The shortest route between Kabul and Kathmandu spans 1,708 kilometers, passes through 5 nations and connects more than 15 percent of the world’s population. This region is also more heavily drug-infested than any other in the world. It holds various unfortunate and unparalleled records for illegal drug production as well as drug usage. The journey between Kabul and Kathmandu can be fittingly described one of two ways. For drug users, this journey is one of essential satiation – for everyone else, it is one of deplorable corruption.
Asia’s drug problems extend east from Afghanistan and have a visible impact as far east as Laos. Various sources estimate that more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium production occurs within the territorial boundaries of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s unparalleled illicit drug production figures make its capital, Kabul, extremely susceptible to the nationwide addiction.
On the other end, Kathmandu falls at a crossroads between the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent. These are Asia’s two largest opium producing hotspots; the Golden Triangle consists of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar while the Golden Crescent consists of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. Many of Nepal’s drugs are direct products or byproducts of drug production in Afghanistan; however, it’s proximity to Myanmar increases the effects of the continental drug crisis.
Historians estimate that Afghanistan’s drug crisis fell into full bloom in 1980, at the time of the USSR invasion of the nation. The nation was divided and the ruling socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was slowly losing control of provinces. Various warlords took the opportunity to establish small drug dynasties in order to fund weapon production. The Soviet’s faced resistance from Afghan freedom fighters, also known as the Mujahadeen, who were supported by neighboring Pakistan’s Armed Forces.
At the same time, the government of Pakistan, USAID, and various other parties were focused on eradicating poppy cultivation within the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which neighbors Afghanistan. While supply levels were cut, demand remained the same; basic economic principles dictate that when the demand is greater than the supply, the supply is destined to skyrocket. Since Pakistan was putting maximal effort into preventing the opium industry from blooming again; the supply had to be made up elsewhere. With Afghanistan in the midst of war, civilians and leaders alike realized that every penny mattered and slowly, the global opium industry shifted into Afghanistan, where it would grow at unparalleled rates.
Throughout the war, opium poppy distribution and sales steadily increased. The USSR troops officially withdrew in 1989, leaving Afghanistan in tatters. Various Mujahideen groups entered into conflict for control of Afghanistan. Since the United States of America and Pakistan were no longer backing their operations, they depended on opium cultivation more than ever to fund military operations. As a result, poppy production greatly escalated; trafficking routes were established all over the world, causing sales to exponentially increase. In 1996, the freedom-fighting group known as the Taliban officially took control of Afghanistan. In the following years, the Taliban government would heavily rely on the opium industry to keep Afghanistan alive until 2000, when Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared that opium production was un-Islamic. The Taliban threatened and enforced heavy public punishments on civilians who continued opium production. As a result, there was an estimated 99% reduction in poppy farming, resulting in one of the most successful eradication efforts ever.
The ban was short-lived as the Taliban would lose control of the country within the following 24 months. After the 9/11 attacks in New York, the United States Army invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban government in 2002, effectively ending their capability to enforce the ban. In 2 years, the Taliban had confiscated much of the opium in the nation: dried opium is one of the few agricultural products that can last for long periods of time without maintenance and refrigeration. The Taliban funded many of their military operations throughout the war by selling this confiscated opium and essentially abandoned the principle that Mullah Mohammed Omar had decreed in favor of wealth. During the American occupation of Afghanistan, until a new leader could be chosen, the ban was no longer in place and production continued as normal. In 2004, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as the president of a democratic Afghanistan. In the next 3 years, Afghanistan would set record highs for opium production; many insiders claim that government officials and local police could be bribed to turn a blind eye to the drug trade.
25 years of war had left Afghanistan irreparable: the country heavily relied on drugs for money, eradication efforts were difficult due to immense corruption in officials and the terrorist threat that held the focus of the international community. With terrorist figures growing rapidly, foreign efforts, including those of the United Nations, no longer focused on the drug crisis in the nation. With allegiances between warlords and US armed forces in hunting down the Taliban, the United States were forced to allow the warlords to continue their drug empires. By 2006, the country had become so dependent that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that around 52% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product came from opium sales.
In 2010, American and Russian soldiers antidrug forces joined hands to destroy a major opium production site in Afghanistan. Upon their success, Karzai called the operation a violation of Afghan sovereignty, indicating the government’s unspoken support for the opium production operations in the country, hampering the goal of eradication even further. After years of war, Afghanistan continues to produce unparalleled figures of opium; a lack of government structure in rural Afghanistan has even further increased production. An official from the UNODC stated, “There is no other rule of law in most of the southern parts of Afghanistan than —the bullets rule,” and it is evident to the international community that government support for the operations in the North and lack of structure in the South have made opium eradication in Afghanistan one of the most difficult challenges of this century.
