Dr. G. Shreekumar Menon
Decades of conflict in Afghanistan, in which the opium trade has played a predominant role, and has become deeply embedded in the violent politics of the region, has had global ramifications.
According to the UNODC’s Afghanistan Opium Survey 2021, “The production of opiates (opium, morphine, and heroin) is arguably Afghanistan’s largest illegal economic activity. The gross output of the Afghan illicit opiate economy was estimated to be $1.8- $2.7 billion in 2021. The total value of opiates, including domestic consumption and exports, stood at between 9 to 14 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP, exceeding the value of its officially recorded licit exports of goods and services (estimated at 9 per cent of GDP in 2020).
Estimated opium production in 2021 was 6,800 (6,200 – 7,400 tons) or 8 per cent more than in 2020, meaning production has exceeded 6,000 tons for an unprecedented fifth consecutive year. This amount of opium could be converted into some 270 – 320 tons of pure heroin or some 390 to 650 tons of heroin of export quality. The average opium yield in 2021 was estimated at 38.5 kilograms per hectare.
Opium smuggling, trafficking routes, and methods of laundering drug money have remained remarkably unchanged. So too has the West’s willingness to downplay the problem, repeatedly viewing narcotics as a “lesser evil” to the greater challenge at hand.
Since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the poppy trade has played a critical destabilizing role, both in corrupting the Afghan government and police and in bankrolling the resurgence of the Taliban.
Although there is wide variation across the war theater, drug profits flow up the chain of command within the Taliban and other insurgent and extremist organizations operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
These funds play a key role in funding the operational costs of the Taliban and many disparate terror groups, as also in funding terror groups active in many countries. In this latter category India is prominently etched and marked for disintegration. Historical memories of the Afghan rule founded by Bahlul Lodi in 1451 AD, must be rankling the rank and file of the Taliban. Tactics, organization, strategy and goals of the ruling Taliban, are now focused sharply on India. What better evidence than the Afghan Heroin shipments inundating Indian ports on the West Coast?
- The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), seized two containers at Mundra Port in the western state of Gujarat in September 2021, after receiving intelligence. More than 2,988kg (6,590 pounds) of heroin was recovered in one of India’s biggest such hauls to date, valued at a whopping 200 billion Indian Rupees. Subsequently, an Afghan national was one among the several arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
- Immediately, a month later, 25 kg of heroin was seized from a container at Nhava Sheva Port in October. The said container had been imported from Kandahar and had arrived via Chabahar port in Iran.
- In December, the Border Security Force seized 40 kg of heroin worth ₹200 crore in two separate incidents in the Ferozepur sector of Punjab. From 8 kg in 2018 to over 3000 kg in 2021, India had recorded the steepest rise in Heroin seizures in just a span of four years, in other words there was a quantum leap in seizures by a whopping 37,000% in a matter of four years!
- The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) data compiled by the nodal agency reveals that in 2017, police forces of various states seized 825 kg heroin, which increased the next year to 913 kg. This figure increased to 2,308 kg in 2019 and further jumped by 41% to 3,276 kg in 2020, the year of the pandemic. From 2017 to 2020, state police figures on heroin seizure saw close to 400% jump.
- In April 2022, Custom officials seized 102 kg drugs consignment worth Rs 700 crore from a truck coming from Afghanistan via the Pakistan check post, in Amritsar. The drugs were concealed in liquorice roots (Mulethi) consignment imported from Afghanistan.
- In May 2022, a joint operation of DRI and Indian Coast Guard (ICG) codenamed Operation Khojbeen resulted in two Indian boats being intercepted. The occupants of the boats confessed that they had received Heroin in huge quantity on high sea and that they had concealed it. Search operations led to the recovery of 218 packets of 1 kg each of heroin.
- In September 2022 the Special Cell of the Delhi Police arrested two Afghan nationals for possessing 312.5 kgs of methamphetamine and 10 kgs of heroin worth over Rs 1,200 crores in the international market. Another seizure effected again in the month of September 2022 by Delhi Police Crime Branch, in collaboration with the Gujarat Anti-Terror Squad (ATS), resulted in detention of an Afghan citizen possessing 4 kg of high-grade heroin worth Rs 20 crores in the global market.
- On 8 October 2022 a joint operation by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and the Indian Navy led to the seizure of 200 kilograms of Afghan Heroin worth 1.45 million USD or 1,200 crores INR off an Iranian Vessel. Six Iranian nationals were apprehended.
- In another seizure on 8 October 2022, Gujarat’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) in a mid-sea joint operation with Indian Coast Guard (ICG) caught a Pakistani boat and recovered 50 kg heroin worth ₹350 crore in international market value and apprehended six crew members.
From the above narration of major seizures in India, there can be no doubt that there is a well-focused and directed targeting of India by way of a Heroin offensive. The mainstream security scholarship believes that there is a comity of nations conspiring against India. The operations are being monitored and controlled by the IDUKKI Belt, comprising of Istanbul-Dubai-Kandahar-Kabul-Islamabad.
India and Iran had held a three-day discussion in May 2022 on the influx of drugs, especially Afghan heroin, from Chabahar and Bandar Abbas Ports in Iran. The meeting took place in Tehran between India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and Iran’s Anti-Narcotics Police. During the three-day session, New Delhi sought Tehran’s assistance in developing real time intelligence sharing on Afghan heroin, and other drugs being shipped from Iranian ports in Chabahar and Bandar Abbas.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is promoting himself as leader of the Muslim world to his coreligionists around the globe – particularly in India. He makes no secret of his imperialist ambitions. His heroic ideal is the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909). During a commemoration ceremony on February 10, 2018 at Yıldız Palace in Istanbul, marking the sultan’s death centenary, the Turkish president praised him as the “most important, most visionary and most strategic-minded.” Erdoğan described Turkey as “a continuation of the Ottomans…the borders have changed, forms of government have changed… But the essence is the same, the soul is the same, even many institutions are the same.” And in the wake of the October 2, 2018, killing in Istanbul of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by assassins sent by Riyadh, Erdoğan emphatically declared Turkey to be “the only country that can lead the Muslim world.”
