On 1 May, British troops assumed control of security operations in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. More than 2,000 troops are now in the province after the transfer of authority from the United States, a figure that will rise to 3,300 by June. They join the further contingent of 2,000 British soldiers in other parts of Afghanistan, but the significance of Helmand is that it is one of the least stable parts of the country. An early indication of what the troops may face is a comment from a local militia leader that Britain is "an old enemy of Afghanistan".
Several opposition politicians in Britain have questioned the nature of the British military role, specifically whether the forces' function is to aid reconstruction and development, conduct counter-narcotics actions or engage in counter-insurgency against the Taliban and other militias. The defence secretary, John Reid, has described the mission as "to protect the reconstruction and development of the Afghan economy, democratic government and security forces", but he added: "However, it will be necessary to protect that development against terrorists who seek to destroy all three of those elements, or to attack British troops."
The warning is apt. March was a particularly violent month in the ongoing war in Afghanistan; there were numerous attacks on Afghan police and security forces and government offices, assassinations of government officials and murders of aid and construction workers (see the British Agencies Afghanistan Group monthly review, March 2006)
The new British deployment thus comes at a time of deteriorating security in Afghanistan (see "The next Afghan war", 26 January 2006). This problem also extends across the border in Pakistan, especially the districts of North and South Waziristan (see "The Pakistan risk", 9 March 2006).
The wider internal predicament of President Musharraf's regime is suggested in its decision on 2 May to close the investigation surrounding the leaking of nuclear secrets by Abdul Qadeer Khan to Libya, North Korea and Iran. The United States regards AQ Khan's proliferation activities as the most serious example of aid to "rogue states", yet his domestic status as the figurehead of Pakistan's own nuclear-weapons programme has made him something of a national hero (see Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet", 3 March 2004).
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The military challenge facing the new British deployment in Helmand is considerable. The threat of direct military attack, in some cases by insurgents drawing on expertise developed in Iraq, is however only one part of a complex security mosaic. In the longer term, the issue of opium production is likely to prove an equally grave test, not least because of two significant developments over the past year or so:
- the increasing tendency for opium to be processed into heroin within Afghanistan
- the use of narcotics profits directly to finance the developing insurgency.
The background to these trends is the extent of opium production in Afghanistan. During the 1990s, the total area of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan varied between 50,000 and 90,000 hectares. A temporary ban by the Taliban in 2001 resulted in an immediate fall, something reversed by the war and regime change of October-November 2001.
In the period following the Taliban's overthrow, a sharp rise took opium poppy cultivation to a new extent: 74,100 hectares in 2002, 80,000 hectares in 2003 and a peak of 131,000 hectares in 2004 (see the United Nations office of drugs and crime, 2005 annual report). A decrease to 103,000 hectares in 2005 was accompanied by an increase in productivity, with the result that the actual production of opium fell only from 4,200 tonnes to 4,100 tonnes.
In the first months of 2006, cultivation and production is now increasing substantially. The UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (Unocha) estimates that poppy cultivation is increasing in thirteen Afghan provinces, is stable in sixteen and is decreasing in just three. The increase in seven of the thirteen provinces is described as "strong", including Helmand itself. The overall picture is one of large-scale and persistent opium production with Afghanistan producing almost 90% of the world's opium.
The additional development is a marked tendency for the opium to be refined into heroin and morphine within Afghanistan. There is evidence of a substantial increase in the transit of precursor chemicals into the country such as acetic anhydride (see the 2005 annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board). Some of these precursors (like acetic anhydride itself) are controlled substances; others such as activated charcoal and ammonium chloride are not. In either case, movement of controlled and non-controlled precursors is a good indication of heroin production; it follows that both classes of chemicals will tend to be trafficked into Afghanistan rather than imported through legal routes.
What this means is that the trafficking in of precursors, the actual refining of the opium and the subsequent trafficking of heroin out of Afghanistan are all highly profitable areas of illegal activity, even more than the straightforward production and trafficking of raw opium. The end result is that the various factions, groups and individuals involved in all these stages have access to increasing financial resources.
As a result, Afghanistan is now a much more profitable site for the drug trade than a decade ago. The coalition has not simply failed to curb opium poppy cultivation, but is allowing an increasingly profitable enterprise to develop as the processing of opium into heroin and morphine expands.
The implications for the insurgency are straightforward. The various militias local warlords, Taliban groups and others all have the capacity to exert control over different aspects of the whole production process, from raw materials through to finished products. In doing so, they can access finance for their own purposes. In the case of the guerrillas, this means the resources to finance the purchase of weapons, explosives, vehicles, food and other equipment with greater ease; funds can also be used to offer financial inducements to potential supporters, including those willing to report on the activities of Afghan police and security agencies and foreign troops.
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A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
A Helmand welcome
Washington sources and Nato representatives based in Kabul continue to portray a positive picture of developments in Afghanistan. By contrast, a number of recent columns in this series have reported on an upsurge in Taliban activity (see, for example, "A new struggle for Afghanistan", 22 December 2005 and "The next Afghan war", 26 January 2006). It does seem clear that the reality in southern Afghanistan is of rapidly deteriorating security.
A rare dispatch in a major western media source is a report from Oruzgan (Uruzgan) province that describes the recent expansion of Taliban activity (see Carlotta Gall, "Taliban power creeps back in Afghan south", New York Times, 3 May 2006). The author writes: "The arrival of large numbers of Taliban in the villages, flush with money and weapons, has dealt a blow to public confidence in the Afghan government, already undermined by lack of tangible progress and frustration with corrupt and ineffective leaders."
Oruzgan's new governor, Maulavi Abdul Hakim Munib, says: "The security situation is not good The number of Taliban and enemy is several times more than that of the police and Afghan National Army in this province". A government official comments on a pattern of small numbers of police being allocated to individual districts where, at any one time, "half of them are protecting the district chief as bodyguards and the other half are on leave".
Much of the expansion of Taliban activity is linked to improvements in their financial base. It is in this way that production, manufacture and export of drugs from Afghanistan links to the insurgency.
In the context of Helmand which borders Oruzgan to the west the stationing of 3,300 British troops in one province may sound a lot, but very few of these will be involved in active patrols at any one time. In an adverse security environment, large numbers of troops have to be dedicated to base security, and others have to constitute highly mobile rapid-reaction units ready to go to the aid of patrols that come under attack.
In 2002, United Nations specialists warned that Afghanistan needed massive aid and a substantial peacekeeping force if the country was to break out of the cycle of insecurity that it had experienced for more than two decades. If successful, that could also have meant a sharp decline in opium production. Neither the aid nor the security assistance was offered on the scale required. Four years later, the situation is deteriorating and the troops now deployed to Helmand province are likely to be at the epicentre of an increasingly perilous environment.