Today, Afghanistan stands as the center of poppy cultivation around the world. More than 90% of the world’s non-pharmaceutical opiates were originally farmed in Afghanistan. More land is used for opium production in Afghanistan than for cocaine farming in Latin America, a region 33 times larger than Afghanistan. Opium poppies are vital to the creation of heroin, which is far more addictive than cocaine; this most likely contributes to the popular demand for Afghan-produced illicit substances. Aside from the unparalleled opium production rates, Afghanistan also produces the most cannabis in the world. Afghan-produced cannabis is mainly sold in the form of hashish, which contains most of the same active ingredients as marijuana but has much larger concentrations of psychoactive stimulants. Cannabis has historically been cultivated in Afghanistan without restriction as if it were any other plant. Although modern Afghanistan’s economy has little dependence on cannabis, cannabis production is a career and a way of life for many poor families as it has been passed down for generations.
Afghanistan has been long stuck in the history’s worst drug epidemic but has used drug sales to power its economy. For Afghanistan to make vast profits off drugs, there must be consumers from all over the world. Enter: the neighboring Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
On the record, many Pakistani governments have spoken against drugs and attempted eradication but more heroin is consumed in the territory of Pakistan than any other nation in the world. Historically, Pakistan was the heart of the opium trade, but controversial army dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq worked with the United Nations, in his 11-year stay in office, to eradicate poppy cultivation in Pakistan. His efforts, though not entirely successfully, made a difference and the trade was pushed into Afghanistan. Twenty years later, prime minister Benazir Bhutto, petitioned to allow the death penalty for drug traffickers. Various Pakistani leaders have attempted to cut off drug trafficking and drug usage and yet, Pakistan has more heroin users than any nation in the world.
One of the biggest reasons for Pakistani’s everlasting drug crisis is corruption in police officials. Many of them will turn a blind eye to many crimes for small bribes. In addition, statistics indicate that there are many people in various police forces across the nation who’ve also engaged in such activity and don’t find it necessary to enforce the law, possibly because they don’t agree with it.
Statistics indicate that there are two drugs majorly being used in Pakistan; in the western provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and the Federal Administered Tribal Areas, heroin is one of the most prevalent drugs while in the eastern provinces of Sindh and Punjab, which make up 75% of Pakistan’s population, cannabis is more common than heroin. Afghanistan can explain the vast heroin addiction in Western Pakistan because of Pakistan’s proximity. Pakistan and Afghanistan are bordered by the Durand Line and Pakistan has tried to put up secure fencing and obstacles at various occasions. Afghanistan, however, refuses to do so because such infrastructure would separate the Pashtun tribes permanently. As a result, this lack of security has made it somewhat easy to traffic drugs into Pakistan and due to corruption, it is very easy to sell these drugs in Pakistan. Cannabis and opiates are both transported through this method. Pakistan itself is a producer of both drugs. Pakistan has, historically, never been short on cannabis and it is one of the easiest drugs to buy in Pakistan and with more than a population of 200 million people to work with, it is also easy to find demand. Cannabis grows naturally across Pakistan and many take the opportunity to collect, cultivate and sell their goods. With 140 million potential consumers in Punjab and Sindh, these two provinces find themselves at extreme risk of exposure. Pakistan are one of the world leaders in drug consumption and it is very hard to control the issue due to Pakistan’s geography; as the nation grows cannabis in the wild, it is near impossible to regulate.
Pakistan also plays a massive role in Afghanistan’s drug trade. Essentially, Afghan smugglers sneak drugs from anywhere across the 2,430 km border and then they can be sold to Pakistani nationals to do as they wish or carried to the southern seaports in the nation. At these seaports, large smuggling ships will anchor in international waters, while releasing faster and smaller collecting boats. These boats are quickly loaded up with the opium, hashish, and heroin and they return to the larger smuggling ship. These ships travel to Europe, North America, and the Gulf States, where they will be unloaded in the same fashion.
There is also a large presence of land trafficking in Pakistan, mostly affecting the Republic of India. Unlike in Pakistan, Indian-administered Punjab does not grow significant cannabis quantities and yet, the province of Punjab has one of the highest addiction rates in the world. The drugs are trafficked in through the Pakistani-Indian border. Though the border is heavily guarded and secured by soldiers from both sides, its varying terrain, which includes canals and drains, makes smuggling possible. Most of the drugs that are transported into India do not originate in Pakistan – most are a native product of Afghanistan and Iran. Due to the rocky terrain at the Pakistan-India border, it is possible to get past India’s heavy border presence. On the other side, India alleges that many of Pakistan’s border official are corrupt and thus, they allow drugs to go through on their end, easing the task.
