The Christian Science Monitor recently examined the subject of Afghan opium in the light of UNODC report for the year 2011 entitled, The Global Afghan Opium Trade: A Threat Assessment. Quite naturally, the emphasis was on academic aspects of the issue in standard format. It highlighted the threat perception, as it prevails in the advanced countries. As usual, the practical dimensions of the problem got pushed to the background. The UN knows, more so since 9/11, who calls the shots and their reports reflect their concerns about which side their toast is buttered.

In early 90s, I was Chairman of the Pakistan Narcotics Control Board. The US having won in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union with the help of the Muslim world was flying high. It had emerged as the sole superpower and it launched a ‘war against drugs’ with great fanfare.

Pakistan and Afghanistan were compelled to upgrade their anti-drug campaigns. The US media raised a hue and cry, professing to promote a drug-free society. Despite awful financial constraints, the Pakistani Prime Minister lent its full support to the campaign. However, the US somehow wanted this to be assigned to the Pakistani army.

The thrust of the US campaign about drugs appeared to be against the countries producing opium and cocaine. Accordingly, Mexico felt the massive heat and so did the countries of the 'golden triangle', besides Afghanistan and its immediate neighbours. It was believed that the Americans were involved in large numbers in drug trade, particularly in Mexico.

Moreover, at the height of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the CIA was reported to be colluding with the Afghans to produce opium to meet the growing demand in the world markets. It also provided market access through various countries to these drugs. Despite being a questionable means, the CIA adopted it to bolster the war effort against the Soviets. Then history repeated itself after the post-9/11 occupation of Afghanistan started.

Thus, the campaign of the 90s appears to be a political ploy. An interesting aspect was the USA's emphasis on the rehabilitation of addicts.

The US even then had the biggest demand for the contraband drugs, particularly heroin produced mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a haven for the consumers of psychotropic drugs that benefitted primarily the US industrial complex. Despite all this, only the producers - the poorer countries - were being notified as villains by the international media.

Anyway, as we upped the ante through interdiction operations in the settled areas of the country, particularly in the then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), the tribal areas started feeling the heat. The latter had a monopoly of heroin labs and smuggling routes, which facilitated the transfer of drug to the Central Asian border and/or Russia. Other routes provided access to Karachi port, as well as southern Balochistan. While Russia itself was a good market, demand in the US and European countries offered a better business prospect.

Having said that, 20 years later, according to the UN report, the drug trade is worth $68 billion. The yearly output of the Afghan opium is estimated to be 400 tons, generally; of which about 15 percent is seized in various countries. The US remains the major market, but Africa is now also getting involved.

It is interesting to note that, Europe and East Asia are the main providers of the chemical, acetic anhydride, to countries producing heroin. Curiously, in 2010 the Afghan crop suffered some setback due to local conditions. Reportedly, heroin prices went up in many rich areas of the world.

n    The writer is former secretary interior.