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A Look at a U.N. Report on the Global Heroin Trade

Aired October 21, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, alarming new evidence that Afghanistan's opium crop not only threatens its own survival, but funds insurgencies in other countries, as well. We have a first look at a new U.N. report.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, spreading organized crime, addiction, and war throughout the globe. And the Taliban is much more involved in every aspect of this drugs trade than previously thought. The U.N. says it's profiting to the tune of up to $400 million a year.

After eight years of trying to eradicate the poppy fields, the U.S. has now decided that doesn't work and it's a total waste of money, so what is to be done? In a moment, we'll talk to the author of the U.N. report.

But first, CNN's Nic Robertson explains what's happening in the poppy field of Helmand province.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are Afghanistan's killing fields, hundreds of square miles of opium poppies, beautiful to look at, but dangerous for NATO troops.

(on-screen): No problem. Thank you.

(voice-over): And increasingly lethal for hundreds of thousands of Afghans like these and other users around the world, hooked on the deadly narcotic.

And just as dangerous: the Taliban who control most of these poppy fields and reap millions from the drug trade.

(on-screen): This is the Taliban area, because this is where the poppies are?


ROBERTSON: That's shocking. That's a huge area they have influence over.

KHOSAIDAD: It's six provinces, one, two, three, four, five, five provinces.

ROBERTSON: Six provinces?


ROBERTSON (voice-over): Helmand province, despite a strong NATO presence, produces more than half the country's opium. It's enough to supply the world for a year, more than 3,500 tons of opium.

KHOSAIDAD: Do to the weakness of the government, due to the pressure of the insurgents, due to the pressure of terrorism in the area, we don't have sufficient law enforcement agencies, the police, NATO security force, and other special forces to control this area. So it will take time.

ROBERTSON: Troops don't have a mandate to stop poppy cultivation. Often, that would be counterproductive. Soldiers rely on farmers to warn them of Taliban attacks.

Government eradication programs have had some success. Two years ago, after these pictures were taken, the farmers here turned to other crops. But the six Taliban-influenced provinces have nearly made up for it. Opium output has dropped only slightly. It's still around 7,000 tons this year, about double what the world actually consumes. The rest is mostly stockpiled, according to the U.N.

This flight along the Afghan border reveals the difficulty in catching drug traffickers: It is wild, rugged, remote and vast, which favors the traffickers. For now, they are winning the drug war.


AMANPOUR: Joining me now, Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

You wrote the report. Welcome to our program.


AMANPOUR: What is new?

COSTA: A lot. A lot of new information and (inaudible) picture. New, the information about where the Afghan drug goes, how much goes to Russia, how much goes to Europe, Pakistan, Iran, causing deadly consequences. How much money has accrued to the insurgents in Afghanistan and around Afghanistan? And also, of course, how much goes into the pockets of organized crime worldwide?

But overall, what the report is link the dots together and we see the health situation, the crime situation, and the organized insurgency situation all together. This is very new.

AMANPOUR: So in terms of the figures, some $400 million a year going to the Taliban?

COSTA: Yes. And this is an estimate which has been produced some time ago which is confirmed this report, at least regarding the amount of money which is being used by the Taliban thanks to their role in the cultivation, but especially in the processing in the labs and in the exports.

AMANPOUR: Well, that's what I wanted to explore with you, because before people thought they were just getting a take, a small take off the top, but now you're saying that it's much, much more involved than that?

COSTA: Well, we should compare, for example, the Taliban period now, when there are insurgents not in control of the country, but in control of parts of the country, with the period when they were power, when they were in power and, therefore, running the country, in the late '90s.

At that time, the Taliban were tolerating the cultivation because they considered it to be un-Islamic or anti-Islamic, but they were cutting -- taking a cut of about 10 percent. And at that time, we estimated the revenue to insurgents of about $80 million -- $70 million to $90 million, about $80 million.

Today, they're deeply involved, deeply involved in the processing, deeply involved in protecting the farmers, deeply involved in the exports, deeply involved in all the activities, including the precursors -- chemical precursors which are imported into Afghan. In all of that, we estimate in this report amounts of about $130 million, $140 million a year. Plus, there are other activities they are involved, which, of course, brings up the number significantly.

AMANPOUR: And, look, we have a map here of Afghanistan and its surrounding countries. You can use this and try to tell us where it's all going, since that's part of your new report, as well.

COSTA: Basically, the Afghan opium leaves the country through three different routes. About 150 tons of heroin reach Pakistan. About 105, slightly more than 100 tons of heroin reach Iran. And the remaining -- which is about 50, 55 tons of heroin reach Central Asia.

Now, of course, this is not to stay in these three countries. A good deal of the Pakistani heroin goes -- moves into Iran. And the whole lot then goes through Iran into Turkey and then eventually into the European Union.

AMANPOUR: And a lot into Russia, right?

COSTA: Well, the segment which I show goes through Central Asia, about 70 tons of it reach Russia and then goes...


AMANPOUR: OK. In your report, you have said that the Afghan drug economy generates this several hundred million dollars per year into evil hands, some with black turbans, some with white collars. What do you mean?

COSTA: Well, the black turbans are easily identified. You know with whom. White collars are -- by that, we intend to refer to, for example, officials, officials in the Afghan administration, whether in the federal government in Kabul or in the provinces, or people in the army or people in the police, but also those who are around the world involved in recycling the money which is generated by the opium trade. We have estimated that amount to $65 billion. That's a lot of money for...


AMANPOUR: So what's the solution? Because we've just reported and the U.S. has said that -- forget eradication. Forget the poppy fields. That is simply not going to be enough. So what is the solution?

COSTA: Oh, it's very simple. It's going to take a long time, but it's very clear what should be done.

First of all, all the opium which is listed there, 70 tons going to Russia, 100 tons going to Europe, you have demand. They kill 100,000 people a year. We need much greater effort and commitment by government to prevent drug addiction, to take care of drug addicts, to remedy, in terms of therapeutic measures, to their situations, to reduce demand.

Second, of course, the source of the problem. You mentioned eradication, namely the destruction of the crop. We need to help farmers to dis-intoxicate (ph) themselves, to switch to other cultivation. It has happened.

AMANPOUR: But you know that -- that they've been trying to do that, for instance, with onions, with wheat, and then everybody's planting the same thing. There's no market. I mean, it's not organized.

COSTA: It is not a question of onions or a question of wheat or a question of grapes. Let us not forget that, in an earlier report a few weeks ago, we show that the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan declined by a third, an amazing 36 percent actually in two years. Why? Because of market forces.

Opium being so abundant in the country, the price of it declined by 20 percent, 30 percent a year in the past few years, and it became competitive to produce something else. We need to nurture this something else.

AMANPOUR: So if it is competitive, why hasn't the nurturing been done? Why hasn't more of this alternative cropping happened?

COSTA: Well, to a very large extent, because insurgents are in control of the territory, which becomes very difficult to bring to farmers basically development. You need to bring in refrigerating facilities. You bring to build roads to take the products to the markets. You need to have the facility to stock the product.

AMANPOUR: So you sort of need to nation-build in order to allow this to happen?

COSTA: We need development, exactly, not alternative crops, not onions or -- or other products, but we need development in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: And you talked about funding the insurgencies. There's a debate, as you know. Some people say it is the drug money that's funding the Taliban and the insurgency. Others say that it's money coming from abroad from sympathetic people, donations, et cetera. Where do you stand on this?

COSTA: We have no evidence just because we are not part of that sort of investigation, whether there is money coming to insurgents from volunteers, from causes which are sympathetic to them. Most likely is the case, I cannot make a comparison.

We have been focusing -- the mandate of the office is to deal with crime and drugs and terrorists. We focused only on Afghan (ph).

