Heroin and Extremism in Pakistan

Terrorism is often thought of as the greatest threat facing Pakistan; however, the biggest danger is something that gets much less attention yet is much more deadly: drugs.

Everyday 700 people die from drug addiction in Pakistan, an ongoing death toll much greater than terrorism, which kills 39 people a day.

And yet terrorism cannot be discounted in this sordid story.

But first, some context is in order. Afghan opium production, already the highest in the world, has recently risen to record levels and accounts for 85 percent of the world’s opium. This booming industry makes the AfPak region extremely vulnerable to illegal smuggling and crime and provides easy access to a dangerous drug, contributing to the staggering numbers of deaths in Pakistan. And perhaps worse, the Afghan Taliban has become a “drug mafia,” using opium and heroin production to finance their operation.

Yet few are aware of the deadly nexus between the illicit drug trade and terrorism in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif highlighted this dangerous nexus just last week and vowed to break it. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan has consistently recognized the link between drugs and terrorism in Pakistan and has stressed the need to eliminate drug-funded terrorism from the country. Despite this, many of Pakistan’s own leaders don’t believe that drugs and terrorism are connected. Some within the Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) — its anti-drug agency — and government ministries have outright denied that the Afghan drug trade funds terrorism even in the face of ample evidence. On May 6, Ghalib Bandesha of the Narcotics Control Division stated that the ANF could not find any evidence of drug-funded terrorism. In 2014, a senior ANF official said that Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is not getting any financial support from the Afghan Taliban, effectively denying that Afghan Taliban drug money is funneled to Pakistan. Senator Tahir Mashadi said that it was the CIA that was using drug money to finance TTP. Even Major General Zafar Iqbal, the Director of the ANF, said that drug smuggling cannot be leveled against al Qaeda, the Taliban, or any other specific militant or terrorist group.

There should be no dispute that Pakistan has a serious drug problem. A June 2015 report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reveals that Pakistan faces a tremendous challenge in dealing with opiate trafficking from Afghanistan. While Pakistan has considerably developed and improved its international counter-narcotics cooperation through the commendable efforts of the ANF, it cannot escape the fact that it is in a geographically vulnerable position — next to Afghanistan. Recent statistics present a shocking picture. The UNODC report concludes that 45 percent of Afghanistan’s opiates are trafficked through Pakistan giving Pakistan’s 6.7 million drug users easy access. The rise in drug cultivation, trafficking, smuggling, and addiction signifies that the narcotics problem in Pakistan is only worsening.

“Drugs” and “terrorism” are not always readily linked, but evidence suggests an inextricable link that poses a hidden, imminent threat for an already fragile Pakistan. There has been much discussion of the Afghan Taliban using the drug trade as a source of funding. In fact, mafia and terrorists receive $70 billion from narcotics in Afghanistan, $2 billion of which goes to TTP, the Taliban in Pakistan. Profits of that magnitude are significant considering drug busts are on the rise. Recently, 232 packages of heroin worth an estimated $92 million were seized on a Pakistani boat off the coast of India.

According to U.S. officials, there is “logical evidence” that TTP supports, and profits from, the flow of drugs through its territory. In fact, the drug trade is the Taliban’s single biggest stream of revenue. By negotiating with drug smugglers and placing taxes on narcotics at the border, the Taliban receive a part of the profit without having to manufacture or transport the drugs themselves. In 2009 alone, the Taliban’s estimated annual income from the drug trade was between $100-300 million. While the Taliban advocate for sharia law and prohibit drug use, they may justify their role in the drug trade as “narco-jihad” against the West — the opium is consumed by kafirs (non-believers) in the West and has a destructive impact on them.

And the connections that the Taliban has to criminal organizations and gangs in Karachi — Pakistan’s hub of crime — drugs and terrorism cannot be trivialized. Billions of rupees from criminal “black money” networks are used to promote terrorism.

One known narco-terrorist is Imam Bheel from Makran, Balochistan. Bheel — believed to be a key gatekeeper in the heroin supply chain — was designated an international narcotics kingpin by President Obama in 2008. Despite his widely-known background as a drug lord and even after murdering Abdul Rehman Dashti, a prominent public servant, law enforcement has done nothing to stop him. Perhaps his lack of prosecution is due to corruption or his eldest son’s membership to the National Assembly. No matter what the reason, this is demonstrative of how the intertwined drug and crime worlds pose a threat to Pakistan. A Reuters Special Report explains the narco-terror nexus further: “The [Dashti] murder case opens a window into an insidious threat to Pakistan itself: a flood of drug money that taints politics, corrupts officials and swells a vast illicit economy.”

The links between narcotics and terrorism are quite evident in the war between the Pakistani state and Baloch separatists. In Balochistan, the province with the highest number of users and where over half of Pakistan’s heroin seizures occur, violence is a regular occurrence. Balochis accuse authorities of using drug lords to kidnap and murder separatists; Pakistani security forces deny any connection to drug smugglers.

The stakes are high. Pakistan cannot afford to be unresponsive as the narco-terror nexus deepens. It cannot overlook its drug criminals despite the many connections they may have to the government. It would only lose the credibility it has built to counter narcotics and facilitate not only regional but also international cooperation against narco-terrorism. As drug production is increasing, drug addiction and narcotics-funded terrorism pose serious threats that are deteriorating society. And before it is too late, the government must take steps to not only reveal the link between these two deadly threats but prosecute drug criminals and end their own underlying corruption.

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