Possibilities for Illicit Trafficking in the Wake of Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan: A Regional Problem

Posted: December 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:55 am

 Author: Nazia Hussain,  PhD Candidate, George Mason University, School of Public Policy

When one states an idea too many times, it loses its significance, even if it holds true. The same could be argued for the fact that the failure of Afghanistan as a state holds ramifications for the region and the rest of the world.

As the country braces for troop withdrawal, it can be pointed out that illicit trafficking (including that of opium) will skyrocket. Not that illicit trafficking, especially of opium, has taken a backseat in the past. According to estimates by UNODC, the global opiate market was at least worth US$ 68 billion in 2009. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, transnational organized crime groups were the main beneficiaries; the Afghan Taliban earned around US$155 million in 2009, Afghan drug traffickers US$2.2 billion, and Afghan farmers US$440 million.

(Image courtesy CNN)

Furthermore, Afghan opium problem is not either/or in terms of significance to the region and the world; its magnitude and lucrative nature affects everyone. Although Afghan heroin is directly trafficked to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Central Asian countries, and Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it flows onwards to the rest of the world. UNODC estimates that in 2009, 150 tons of Afghan heroin reached Europe, 120 tons Asia, and 45 tons Africa. Africa has increasingly reported receiving Afghan heroin, re-emerging as a heroin trafficking route to Europe, and to a lesser extent to North America and Oceania in 2009. In the process, increasing heroin flows to Africa have also generated a rise in heroin abuse in Africa, a phenomenon that has been reported in other countries that are used as trafficking routes as well. For instance, the 2010 Drug Report by United Nations noted that neighboring countries like Iran, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia consumed the majority of the world’s opium, as they ended up as trade routes for Afghan opium.

In the absence of even a scintilla of fear of presence of US and NATO troops, as well as imminent cash flow problems (when donor fatigue sets in, and the aid-driven economy struggles to survive), prospects of illicit trafficking, including drug trafficking seem bright.

Currently, according to World Bank estimates, 97 percent of Afghanistan’s economy is tied to international military and donor spending; at present the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development spend about $320 million a month in Afghanistan. As the World Bank figure below highlights, aid to Afghanistan exceeded the country’s GDP in 2010. What is more, in November 2011, a released World Bank report warned that the country will suffer a recession in 2014 and beyond after foreign troops leave and aid flows decrease substantially, and that the country could face a complete economic collapse if the security situations gets worse.









(Image courtesy World Bank)


The Bank forecasts a US$7 billion deficit in the Afghan budget annually through 2021. Such a scenario spells serious trouble for the regional neighbors, which will end up (if they have not already done so) as conduits for illicit trafficking, facilitating the trade and inadvertently endangering local populations with the after effects. Such a trend will not be an anomaly, but a continuation of an established trend.

Thus, we can argue that in the wake of troops pullout, the economic outlook of Afghanistan coupled with the precarious security conditions, spells disaster for the region. In such conditions, illicit trafficking and organized crime is bound to increase. Just as opium production, processing, and trafficking is now a regional issue endangering neighboring states and beyond, so will possibilities of trafficking in other illicit sectors, and reach a magnitude that qualifies as a regional problem. Thus dealing with crime and trafficking issues is not just important for Afghanistan, but also holds true for the region as a whole.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps from the beginning point that sounds like a tired cliché, but nevertheless holds true: that Afghanistan’s problems no longer remain Afghan problems, but are a serious cause of concern for the regional countries as well. Perhaps a cognizance of this fact might be the first step forward.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu