will lose their jobs. According to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), poppy cultivation provided up to 590 thousand full-time jobs per year, which exceeded the number of people employed in the national defence and security forces of Afghanistan.
In a country where more than half of the population lives below the national poverty line and unemployment periodically rises to 25 or even 50 percent, employment in the illicit drug business is a lifeline for many. Therefore, any attempts to ban drugs now will require a long-term plan to grow alternative crops. All previous opium bans in Afghanistan have demonstrated the difficulty of maintaining in the absence of economic alternatives.
That is, the Taliban is objectively doomed to remain in the illicit drug business?
– Well, why are they ‘objectively doomed?’ Very subjectively. This is what they have always aspired to. They do not imagine their existence without the drug business.
The rapid return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan marks one of the few cases in history when a multi-purpose crime organisation manages to take over the entire country.
But the Talibs portray themselves fighting a ‘holy war’...
– Which does not prevent them from making huge profits from the opium trade in the four main sectors.
What are these sectors?
– The first is ‘taxing’ peasants growing poppies in the amount of 10 percent of their agricultural products. The second is payment for the protection of opium supplies and heroin processing plants. The third is ‘taxing’ these factories. The fourth is the management of its own laboratories for the production of narcotic drugs.
The Taliban leadership even sets agricultural quotas for poppy cultivation, provides financing to farmers and buys the crop wholesale with its subsequent processing into opium and heroin. And finally, it transports finished products to neighbouring countries.
What routes do Afghan drugs take to end users? And how great is the danger of drugs from Afghanistan for the CIS countries – and above all for Russia?
– There are several routes for transporting opium produced in Afghanistan, which then either in Afghanistan itself or in outer laboratories it turns into heroin.
The main route is the Balkan one: through Iran and Pakistan, then by sea to Turkey, the Balkan countries and eventually to southern and central Europe towards the Netherlands. The second most important is the northern one or the so-called Silk Road. Here the main highways are routes passing through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley, Kazakhstan, Russia and then through Ukraine, Belarus or through the Baltic states in Eastern Europe, Germany and the Netherlands.
There are also branches of this Route, through the Afghan-Uzbek border and Kazakhstan. Or through the Afghan-Turkmen border to Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. Then heading towards the Russian territory, sometimes rerouting it around through Turkey.
The main advantage of the Balkan Route is the short distance to the EU countries, fewer borders and the Silk Road makes it easier for the drug business to cross the borders between the CIS countries. Most experts understand that the transportation of heroin from Afghanistan mainly goes through the CIS countries. For example: Afghan province of Badakhshan – Gorny Badakhshan (Tajikistan) – Osh – Bishkek-Nizhny Novgorod – Moscow – Estonia – Sweden –USA. Or Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan) – Termez (Uzbekistan) – North Caucasus – Nakhichevan (Azerbaijan) – Turkey. Or Mazar-i-Sharif – Termez – Samarkand – Ganja – North Caucasus – Abkhazia-Romania.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the volume of heroin smuggling along the ‘Northern Route’ does not exceed 15%. But our law enforcement agencies state their sharp increase and now estimate at least 25%.
The Afghan ‘potion’ is coming to us by trucks and trains. Regular conflicts with Tajik railway workers and catching them red-handed greatly bother Russian law enforcement officers. And besides drugs, gemstones are also an ‘export commodity.’ Unlike drugs, they do not carry a deadly danger but they surely fall under the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Did the Taliban fit into the transnational drug trafficking?
– And quite successfully. For example, in Mexico, the largest drug cartel is now the Sinaloa Cartel, which controls the highest-yielding areas in this country where opium poppies are grown. It seemed that this would turn this cartel into a competitor of the Taliban. However, both organisations serve different markets, so they can complement each other.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Sinaloa Cartel is the de facto monopoly on the heroin market in the United States. In addition, this Mexican cartel sells drugs in 60 percent of the countries of the world, including West Africa, Europe, Russia, India and China – countries where drugs are sold from Afghanistan. However, the cartel mainly sells cocaine from South America and synthetic drugs. This is not the first time that crime organisations, which generally have to compete with each other, will unite in order to increase profits and political influence.
- You called the Taliban a mafia multi-purpose crime organisation. So drugs are not the only sphere of action of the Taliban, are they?
– Of course they are not. There are other, very lucrative, illegal sources of income for the Taliban.
The mafia character, or the organised crime group character, of the Taliban is revealed in the following way. Local warlords collect ‘taxes’ and protection payments in their control zones, paying a percentage of earnings to Taliban leaders. In general, the Taliban adherents have created an extensive portfolio of profitable shadow enterprises.
They apply a ruthless ‘taxation’ regime, collecting fees from merchants travelling through controlled areas, as well as customers of electricity suppliers, telecommunications networks and mobile operators.
