Counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan

Press briefing given by Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and James Pardew, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Operations

  • 05 Sep. 2007
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  • Last updated: 28 Aug. 2008 10:24

JAMES APPATHURAI (NATO Spokesperson): Ladies and gentlemen thank you for coming. Sorry for the very slight delay. Let me first welcome you all back to the rentrée à l'OTAN. We have the privilege of having here today, as you know, Mr. Antonio Maria Costa who is the Executive Director of the UNODC and has released a report with which you are all familiar on opium and Afghanistan at the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007.

This is not Mr. Costa's first visit to NATO. We are very privileged to have him here again to speak with you where I believe he'll make a few introductory remarks. We also have the privilege of Deputy Assistant Secretary General Jim Pardew. He is our Director of Operations and an expert, probably the expert, in this organization about what NATO is doing in this regard.

So I turn the floor without any further ado over to Mr. Costa.

ANTONIO MARIA COSTA (Executive Director, UN Office on Drugs and Crime): Thank you very much. I'm privileged of course to be here at NATO headquarters and having met with the Secretary General privately and then with the Council to report about the situation, opium and narcotic situation, in Afghanistan.

In the background is the report we produced last week. This is the report. I would like to refer to the two symbols which are the two logos which are on the top of the report. It has a UN logo and a Government of Afghanistan report. This is an official report, so the Government of Afghanistan as well. We are not in anyway doing analytical work with the government not being part... to the country. Of the 366 people involved in Afghanistan in producing this report, 365 are Afghans. Only one foreign expatriate is there assisting them.

The statistics are known to you. There is significant increase in the amount of hectares in the cultivation. The major increase of 34 percent in the tonnes to an extraordinary 8,200 tonnes. No country in the world, leaving aside China a century and a half ago, has ever produced that amount of drugs, that amount of narcotics specifically being opium.

But if the headline numbers are quite scary, you know that the geographical representation of province by province, district of districts in Afghanistan shows that we are making some progress. Free from cultivation of opium at the moment this year 13 out of 34 provinces and possibly some more to come. In some provinces the cultivation is reduced to a few hundred hectares which means they are really well within striking distance to become opium free in the period ahead.

Second point I would like to raise is the fact that the opium free provinces are also the poorest in Afghanistan. So the usual myth so much publicized in Afghanistan and outside - we cultivate opium because we are poor - besides being an insult to Africa and the other countries and the other regions which are even poorer and they don't cultivate opium, is even wrong statistically. The per capita income of the provinces which have abandoned opium is about half of the traditional per capita income of the province where opium is intense - the south.

Third and final point. I explained to the NATO Council that at this point in time we don't face a narcotic problem in Afghanistan; it's a narcotic and an insurgency problem. The insurgents - the Taliban generally speaking, but the al-Qaeda splinters and all those who are foreigners who are part of the threat to security of Afghanistan - are running the business mafia-like. They are very much part of the problem. They are extracting the resources from the farmers. They are running the laps and they actually do the transit and the trade on the back of their (inaudible).

These are statements made not.... made to me by Governors of the various provinces - Helmand in particular - but Kandahar as well, Uruzgan. They witness what happens in the various districts the governments have withdrawn. Six/seven districts in Helmand out of 12 are now in the permanent hands of Taliban settlers or Taliban insurgents and they are the ones who do the actual cultivation and refining and export of the drugs.

These are the basic messages. There are plenty of initiatives underway, more in the making. We have to recognize that it's going to take quite some time. In most other countries - Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan, Laos, it has taken 15/20 years to get rid of the problem. It's going to take quite the same amount of time over there. Everywhere I refer to insurgents were present in one way or another. Northern Thailand and certainly in Laos, Columbia of course in a different context for different drugs. It's going to take a long time. Insurgency is an inevitable component - guerrilla if you want to call them in Latin America - an inevitable component of the spreading of an illegal activity. We face a problem with (inaudible) elsewhere, but we are going to tame it.

Thank you very much.

APPATHURAI: James did you want to add anything?

JAMES PARDEW (Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Operations): Well yes. Microphone?