AMANPOUR: And are you dealing with the NATO troops, as well? NATO has a certain mandate. Many of the NATO countries have been reluctant to have their forces join the U.S. drug eradication or interdiction efforts. Is anything changing there?

COSTA: Yes, a lot, certainly in the past 12, 18 months. NATO for a long time, of course, acted in Afghanistan mainly in counterinsurgency area without a brief (ph) in counternarcotic. The NATO meeting, I guess, was about a year-and-a-half ago in Budapest, allowed the member states, individual member states of NATO, to be active in...

AMANPOUR: So are they doing it?

COSTA: They are doing it. In the report, there is evidence that, during the first nine months of this year, about 120 strikes against drug targets were run by NATO. There is even a list of tons of opium, tons of seeds, and number of labs destroyed. I think this is happening, and I will say is a good...

AMANPOUR: Is it making a dent?

COSTA: So far, unfortunately, in terms of the pure number, I would say not yet. The amount of strikes are impressive. The amount of labs destroyed and opium confiscated is -- is high. But there is so much drugs in Afghanistan, twice the consumption of the world, that for the time being, in percentage terms, NATO operation has not been effective.

AMANPOUR: So what will it take, in short?

COSTA: It will take a much greater commitment in terms of effectively looking at the kingpins, those who have been -- who are, to some extent, involved in insurgency, but above all involved in trafficking, and, therefore, with their resources, support the insurgents.

But we need -- in addition to what I mentioned earlier, reduction of demand, and therefore less addiction in Europe, and reduction of supply, namely helping the farmers to switch. We need a much harder stance on traffickers, whether they are in Afghanistan, whether they are in Pakistan, or whether they are along the routes in Russia or in Europe.

AMANPOUR: You talked about the kingpins. There is a report that the U.S. is now targeting them from the air or from any way, targeted killing, and also that the Pentagon has a list of some 50 drug kingpins to be taken out. Is that one way to go?

COSTA: No. I personally don't believe so, for a very simple reason. We believe in correct application of justice and -- and I am perplexed about the fact that this is not actually happening.

The Security Council of the United Nations already on two occasions, in 2007 -- 2006 and 2007, passed a resolution, invited member states to provide to the Security Council the name of the major traffickers involved in Afghan opium and also finding insurgents, so that they could -- their travels could be banned, their assets could be seized, and the procedure for eventual extradition could be launched.

So far, much to my dismay, not a single name was provided to the Security Council. That is a manifestation of a negligence which I consider very seriously.

AMANPOUR: Negligence. And we'll talk about that and more on this issue. Stay with us. Next, we'll have a different perspective on the drugs war from an author and journalist who has met the Taliban. Stay with us.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): One of the world's busiest drug routes runs through Iran's rocky mountains and desert plains, for its eastern border lies alongside Afghanistan and Pakistan, which produce 80 percent of the world's heroin and opium, drugs destined for users in the West. They are smuggled through Iran.

(on-screen): This is the front line in Iran's war against the drug traffickers, its frontiers with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along nearly 2,000 kilometers of border line, Iran has built concrete walls, dams, canals, and earthen barriers.


AMANPOUR: That was my report on drug smuggling 11 years ago, so what has changed today? Joining me now, Gretchen Peters, an award-winning journalist who reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade. She interviewed hundreds of villagers, smugglers, and the Taliban for her book, "Seeds of Terror."

And here again with me in the studio is the U.N.'s Antonio Maria Costa.

Welcome back to you both.

Welcome, Gretchen. Let me ask you: That figure, 11 years ago, and now we're hearing that 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin comes from Afghanistan, but only 2 percent is seized there, most of it going out of the country. What is to be done?

GRETCHEN PETERS, AUTHOR, "SEEDS OF TERROR": Well, I think there needs to be a lot more focus on interdiction. I do think there needs to be a lot more focus on stopping drug convoys, raiding and dismantling drug labs. That's very difficult, because many of them are small and mobile. I think, as Mr. Costa said, there has to be tremendous effort on the development side to help bring rule of law to rural areas where poppy is cultivated to try and help villagers, the many different levels of things that have to happen to help villagers move off of the poppy crop.

