NATO: huge morphine seizures

On Monday 2nd January NATO forces in Afghanistan announced that they had made record seizures of illegal narcotics in 2011 and claimed that this had dealt a significant blow to the Taliban-led insurgency. Brigadier General Carsten Jacobsen claimed that “counter-narcotic operations are successfully disrupting the insurgent’s ability to process opium into heroin. We will continue to choke off revenue generated by the sale of illicit drugs in 2012.”

According to NATO figures opium seizures rose 13 percent, hashish rose by 59 percent and marijuana seizures rose by 1,208 percent. The most astounding figure produced though related to confiscations of illicit morphine, seizures of which were said to have risen by 10,113 percent! Unfortunately NATO failed to give the overall amounts of drugs seized. (ATO reports 'incredible' Afghan drugs seizures, 02/01/12)

If NATO’s figures are to be believed these seizures could mark a major turning point in the war on drugs. Perhaps after 40 years of utter failure, governments are finally getting to the root of the problem. This seems highly unlikely though. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) still regards Afghanistan as the largest supplier of illegal opiates, producing perhaps 90 percent of the world’s supply. It was estimated that in 2011 the country produced approximately 5,800 tonnes of opium, whilst the area under poppy cultivation increased to about 131,000 hectares (324,000 acres). This represents a 61 percent rise this year compared to 2010.

Evidently then, Afghanistan is still a prime opium producing country. How then can we account for the dramatic rise is seizures of morphine, a substance derived from raw opium. One plausible explanation could be the fact that seizures of morphine are in general uncommon. Law enforcement and NATO troops are far more likely to come across stores of opium or heroin, as morphine is an intermediary product which is produced when opium is refined into heroin. As NATO have failed to produce figures for the amounts seized, it could be reasoned that this massive percentage rise actually represents an increase from a very low base rate.

Another explanation could be political. After all, drug statistics are frequently used to bolster ideological agendas. NATO has come under increasing pressure from Russian government officials who see them as being soft on opium growing farmers. In November 2011 Viktor Ivanov, Russia’s drug enforcement chief lamented NATO’s tactics commenting that: “Metaphorically speaking, instead of destroying the machine-gun nest, they suggest catching bullets flying from the machine-gun… We suggest eradicating the narcotic plants altogether. As long as there are opium poppy fields, there will be trafficking." NATO and ISAF forces may be increasingly concerned that they are being perceived as being soft on the war on drugs. These statistics therefore may be an attempt to appease critics including the new Russian head of the UNODC Yury Fedotov. (Russia Today: Filthy lucre: Afghan drug profits too juicy to resist, 22/11/11)

On the other hand it may be that these morphine statistics are truthful and there has in fact been a massive rise in the seizure of this substance. Why though would Afghanis suddenly switch to producing morphine instead of the more profitable heroin?

One reason for this may be due to the crackdown on the trafficking of precursor chemicals in recent years. As already stated morphine is only an intermediary product that is produced before the opium is processed into heroin. In order to complete the conversion, the chemical acetic anhydride is needed.

This industrial chemical is used legitimately in the production of fibres and plastics as well as in aspirin and paracetamol. Afghanistan though lacks the industrial infrastructure for these products and therefore has no legitimate reason for the chemical entering the country. 

In the last few years new initiatives have been launched by international bodies with the aim of combating the opium trade in Afghanistan. In 2003 the Paris Pact Initiative was signed by various countries and represented a ‘determined attempt by the international community to tackle the threat posed by the illicit production of opium in Afghanistan, in a spirit of partnership and cooperation’ (UNODC: Paris Pact Initiative Evaluating the achievements: From Partnership to Policy, to Action p.4) Whilst in many areas these initiatives have failed, as the amount of opium being grown has only increased, in one area there does seem to have been some success: the controlling of precursor chemicals entering Afghanistan.

The fight against precursor chemicals was named Operation TARCET and has been seen as one of the most ‘widely recognized successes of the Paris Pact.’ (UNODC: Paris Pact Initiative p.12) This initiative worked with most of the Central Asian states as well as Iran, India and China and proved to be effective in identifying and intercepting smuggled chemicals. Mobile Detection Teams and Mobile Precursor Control Units were created and had some successes. During the first two operations 45 tons of acetic anhydride was seized. (Paris Pact Initiative, p.12)

The International Narcotics Board (INCB) also began monitoring suspicious shipments of chemicals, particularly acetic anhydride. Between July 2009  and April 2010 the organisation reviewed over 800 shipments of acetic anhydride and seized over 26 tons of the chemical, believing it was being diverted for the manufacture of heroin. (Paris Pact Initiative, p.13) 14,000 kg of the chemical was also discovered in Karachi in March 2009.

These initiatives may therefore have had some success in keeping precursor chemicals out of Afghanistan, hence the seizures of morphine rather than heroin. At the end of the day though, this has had little impact on the overall production of opium in the country. In fact, what may be happening is that morphine, which requires fairly unsophicated techniques to produce, may be being smuggled from Afghanistan to countries which have access to more accessible supplies of acetic anhydride.

The UNODC already knows that only 60 percent of Afghan opium is processed in the country and this figure may be dropping. It has been suggested by the UNODC that opium production in eastern Afghanistan may be exiting into Pakistan for processing. Pakistan of course has a large industrial infrastructure and therefore traffickers will have more access to the required precursor chemicals. (Precursors Trafficking and Diversion in Pakistan, March 2010)

There is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that the processing of heroin and even the growing of opium may be shifting to areas in India. In the last three years India has seen a massive upsurge in the illicit cultivation of poppies, putting it on par with Pakistan. This sudden upsurge may be due to the clamp down on the smuggling of precursor chemicals, as traditionally the acetic anhydride entering Afghanistan came from India due to its large chemical industry. Sources have suggested that due to the current difficulty of smuggling the chemicals, processing facilities have sprung up in Bihar, India’s most lawless state.

What also may be occuring is known as the ‘balloon’ effect. When law enforcement increases in one particular area or country, the illegal trade often shifts to an area under less surveillance. This is what occurred in Columbia in the 1990s when a state crackdown shifted the cocaine trade into Bolivia and Peru.

The UNODC has noted that there has been an increase in opium cultivation in South-East Asia, particularly Myanmar. Although these countries only have a small share of the market this has been steadily growing. In 2011 the area under poppy cultivation increased from 42,000 hectares to nearly 48,000, a 16 percent increase over 2010. Cultivation has in fact doubled since 2006. It may be then that the crack down on precursor chemicals in Afghanistan may be shifting the market to new areas.

Official statistics concerning drugs should always be taken with a pinch of salt. After investigating NATOs astounding claims it seems highly unlikely that they represent a true victory. Instead we should see them as yet more propaganda that aims to cover up the global failure of the war on drugs.