Yes, we certainly welcome the presence of Mr. Costa here today. The NAC was meeting today in a session that included ISAF contributors, other international organizations, and other nations interested in Afghanistan. Narcotics clearly from Afghanistan is an alarming problem, but it points to the reasons why the international community including NATO are in Afghanistan. Dual threats; two threats. Afghanistan is a primary source of heroin and Afghanistan was a haven for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremists who threaten international security and stability.

The fight against narcotics is first and foremost an Afghan responsibility, but obviously they need help from the United Nations, from the international community and others. NATO's focus in on security and support to the Afghan government. We are very concerned about the linkage between narcotics and the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which Mr. Costa just mentioned. In counter-narcotics, NATO is in a support role. We favour a comprehensive approach to both of the threats that I mentioned - insurgency and narcotics. We don't believe that military action  alone will solve either.

We are going to do our part, but we also urge other international organizations, other allies, to step up their civil efforts in some of the most difficult areas to include Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan and other very difficult regions where NATO is there working hard on the security issue and where we will continue to support the counter-narcotics effort as we do our job.

Thank you.

APPATHURAI: Questions? Go ahead Paul.

Q: Paul Ames from the Associated Press. Mr. Costa could you first of all elaborate for us what more you would like NATO to do to help in the struggle against opium in Afghanistan? And secondly could you comment on the latest report from the Senlis Council, which is pushing quite heavily for the idea that somehow the opium market in Afghanistan could be legalized and used into some sort of legitimate medical market?

COSTA: I would be happy. Regarding the role of NATO; obviously NATO is a stabilization force to provide security to the growing democracy of Afghanistan. The threat of narcotics was, in the past, limited to that. A threat to the health of those countries importing narcotics. It was not a threat to the stability. In the past 18 months, we have seen a gigantic concentration of the division in the southern part of the country. You have a map there. Specifically in five provinces and in particular in Helmand. Helmand is a country... sorry... if Helmand were a country, it would produce more narcotics than... it produces more narcotics than Columbia, that Myanmar, and then any other provinces. So it's a really gigantic producer of drugs.

There is where we have, of to the 12 districts in Helmand, seven districts which are now under permanent control by insurgents - Taliban, fragments of al-Qaeda, and everybody else who is present there. It is this combination of drugs and insurgency that is causing, in my view, a very major reconsideration of what stability there means and by which means stability can be regained.

That's why it was a long introduction to a short question and that's why I hope that NATO would itself recognize the threat to its role down there by increasing the support, or perhaps even by taking directly on the role of ridding the southern parts of Afghanistan of the illicit labs and the refining, the trafficking and intercepting the traffickers themselves.

The Afghan Army is weak and to a large extent is still corrupt. We have even the fee which the Afghan Army trucks charge when they transport trucks. We have the fee which the police trucks charge when they transport drugs. So they need to be assisted. They need to be purged of the elements of corruption which are in it. But they need aerial support, they need logistics support in running the operation against the labs and the traffickers. They need the intelligence evidence which NATO has and other institutions have. All this should be strengthened.

Now this does not mean changing the rules of engagement of NATO. These are five rules which apply to possible counter-narcotic initiatives. It is a question of interpreting them in such a way which would give to the Commanders on the ground, to the NATO Commanders on the ground, the possibility of operating in this area.


Regarding the second question - Senlis. We have been examining very carefully this proposal since it came out about a year ago. Unfortunately there are major, major weaknesses in this proposal which do not make either (inaudible) or operational for the years to come.

First of all Afghanistan today, with 8,200 tonnes of opium, has produced more opium than possibly the world would use in the next five years when transformed into morphine. There is not such an extent of morphine demand around the world.

Point number two - the proposal is about greater use of morphine around the world, not in Europe or the United States, but in the developing country. That is a very merit worth initiative, but it will take a generation to introduce the concept of painkillers in Africa and medical schools and in the hospitals around the world, developing countries, where the culture of painkillers is not used. It is a merit worthy proposal, but it will take a long time before the university and everybody... those who are training to become doctors would start using it.

Point number three - the price of opium is about $100 dollars a kilo depending on which degree of dryness and which province we are talking about. Opium for medical purposes is available in a number of countries, for example, neighbouring India, and is $30 dollars a kilo. Now I don't see farmers being motivated to sell their opium for medical purposes at $30 when they can sell it to the traffickers at $100 or more.