But I also think there's a lot to be done internationally. And I think that gets a lot more focus -- less focus than it should.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me just quickly ask you -- Mr. Costa, when I asked him about the notion of targeting these things, as you've just said, convoys and other such things, wasn't so keen on it. He said not extra- judicial targeting...

COSTA: Killings.

AMANPOUR: ... killings, yes. But you have said that the Pentagon does have this list of -- of 50 or so people that they're going after, what, to kill, Gretchen?

PETERS: It's a kill or capture -- yes, it's a kill or capture list. I think that what they're finding from -- from military officials that I've spoken with who are -- are tracking this issue is that the drug traffickers and the insurgents in southern Afghanistan are working so closely together that it's almost impossible to separate them.

A recent example was a -- was a raid in Marja in Helmand in May, when they uncovered a -- a Taliban command-and-control center in the middle of a poppy market, an opium market, and they found more than 90 tons of drugs, precursor chemicals, and poppy seeds there under the Taliban's control. So they really are working very closely together.

I think there has to be more effort to try and interdict the major traffickers who are not -- and the money launderers who are not in Afghanistan. Really, the major players are in Pakistan, they're in the UAE. Some of them moved between Iran and Afghanistan. It's -- it's -- this is a regional issue, and it needs a regional approach.

AMANPOUR: Are you getting, Mr. Costa, any luck trying to get -- we've discussed it briefly a little bit ago -- but any luck trying to get some international cooperation on this?

COSTA: I think a lot is happening now. Now, obviously, those are seeds which will bear fruits only -- God only knows when in the future.

We have, for example, promoted what we call a trilateral initiative between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. That is working quite well. They are -- there have been the joint operations -- unusual, because they often -- at least some of these countries have been at odds with one another. They have been running joint operations, joint patrolling, sharing some sort of intelligence. The results, again, are very small, but symbolically I think this is the beginning of an exercise which is far reaching. And the same in Central Asia, we're doing the same among these countries.

AMANPOUR: And, Gretchen, you talked about a DEA success story with Haji Ju Mahan (ph). They got him, they lured him, and they managed to -- to bring him back here to prosecute. But then you went after the trail in Pakistan. What did you find there, even after he had been taken off the streets?

PETERS: Well, I went to his house before he was arrested. I tracked him down to Quetta in Pakistan a few months before he was arrested. He wasn't there, but I spoke to other members of his team, and they freely admitted whose house it was, that he was a major drug trafficker. I consider him to be like the Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan. And nobody was the slightest bit concerned to have a journalist show up at the house and - - and tell me exactly what they were up to.

So it's been my experience that it was actually quite easy to meet with smugglers, truck drivers who -- who smuggle heroin through Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. They were very open about talking about it because there is so little interdiction.

I do think that's changing, and I think that that is an encouraging sign. But this is a multi-billion-dollar -- there is a multi-billion- dollar trade going on in this region. It's drugs going out, commodities coming back in. And the insurgents and corrupt officials on both sides of the border profit off of and protect that. That gives them a perverse incentive to stabilizing the region. In other words, this entire economy is fueled or is supported by the continuing instability. It's going to be very hard to turn that around, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you -- and I -- I -- I think I read that you said that, even after Haji Mahan (ph) was taken off the streets, his relatives and lieutenants continued the trade, right?

PETERS: Oh, yes, absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Let me just read you this. There is a statement by Thomas Schweich, former State Department counternarcotics official in Afghanistan, about Colonel General Khodaidad, who is the coordinator of Afghanistan's counternarcotics. And what he said was, which we can see on our screen, "I think Karzai," the president, "appointed him because he wouldn't have any influence, and I think Karzai felt that the Americans were too stupid to figure that out." Do you think that's the case?

COSTA: It's a big harsh. I know Tom well, and he's...

