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Pakistan fears Afghan chaos will exacerbate narcotics problem

Senior official says Beijing is helping Islamabad's anti-narcotics efforts

An Afghan National Army soldier walks through a marijuana field. Afghanistan's emerging security vacuum is catnip to drug traffickers, who thrive amid lawlessness and economic devastation.   © Reuters

BERLIN -- Rising violence in Afghanistan could intensify narco-trafficking and exacerbate Pakistan's domestic drug problems, according to one of the country's most senior anti-narcotics officials.

Akbar Durrani, federal secretary of Pakistan's Ministry of Narcotics Control, expressed his concerns during a wide-ranging interview with Nikkei Asia.

Durrani described Afghanistan as one of the major narcotics challenges facing Pakistan. "If there is no political stability in Afghanistan," he said, "it might aggravate the problems which we are experiencing already."

Security is in free fall as the U.S. withdraws its remaining forces, leaving the beleaguered Afghan government to fend for itself against an emboldened Taliban that is advancing rapidly and now controls about a third of the country's districts.

Peace talks in Doha have so far made little progress. But Durrani emphasized that the future is uncertain and a political settlement may still enable Afghanistan to control its drug problems. "Political stability is very much required," he said.

Pakistan has long been a destination for Afghan-produced drugs, but the war has led to a dramatic increase in production and smuggling, and the Afghan drug economy is now far larger than it was two decades ago when the U.S. invaded and stayed.

And it will likely grow even more in the emerging security vacuum. Drug traffickers thrive amid lawlessness and economic devastation, and the pandemic has made conditions even riper for them.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime warns in its latest World Drug Report that pandemic-related poverty and unemployment could "increase the appeal of illicit crop cultivation."

Even if the Taliban seizes power and ends the conflict, it might not be able to curtail the drug trade, which is a huge part of Afghanistan's ruined economy and provides many Afghans with income, including the militant group itself.

Moreover, a Taliban regime would likely be sanctioned and isolated by the international community, forcing the country to rely on narco-trafficking and other illicit activities for revenue.

Durrani said it is unclear if the Taliban will be able to suppress narcotics but noted the group did manage to bring drugs "under control" when it ran the government, banning poppy cultivation in 2000.

Afghanistan is currently the world's top opium producer. In 2020 it accounted for 85% of global production, according to the U.N., and the area under poppy cultivation expanded by 37% to the third-highest level ever recorded.

Opium is either exported in its raw form or processed into heroin or morphine and smuggled across the border. Pakistan regularly reports some of the world's largest opiate seizures. In 2019, it seized 8 tons of heroin; only Turkey and Iran intercepted more.

Drug consumption is widespread in Pakistan. According to the U.N. report, Southwest Asia -- Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan -- has a higher prevalence of opioid use than any other region.

Pakistan has 9 million drug addicts, Durrani said, an increase from the 7 million reported in 2015. A U.N.-backed survey found there were 4.25 million dependent drug users in 2013.

Durrani said opiates and hashish are particular problems emanating from Afghanistan, and that synthetic drugs are becoming more prevalent.

Crystal meth, or "ice," is reportedly popular among young Pakistanis, part of a global trend in which the synthetic drug market has expanded on a massive scale.

Synthetic drugs are "causing harm to people around the world," Durrani said, "and now Pakistan is also experiencing difficulty." According to government statistics, Pakistan seized 1,750 kg of meth in 2020, more than double the amount intercepted in 2019.

Durrani told Nikkei Asia that meth in Pakistan is usually imported from faraway countries such as Mexico and Australia. But Afghanistan is now emerging as a producer of the drug, too. Afghan cooks are able to produce inexpensive crystalline methamphetamine using a native plant, ephedra, which is much cheaper than importing chemical ingredients.

Pakistan is not only a major consumer of illicit drugs but also serves as a transit route for opiates, meth and other substances. In 2018, 85% of the heroin seized by Iran had been routed through Pakistan, according to the U.N.

There is also evidence of combined heroin and meth shipments that originate in Afghanistan, journey to Pakistan and then to the east coast of Africa, according to a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).

The pandemic has not dented Afghan narcotics production, according to the U.N. World Drug Report, and "drug markets have largely proved to be resilient to COVID-19-related changes."

Durrani concurs, saying there might have been some initial reduction in drug demand in Pakistani cities but that trafficking has continued. Pakistan has so far managed to avoid the soaring COVID infection rates and lengthy lockdowns seen in other countries.

Pakistan is better prepared for a drug influx now than it was in the 1990s, when Afghanistan collapsed into civil war and inundated its neighbor with contraband and millions of refugees.

The Pakistani government has reportedly almost completed a border fence, which Durrani believes will reduce smuggling. The frontier had long been porous and easy for traffickers and militants to cross.

China, Pakistan's closest partner, has assisted in anti-drug efforts. The Chinese government has helped set up labs in Pakistan that enable authorities to analyze drug samples and build cases against criminal suspects, Durrani said.

He also emphasized that drug users need rehabilitation. While the "big fish" who traffic drugs should be apprehended, he said, users are victims who "should be given treatment."

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