Fourth - the government has no means of enforcing rigid control. It has no means of enforcing anything in Afghanistan, certainly not control on opium cultivations only for medical purposes. Therefore while this initiative has all the connotations of being a silver bullet to solve a problem, two problems on (inaudible)... quite effectively I would say to the contrary this initiative has no validity for the next generation or so in Afghanistan.


APPATHURAI: James do you want to come in on the NATO... what NATO is doing?

PARDEW: Okay. Well as to what NATO is doing, when you look at the map of where the narcotics are being cultivated, we have a significant presence there to the degree that we are able to reduce the influence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in these areas. We think the cause of the linkage Mr. Costa mentioned were having an effect on the infrastructure that deals with narcotics program.

In addition to that, what we are doing to train Afghan security forces, make them more capable, helps them lead this counter-narcotics effort. And then there are many things that we are doing in support - proving information, and other supporting activities to the Afghan effort and the other international effort that is trying to deal with this very difficult and alarming problem.

Q: Mark John from Reuters. Assistant Secretary General you mentioned the (inaudible), the statement of the NATO policy that there is Afghan leadership on  this issue, but surely isn't the point - and this is borne out by this latest report - that Afghan leadership hasn't actually worked and it is time to actually take a more direct role?

PARDEW: Yes. What I said was we... the Afghans have to lead the problem... have to lead the effort against this problem, but I also went on to say obviously they need help. We understand the limitations that they have and we're doing everything we can to strengthen their capabilities while supporting the counter-narcotics effort within means and capabilities. But we have to recognize that our primary mission there is one of security and stability and counter-insurgency and these counter-narcotics efforts, extremely important, but is a supporting task.

And within the means and capabilities which we have, which are limited in Afghanistan, we're doing the best we can and we're doing our part in this effort and we would encourage others to do more. There are... the international presence in some of these more difficult areas is not that great and so this is not just a military responsibility. There have to be all kinds of other civil and public information and other programs that go along with the punitive aspects of counter-narcotics. You have the punitive aspects and we want to support that, but perhaps more importantly are the other kind of narcotics programs that are necessary to solve this problem.

APPATHURAI: If I can just complement what Jim and Mr. Costa have said or highlight it a little bit. Eradication is one element. There is I believe an eight-part counter-narcotics program for Afghanistan which has been agreed by a number of nations - and you're obviously much more of an expert on this than I am - but leaving aside the technicalities.

There is eradication. There has to be alternative livelihoods. There has to be a functioning police that is not corrupt enough that they'll actually arrest people. There has to be a prison system into which to put those who have broken the law. There has to be judges who cannot be bribed to let out with a significant amount of money those who have been put into these prisons, et cetera, et cetera.

So as Jim and Mr. Costa have said, this is not just an issue of what the military and what NATO can do to support eradication efforts by the Afghans. It is a very complicated thing and if you do only one or invest over-heavily in one and not in the others, then none of these... the stool will fall over if you only invest in one. Sorry, that was a long one.

Q: Yes. Brooks Tigner of Defence News. Indeed James all the things you just enumerated are at a minimum medium-term if not long-term developments. So my question to the other two gentlemen - if you can't eradicate or eliminate the production of opium, which seems to be the case, then why don't you focus on, or can you focus on, the transport? How is this stuff moving out of the country in various ways and do you have the technology and men to detect it and stop it?

COSTA: That would be my recommendation sir. We have produced an informer because we are not an intelligence agency, although we have over 300 people (we call them surveyors - surveying the developments in the country) and therefore in the process of consulting with the Shuras and the elders and the farmers and the mullahs, they actually recognize the location of the markets - the so-called open opium market or the labs. There is a map here, page 22 of our handouts, and is a constellation of open markets and labs.

We are asking those in charge, domestic and foreign forces, to focus specifically on dismantling those labs and dismantling and closing down those markets. That would have a number of important consequences. Farmers would to be able to export or at least at much higher risk. That would make the domestic price of opium, which has not declined despite the excess supply - producing 8,000 tonnes while consuming only 4,000 - and therefore we'll have (inaudible) the possibility of implicitly encouraging alternative economic activities, farming activities. So I very strongly support what you just said.

