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Analysis: Washington’s War on Opium

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US airstrikes have returned to Afghanistan with renewed vigour in the past few months, but their targets have switched, from insurgent bases to opiate storage and processing facilities. At least 11 airstrikes have been conducted between the 3rd and 4th of April alone in the Western Afghan provinces of Farah and Nimroz. The total number of airstrikes within the first two months of 2018 has tripled when compared to 2017.

This is not, however, a simple return to a hard-line counter-narcotics approach. These airstrikes are destroying these facilities and those caught within, effectively killing local Afghans for alleged drug offences. Attempts by the Bush administration to authorize such strikes in 2008 had faced considerable opposition from NATO allies. The current US administration has clearly shifted its priorities.

Such escalation ignores the historical and recent background of the opium trade. The rise of Afghanistan as the world’s primary producer of opium, sometimes accounting for 90% of the global total, has roots on other failed drug wars. Specifically, on those of the 1970s and 1980s that led to increases in drug production along with a spread of production centres.

The official NATO line justifies such strikes as a “counter-revenue campaign”, aimed at separating Afghanistan’s main insurgency group, the Taliban, from its alleged main source of revenue. Current estimates by US forces in Afghanistan for opium based revenue for the Taliban are of roughly $200 million annually. New guidelines that allow military strikes to consider any person alleged to be involved in the provision of revenue to terrorists also results in US claims that none of these incidents have resulted in civilian casualties.

Such framing of the local context is problematic. Many of these facilities may simply be opium storage facilities rather than heroin processing labs. Even those labs, however, are likely to have considerable levels of locals participating in the process. While there is a reasonable argument to be made towards connections between such facilities and criminal networks, the link between such facilities and the larger insurgency movement is tenuous.

Even if every single one of these facilities are indeed heroin processing labs, Afghan opium expert David Mansfield insightfully summarizes the issues with relying on airstrikes. These labs can only have a negligible role on Taliban revenues, with US revenue estimates often grouping disparate criminal and insurgent networks. Opium market profits and revenues at the local level are also much lower than after value is added by other criminal smuggling networks which are unlikely to be affected by these airstrikes at all.

If one does accept the argument that such facilities have a non-negligible role in funding Taliban activities, one must wonder about the overall impact of the resulting death toll. Late 2017 saw 44 “drug smugglers” being killed as part of a concerted effort to target such facilities in Helmand province alone. Inflicting casualties on locals, particularly income-earning members of rural families, is likely to severely undercut any counterinsurgency efforts in that area. Such an approach becomes even harder to justify when alternative hard-line but less indiscriminate options are available. A raid in the Marja district in Helmand on the 14th of April 2018 exemplifies such options, where over 9 tons of opium poppy and 1.25 tons of heroin were seized. While such alternatives are considerably riskier for counterinsurgents to conduct, they keep local casualties to a minimum.

The fact is that there are no easy solutions to the currently vast opium market in Afghanistan. Typical suggested solutions are an amalgamation of economic development and agricultural revitalization. Unfortunately, programs meant to improve local agricultural production, such as improved irrigation networks and market access roads, often feed into increased opium production levels. Such solutions ignore the problematic approach at the core of counterinsurgency failures in Afghanistan, an insistence on treating problems in isolation of one another. The agricultural market, the opium trade, the insurgency are deeply interconnected dimensions of the country. In order to undertake successful state-building, policies meant to address any individual issue need to take these other ones into account. Otherwise, addressing them in isolation or simply failing to strike a balance in responding to them can be worse than useless, it can be actively counterproductive.

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Australian police arrest Malaysian flight attendants accused of helping drugs gang smuggle heroin and crystal meth

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Australian police arrest Malaysian flight attendants

Two flight attendants working for Malaysian airline Malindo Air were among eight people arrested by police in Australia over the past two weeks during an investigation into an organised crime network suspected to be behind the importation of heroin and methamphetamine worth an estimated A$20 million ($14.35 million) into the country.

The two cabin crew members are suspected of having links to a Melbourne-based Vietnamese gang involved in the importation of high-purity heroin and methamphetamine into Australia from Malaysia.

In a series of raids on a number of properties in Melbourne that resulted in the arrest of the suspects, investigators from a coalition of Australian law enforcement agencies seized 6kgs of high-grade heroin with an estimated street value of A$14.5 million, and 8kgs of methamphetamine with a street value of $6.4 million.

Police also confiscated 0.5kgs of cocaine, assorted drug paraphernalia, a large quantity of cash, and a number of cars, including a Porsche Macan.

Six of the suspects were remanded into custody after appearing before Melbourne Magistrates Court, where they were charged with a multiple offences including importing a marketable quantity of border controlled drugs, and dealing with the proceeds of crime.