AMANPOUR: But -- but there have also been accusations against President Karzai's relatives, his brother, others who are part of this drugs trade.

COSTA: We are talking about two different subject matters here. General Khodaidad is called in that statement ineffective. Certainly, the minister of counternarcotics in Afghanistan is very weak. It has no ability to enforce the law; it has no equipment; it has nothing. It has sort of a moral role. And I guess that is what Tom meant when he says "in effect." Then you talk -- and certainly he's very clean. I never had one single word against him, in terms of him being involved.

Then there is a different element, which you brought up, the question of corruption, the corruption in Kabul, corruption in the provinces, corruption in the army, corruption in many ministries. That's a different issue, and I would consider it one of the most dangerous ones and most urgent to be dealt with.

AMANPOUR: Well, Gretchen, last word to you. As this reassessment of Afghan policy goes on, as this crisis in Afghanistan is playing itself out, how is this going to help or hinder -- more likely -- the effort to control the drugs?

PETERS: Well, I think at the same time that the drug problem creates challenges, it also presents opportunities. My research among the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan find that, on both sides of the border, people are fed up by the drug trafficking and the other criminality that the insurgents and corrupt officials get up to. Their lives are chewed up by this.

I think it provides an opportunity for a counterinsurgency campaign to -- to build a -- a more well-governed region from the bottom up, from the village level up.

AMANPOUR: So you support what General McChrystal is basically saying, that the whole process of development and counterinsurgency and -- and really building from the ground up?

PETERS: I believe...

AMANPOUR: I could see you -- yes.

PETERS: ... that that is the best way -- I believe that that's the best way to go. I am -- I have to say, I'm a little skeptical that at this point our -- the -- the NATO troops there are trained for that kind of mission. I believe that there has to be a lot more focus on law enforcement, and I think there's a tremendous challenge to the idea of sending a company of soldiers -- say, 120 U.S. Marines -- into a village in southern Helmand and saying, "You guys have to enforce the law." In that case, your -- your soldiers essentially turn into policemen patrolling the streets and your company commander is the mayor.

I don't think Western troops deployed to Afghanistan are trained to do that kind of work. I don't think we have the type of development forces being deployed alongside them to help these villages transfer themselves onto other types of economies. It's a very, very complex project. In an ideal world, I do think it would work.

AMANPOUR: Thank you, Gretchen.

And I saw you nodding when I asked her about the -- the -- the recommendations by General McChrystal.

COSTA: Yes, definitely. The country's crying -- Afghanistan is crying for greater security, whether it's security on the ground in terms of fighting insurgency, whether it's security in terms of fighting the country of cultivating, processing, and exporting drugs. We need all of this on the ground, whether done by the Afghan army and police -- unlikely -- or by foreign troops, that this has to be done, and urgently.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, both of you, Mr. Costa, Gretchen Peters. Thank you so much.

PETERS: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And we will continue this discussion online on our Web site,, where you can see full details of the U.N. report, which is being published right now.

Next, our "P.S." We'll tell you the best way to train the Afghan police and the army so that they can replace U.S. and NATO troops.


AMANPOUR: Now, our "P.S.," our "Post-Script." President Obama is getting lots of advice as he mulls America's Afghan war strategy, the latest from a Canadian intelligence officer who served on the front lines in the Taliban's stronghold of Kandahar. He says the key to success in Afghanistan is, of course, standing up the country's own army and security forces, but he says they must hunker down with them, living, eating, and sleeping with the Afghan troops to get them up and ready.

And that is exactly what the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, recommends, as well. That's according to a blog in Foreign Policy magazine by journalist and author Thomas Ricks, who will join us on this program next week to talk about Afghanistan's golden age, the Afghanistan that he knew when he lived there back in the late '60s.

So join the debate on the U.S. and NATO strategy online. Go to to read Tom Ricks' blog and to tell us what you think.

That's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a roundtable discussion with the U.S. ambassadors representing Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.