Recently, the Bollywood film Udta Punjab was released, detailing the extent of the drug problem within the state of Punjab, India. When presented to the Central Board of Film Certification, producers were asked to make 89 cuts and remove all references to the state of Punjab. Eventually, the court asked them to cut 1 scene – the corruption in officials was evident. Censorship and denial of the issue make it near impossible to fight against drug abuse. This is not only a problem in Punjab, it affects all of India. While Pakistan is the top heroin consumer, reports indicate that India leads illegal cannabis use in the world. Similar to neighboring Pakistan, corruption in officials makes it very hard to regulate and control drug usage in the country. Many Indians have been a victim of the country’s drug epidemic: in fact, hashish consumption is more common in India than Pakistan and Afghanistan, where much of it is produced.
Unfortunately, though India is not an illicit drug producing nation and it has almost no economic ties to the industry, it is home to more drug users than anywhere else. Indian youth is constantly at risk due to cheap prices and constant pressure. This has created a struggle for many families in the nation, who, in the best case, pay off medical bills for abusing youth. In the worst case, Indian youth is forced into homelessness and abandoned by their families, for bringing shame to the family name.
The People’s Republic of China has one of the most secure border forces in the world- they are heavily manned and unlike most neighbors, not susceptible to corruption. Unlike most South Asian countries, China did not have cannabis or opiates introduced from a foreign nation; both of these substances naturally grow in the wild of Southwestern China. Southwestern China is closest to the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan- the geographical terrain in this region is ideal for drug cultivation. Though drugs are not brought in by foreigners, they have been produced as medicinal drugs for more than two thousand years. China reports the production of these drugs and confidently claims that it has 0% exports and there is no confirmed report that would suggest otherwise. China’s drug problem is not brought on by its neighbors but by the lack of government enforcement in Southwestern China. Many of China’s economic supercenters such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, lie in the Eastern part of China and therefore, the government is more heavily invested in these areas. Western China is made up of far smaller cities that are enshrined by mountains. As drugs grow naturally, many civilians have been exposed to them. China is also known as one of the world’s largest legal narcotic producers; chemists have taken the opportunities to use many substances and create illegal synthetic drugs that have been reported to be 100 times more potent than heroin, which are sold around the world by drug lords and organized criminal organizations. China’s force is very active in shutting them down, but new drugs continue to be created at an unswerving rate.
Nepal falls between the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle, and therefore, has increased exposure to trafficking from both sides. Nepal has taken all sorts of illicit drugs with opiates from Afghanistan, cannabis from Pakistan and illegally-altered versions of the synthetic drug diazepam, from China. Nepal has almost little to no drug cultivation and there is not a lot of organized crime – instead, it is common people who are making livings selling drugs. Though all sorts of drugs can be found in Nepal, one stands out for its availability, cost, and usage. Hashish, which is an extract from the cannabis plant, is incredibly cheap and available in most of Nepal’s cities and towns. Though Nepal’s government has taken a stand against drugs, the open border with India makes regulation impossible – even if all the officials were confirmed to be uncorrupt, it would be impossible to ensure there were no drugs in Nepal. Nepal faces the same problem that fellow nations in the South Asia face: corruption. Nepalese officers are prone to bribes, similar to neighboring nations but there is no enforced punishment for corruption. Without corruption, the dependency of the population on drugs would cause eradication to temporarily heavily impact the economy. This does not hold true for Pakistan and India because their populations could sustain the loss in the workforce; Nepal does not have enough manpower to prevent an economic hit if some percentage of their workforce goes into withdrawal. Afghanistan would also take a massive economic hit, however, that is not due to a loss in workforce, but instead the dependency of Afghanistan’s everyday affairs on money made from drug sales.
Corruption is the common hindrance in the war against drugs- every country has their issues, but corruption is one that holds true across the continent. Terrain, borders, criminals and war have all played a part in expanding the drug empires in South Asia. There is an economy dependent on drugs and governments are attempting to censor the addiction from the world. The story of South Asia can only be described as a calamity.
The drug dynasty in South Asia begins in Afghanistan 35 years ago- it lasts from coast to coast, but the region between Kabul and Kathmandu is one that provides the drug user with the highs of a lifetime, and everyone else, sights to forget. From war-torn Afghanistan where along any highway, the opium farms are visible, to Pakistan, where small flower gardens have been found to grow cannabis; from Punjab, where youth are often found unconscious on the sides of roads or injecting themselves behind buildings, to Nepal, where hashish is cheaper than a carton of milk and dealers feel no need to hide, it is undeniable that Asia faces the worst drug crisis in history.
And there’s no end in sight.