Malindo Air, a subsidiary of Indonesia’s Lion Air, said it had suspended one of the cabin crew members with immediate effect pending termination.

In a statement, the company said: “Malindo Air stands ready to co-operate with all the relevant authorities be it in Australia or in Malaysia in this regard…

“As a responsible international air carrier, Malindo Air does not condone any act that is criminal in nature or misconduct by our personnel.”

Congratulating the officers who took part in the operation, Victoria Police Crime Command Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh said its success sent a strong message that Australian law enforcement agencies remain focused on disrupting major drug trafficking conspiracies.

“This was a well organised syndicate we know had operated across Australia undetected for many years,” she said.

“To be in a position to make these arrests and dismantle this group is a significant win for both police and the Victorian community.

“The amount of heroin alone involved in this investigation amounts to almost fifty thousand hits in real terms.

“We know the harm that drugs bring – not just the physical and health impacts on users, but the negative flow on effects to the broader community such as property crime, assaults and drug driving.”

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Trudeau slams death sentence for Canadian man convicted of smuggling methamphetamine in China

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sentencing to death of Canadian man

A Canadian national has been sentenced to death in China after being convicted of plotting to smuggle a large quantity of methamphetamine out of the country.

In a development that has led to a further souring of relations between the two countries, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg on Monday fell afoul of China’s super-strict drugs laws when an appeal court ruled that his original 15-year jail sentence had been too lenient, and that he must now be put to death.

The Canadian national, who is thought to be aged 36, was arrested in 2014 on suspicion of plotting to smuggle nearly 227kgs of methamphetamine from China to Australia.

Prosecutors argued that Schellenberg and an accomplice bought tyres to use to repackage the drugs before shipping them out of the country in containers.

Schellenberg’s new sentence comes after Ottawa and Beijing came to blows when Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, at the beginning of December.

Meng is currently fighting extradition to the US in relation to allegations that she violated sanctions on Iran.

Following her detention, Canadian nationals Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China on suspicion of endangering national security, prompting concerns that Beijing might be using its legal system to bargain for Meng’s release.

Commenting on the new sentence handed down to Schellenberg, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all countries should be concerned about the manner in which China is behaving, adding: “It is of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies, that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply the death penalty, as in this case facing a Canadian.”

Schellenberg now has 10 days in which to appeal his sentence.

Reports relating to his case started to appear in Chinese media following Meng’s arrest, leading to his original sentence being upgraded on the grounds that it was not severe enough.

While the court said the new sentence could not be commuted, commentators have suggested that Schellenberg will now be used as bargaining chip as the Chinese government negotiates to secure Meng’s freedom.

In a travel warning issued in response to the appeal court’s decision, the Canadian foreign ministry cautioned its citizens in China over “the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

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British jail inmates smoking dressing gowns soaked in synthetic cannabinoid Spice, prison chief warns

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dressing gowns soaked in synthetic cannabinoid Spice

Prisoners in UK jails are smoking dressing gowns soaked in synthetic cannabinoid Spice, the Governor of HMP Leeds has told the BBC.

Speaking with Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Steve Robson said visitors had been passing prisoners items of clothing impregnated with substances such as Spice, which inmates then cut up into sections to be smoked.

Robson said one dressing gown that was being passed around convicts was found to have been soaked in new psychoactive substances after it was seized by prison officers.

He added that all clothing provided by visitors is now swabbed before being handed to inmates, and that officers examine what new prisoners are wearing when they arrive at the jail.

Inmates in UK prions have for some time now been coming up with ever more ingenuous ways of getting drugs such as Spice behind bars, where they can fetch as many as ten times their street value.

British prison authorities have discovered letters and books that have been soaked in new psychoactive substances sent to inmates, and dead birds with Spice sewed into their bodies thrown over jail walls.

Demand for Spice has now become so high among inmates that a tiny square inch of paper soaked in the drug can now be sold for £100 behind bars, when a similar amount of money used to secure a whole A4 sheet impregnated with the substance.

So much money can now be made from the trade in drugs and other illicit items in British jails that organised crime gangs are thought to be encouraging their associates to secure prison service jobs in order to smuggle contraband behind bars.

Speaking separately with the BBC last week, a senior British police officer said he has “strong suspicions” that organised criminal gang members are securing jobs in UK prisons.

Assistant Chief Constable Jason Hogg said he fears gangs are persuading their associates or family members to find work in the country’s jails.

“There are some examples of staff, very soon after they work in that prison estate, whether it’s as a prison officer or a maintenance worker, if you like, they move towards supplying contraband,” he said.

Hogg spoke out as it was reported that a woman from Rotherham had been jailed for three years after she was caught smuggling drugs into HMP Doncaster.

April Paget, 31, admitted smuggling class A drugs into the jail.

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