Opium poppies have been of much value to the world since the neo—lithic age. Today though it acts as a gargantuan ulcer in the belly of the very earth, dismantling regimes and transforming the power dynamics. It has the ability to support both—State and Non-State actors. If earlier, they were cultivated for food, anesthesia, and ritual purposes today it is a powerful mechanism for the transfer and control of wealth, power, terror and governance. This is especially true in Asia and Europe with the famed drug—led “Opium Wars” between Britain and China.
Back in the 19th century, the balance of trade between the British and China favored the latter. In order to even out the score, the British introduced opium in China, a trade which burgeoned by 1839 leading to severe health catastrophes in China. To mitigate the problem the Daoguang Emperor took measures to prohibit opium trade, leading to the two Opium wars which resulted in Treaties of Nanking and Tiajin— both of which were in favor of the British opium trade, opening up of ports and ceding of Hong Kong to the British amongst others.
Henceforth began a period of intermittent war and peace between China and the West. In fact, once the 2nd opium war had ended, discussions on Westernization took place at a greater frequency. Among the Chinese, here were those who praised it and others who decried it, refuting the claim that it was the beginning of China’s modernization.
However, in today’s world opium has had a more profound effect in the geopolitical space and time, namely terrorism. Taliban, Islamic State, Hezbollah, Boko Haram etc. all have links to the opium trade, a nexus which is clearly visible even to a lay man now. The opium drug revenue is one of the chief terrorist financing mechanisms. Afghanistan, definitely serves as a case in point here. The country produces approximately 70-80% of the world’s opium, with more than 127,000 people having died opium—related deaths in 2015 worldwide.
So how does Opium really fund terrorism?
It is the illegal trafficking, processing and sale of opium and its derivative heroin which is the chief fundraiser. As mentioned large portions of opium is produced in Afghanistan and sold on the Pakistan border, a duty free zone thereby making it essentially lawless and stateless— providing a safe-haven for Taliban and Al-Qaida. These are the markets where essentially all sorts of illegal transactions are administered by these outfits allowing them to avail protection money in form of taxation, transport and security. It should be noted here that taxation as such is not just about money but also instilling a sense of authority over the people and governance in a more sophisticated form. Thereafter, this opium produce is shipped off to a number of regions which sponsor terrorist activities. Some of these include regions like the South of Russia, parts of Iraq, Pakistan, Iran etc.
What can be done?
In order to weaken the logistic support that the two enterprises, opium drug traffickers and terror outfits, provide each other, the global organizations and countries need to take concerted actions such as:
- UN Security Council resolutions: These resolutions impose sanctions such as travel ban, the freezing of assets and an arms embargo, on anti—state actors of Al-Qaida, Islamic State among others.
- Development of Opium producing Countries: Opium is deeply entwined with the socio-economic fabric of such societies; for example in Afghanistan most of the farmers live in abject poverty and therefore in order to repay their debt are often obligated to grow poppy, often provided by drug lords. Any ban or eradication of entire opium cultivation will come down heavy on the already impoverished farmers. In such a case then, farmer incentives and other subsidiary schemes should be availed to the farmers to grow legal crops instead of opium. Also, providing legitimate loans to farmers should be considered to counter the illegitimate money lending done by drug traffickers and terrorists which results into bondage labor situation. Thus, sustained security and alternative means and programs of livelihood is required in such countries to streamline economic and human development.
- Selective Targeting of Traffickers: International community can come together to single out the opium traffickers who provide services to the terror outfits like the Taliban, but this requires time, thorough intelligence and strong manpower.
This marriage of convenience between opium drug trafficking and terrorism now poses a difficult challenge for the international community. Since the relation between the two is lucrative for both, the terror outfits and drug traffickers, it becomes mandatory to implement solutions which will enforce a divorce between the two enterprises.