India should be on the vigil about the intentions of Erdoğan. New Delhi and Ankara have never been friendly since India became independent. Successive governments in Ankara have always supported Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir. Now, as part of its grandiose strategy to lead the Muslim world, Ankara has been reaching out to Indian Muslims as well. Intelligence reports indicate Islamist cleric Zakir Naik as being recruited, to popularize Erdogan among Indian Muslims. Bollywood film star Amir Khan enjoys a close relationship with Erdogan. In August 2020 Turkish first lady Emine Erdoğan and Aamir Khan met at the Huber Mansion in Istanbul. Turkish cleric Serdar Demirel visited Kolkata in 2016 to participate in a protest march organized by Muslims opposed to the Indian government’s bid to apply a Uniform Civil Code throughout the country. Turkey is also suspected to be funding Indian NGOs to reach out to Muslim students and influence madrassas and mosques.
Dubai has a shady reputation of being a major hub for illicit funds. It is an important jurisdiction as its real estate extravaganza has the capacity to absorb astounding sums of money, without much questions being asked. A network of global shell companies operate here. The burgeoning Heroin trade into India is suspected to be heavily funded by the underworld operating from Dubai. Significantly, in March 2022, the Paris based global watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF), added United Arab Emirates (UAE) to its ‘Gray List’ for inadequacies in controlling money laundering and terrorism financing activities.
Kandahar-Kabul continues to be the global epicenter for production of Opium. The opium harvest in Afghanistan increased by eight per cent in 2021. The UNODC brief also warns that alongside rising opium and heroin production, methamphetamine manufacture in Afghanistan, using the wild ephedra plant as a precursor, has sharply increased in recent years. High regional and global demand for methamphetamine, is spurring the Afghan drug market. These drugs are being sent to various countries as also to India via freight containers. Things have come to such a critical stage that Adani Ports has taken an unprecedented decision not to handle containerised cargo originating from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Islamabad’s unending animosity towards India encourages the government and security establishment there to encourage drug trafficking on an everyday basis into India, especially into Kashmir and Punjab. For this purpose, underground tunnels, drones and sea routes are routinely used.
The links between narco-trafficking and terrorist violence are quite varied, with some defined by direct intersections of aggressively violent and criminal non-state actors, while others are shaped by deep involvement of the state in the drug trade. The old paradigm of fighting terrorism and drug-trafficking, using standard methods, may not be adequate to meet the challenges posed by the influx of drugs from Afghanistan supported and directed by the above countries. Violent non-state entities, extremist organizations, fundamentalist organizations, and religious converters collaborate with criminal networks in order to perpetrate acts of aggression and push drugs for devastation and ruining of young generations. Many such organizations are masquerading as real estate dealers, wholesale and retail dealers engaged in import-export businesses comprising agricultural, horticultural, and foodstuffs, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) supposedly engaged in humanitarian and relief works, manpower agencies and other institutions. These serve as an excellent façade for infiltrating into many sensitive government departments, while slyly promoting drug consumption among sections identified for religious conversion to foreign religions by fear, coercion and intimidation or rendering them totally incapable and useless.
Punjab and Kashmir serve as excellent examples of the chaos and instability that can be created by infusing drugs and shaping the social and economic surroundings, to make it conducive for greater terror goals.
There are also major impacts of drug trafficking on government’s ability to function swiftly and efficiently. Drug trafficking and violence overburdens the systems of defense and law enforcement, by draining manpower from critical areas. Drug-trafficking spirals government expenditure on law enforcement and security, which do not generate any revenue. Further, it fuels money laundering, and human trafficking that militant organizations desperately need.
The state’s role in the narcotics trade creates a critical connection between traffickers and terrorist groups, either by granting political security and cover or active connivance in drugs operations. Either way, it creates deep fissures in government functioning.
How should India react to the aggressive inflow of Afghan heroin into the country?
The Government is expanding the bureaucracy, adding unwanted infrastructure, and manpower to an already bloated bureaucracy which is bursting at the seams by the wayward and corrupt who live for not just the perks of office but sinecures that give them the illegal authority to drain the exchequer for their own narrow ends and personal gains. Ultimately such exercises drain precious taxpayer’s money for totally unproductive purposes. The seized Heroin and other drugs are simply burnt away, and is of no value to anybody. Instead, the Government should learn from the private sector, which acts more prudently and pragmatically.
India’s largest port operator Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (AP&SEZ) has taken a policy decision, after the Mundra drug seizure that its terminals would no longer handle export and import of container cargoes from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is what the Government of India should do.
By a simple decision, the present Heroin inundation can be reduced considerably and effectively. Alternatively, all container traffic from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan should be directed to a single designated port, where a Joint Task Force of all enforcement agencies, can conduct thorough examination – Simple solution for a complex problem.
The government needs to act with alacrity and swiftness, to contain the Afghan Heroin fusillade battering Indian ports.
Dr. G. Shreekumar Menon I.R.S. (Rtd), Ph.D. (Narcotics), is Former Director General, National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics.
He can be contacted at email@example.com