At the moment, especially in the south, the focus should be specifically on the labs, on the individuals, the traffickers, and on their convoys. Not only convoys of narcotics being exported out of Afghanistan, but the convoys of precursors coming into Afghanistan from abroad. Afghanistan has no chemical industry therefore it would be strangled if the precursor control were limited or the supply of them limited.

Q: Rafael from the Spanish News Agency. Mr. Costa I have two questions please.

First, are you in favour of aerial spraying for eradication? And second, as... maybe it's not for you for answer, but I have to try. Being the fact that the opium production is almost totally in the south where the insurgent presence is bigger, would you recommend or would you be in favour of sending more troops to the area?

COSTA: That I will not answer to the second question of course because it's not specifically my mandate to deal with the NATO presence in size and shapes and forms.

Regarding your first question. The United Nations historically supports the decision of governments whatever shape and form the government decides to enforce the law. By the way counter-narcotic laws in Afghanistan, like anywhere else, are part of international agreements, the so-called drug control conventions established at the United Nations.

The government of Columbia has massively engaged, deciding in favour of, and engaged in aerial eradication and I would say successfully. The cultivation of cocoa leave dropped from 166,000 hectares to 78,000 hectares in five years. The government of Afghanistan for the moment has decided against aerial eradication. It is in favour of ground eradication done with mechanical means, but it has decided last year. President Karzai when asked the first time has decided against.

Now there are new elements emerging. One, the fact that the ground eradication has been ineffective. I even called it a farce. Very costly eradicating a very small amount - 19,000 hectares.

Second, the problem has become, the problem of drug cultivation, so intimately connected with insurgents and so is massively the cultivation taking place in the areas under permanent Taliban control, that a very strong pressure is now building up in favour of aerial eradication in that part of Afghanistan. The government has not decided yet and we will support the government in whatever decision they will take.


APPATHURAI: Anyone else? You'll be the last one.

Q: If I can just get a clarification of that last point. When you say that there is very strong pressure building up in favour of aerial eradication, are you referring to pressure in the international community or among whom sir?

COSTA: Everywhere. Within the country, within the administration. You may have seen sir an editorial published by the Vice-President Massoud(?), the first Vice-President of Afghanistan in favour of two days ago. I see even within the United Nations... I see it among member states and I see even within certain member states certain segments of the administration being in favour and (inaudible). It's an issue where there is no unanimity, but we believe that unanimity can be reached as evidence is brought forward about the usefulness or not of it... the question of evidence.

APPATHURAI: Let me finally then wrap up with a few final thoughts. One is... because I have a sense of where this coverage is going. First, to remind you that NATO is not mandated by the United Nations, by our own operational plan, to be an eradication force. So that is not the idea, nor is it being proposed by anyone at this table.

Second, that eradication is only one part of a complex series of interlocking measures that must all be successful for there to be an effective counter-narcotics strategy.

Third, that the Alliance is playing its part in two ways. One, by countering the Taliban as Mr. Costa has made very clear. There is a symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and the drugs trade, particularly in the south. They are acting like any mafia - protecting the trade, taking their cut and using it to fund the insurgency. NATO is taking them on in support of the Afghan National Security Forces. That is an essential part of an effective counter-narcotics strategy and it is keeping our hands full.

We are also at the same time playing a supporting role for Afghan National Security Forces and Afghan counter-narcotics officials, including as Jim pointed out, training, education, intelligence, transport; where possible, in extremis support has been offered to them and that includes medical evacuation. And if absolutely necessary for counter-narcotics officials under attack, military support is possible if they are, as I say, in imminent danger.

There is of course a discussion of what more NATO might be able to do and Mr. Costa has made his views, the UN's views, clear to you today. That discussion is of course alive within NATO all the time, precisely because we know that in Helmand Province in particular in the south, there is a lot of work to do as an international community to have an effective, comprehensive, as Ambassador Pardew said, counter-narcotics effort.

Unless you have any concluding comments that you wish to make Mr. Costa, let me thank you very much for coming. Jim let me thank you as well.

COSTA: Thank you.

PARDEW: Thank you.