The four main Afghan telecommunications companies, serving about two million subscribers, must pay monthly protection fees in each province. Otherwise, their broadcast towers will be attacked. Payments usually range from $2,000 per tower per month. But it depends on who controls the area around each tower.
Who else are the Taliban racketing?
– They cynically use the traditional Islamic form of taxation called `ushr, which allows them to take a 10 percent share of the peasants’ harvest along with zakāt, a 2.5 percent tax on wealth. But the mining industry also brings tremendous income to the Taliban. This is a big business. Afghanistan has huge reserves of minerals, including gold, emeralds and rubies. Industrialists have paid and are paying militants (like the mafia) money for protection, for keeping their activities afloat. They are threatened with death if they don’t.
The NATO report for 2020 says that under the leadership of Mullah Yaqoob (who has now taken the post of defence minister in the Taliban government), the profit from the mining racket increased from 25 million pounds in 2016 to 336 million pounds in 2020.
– Against a structural backdrop of poverty in Afghanistan, the Taliban itself looks like a very prosperous organisation.
– At least – a successful one, which has reached a significant level of political and military independence. According to research cited by The New York Times (08/18/2021), the Taliban members annually receive $ 235 million as a result of money charged for the possibility of secure movement of goods through Afghanistan. And even before the victory in August 2021, the Taliban focused its attention on the border cities, since they are of great economic importance. This gave them military and political advantages.
The Taliban controlled about ten international border crossings, markets and trade routes to Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan, which allowed them to systematically ‘tax’ various links in the commodity chains. Gaining control of key checkpoints filled the Taliban coffers, while at the same time depriving the former government of an important source of income. Well, why don’t we call this a new, albeit a peculiar interpretation of the Great Silk Road?
Many organised crime groups are not above kidnapping. How is it with the Taliban?
– They also have a well-established business. Moreover, this is not only another stream of solid income but also an effective political leverage.
The abductions were planned with military precision and the targets were monitored for several months. Often, the victims were injected with sedatives after they were ambushed. Demands were made on Skype, various militant groups’ representatives were used for particular stages of the negotiation process to avoid detection.
The ransom demands ranged from 360 thousand to 1.5 million pounds, although the possible fees could only be part of the whole price. The Afghan police of the overthrown regime have repeatedly found lists of rich stock market participants in kidnappers. In many cases, the Taliban fighters are targeting Hindus, Shiites and Ahmadi Muslims.
Such influence of the Taliban and its freedom of action in the country even before coming to power would have been impossible without corrupt officials. It turns out that it was total corruption that ruined the former government of Afghanistan?
– This is one of the main reasons for its downfall. According to reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghans have paid $2.5 billion in bribes annually over the past decade, equivalent to 23 percent of the country’s GDP.
The corruption networks that enjoyed the greatest degree of influence in the overthrown Afghan government and its most important institutions have their roots in the networks of Mujahideen commanders and political parties. They emerged during the conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s, during the Soviet-Afghan war and the subsequent civil war.
After the 2001 Bonn Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions (after the US invasion), many figures of these networks took senior positions in the newly formed government of the country. It was then that the practice of buying government posts became widespread. This commercialisation of political power led to the development of solid patronage networks within key ministries, whose participants began to engage in illegal activities. By the time of the current seizure of power by the Taliban, these networks dominated the political space of Afghanistan. They were interested parties in the weakness of the state, since the continued fragility of Afghanistan’s institutions ensured them freedom of action and impunity.
Undermining the public’s faith in the legitimacy, effectiveness and long-term sustainability of the government, corruption prevented the population from actively mobilising against the Taliban. Thereby they provided the insurgents with their passive support.
Do you think the Taliban will heed the lessons of their predecessors’ mistakes?
– Unless tactical and decorative nuances. Before the seizure of power in the country, most members of the new Afghan government participated in organised crime activities. According to majority of international experts, it is not realistic to expect them to reassess their criminal and terrorist views.
Does this mean the Taliban, despite the formation of a government and state rhetoric, will remain essentially a big Basmachi gang?
– Alas, yes, they will. It remains only to pity the long-suffering Afghan people, who will have to endure many more years of hardship.
Afghanistan is not the first conflict zone where organised crime has become a serious destabilising factor. A study by Stanford University, which analysed 122 civil wars since 1945, showed that conflicts, in which organised crime participants were involved, lasted on average five times longer than the rest. For example, wartime underground networks in Bosnia have turned into political crime networks related to smuggling, tax evasion and human trafficking. Links between the so-called ‘Kosovo Liberation Army’ and Balkan smuggling networks have also slowed efforts to stabilise the situation in Kosovo.