The Opiate Express: Pakistan’s Drug Trafficking Threat to Global Security

by Parminder Singh Sodhi

In a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, Pakistan’s role as a central hub for drug trafficking and the promotion of terror is becoming increasingly pronounced. Over the years, this South Asian country has solidified its dubious position as the principal transit nation for illegal drugs originating from the opium-rich provinces of Helmand and Kandahar in Afghanistan. As it shares the longest border with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s strategic location facilitates the smooth transport of narcotics from the Durand Line to its ports and other land and maritime borders. From here, these illicit substances infiltrate markets in Asia, the Persian Gulf, Africa, and across Europe.

According to estimates from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), more than 45% of Afghanistan’s illicit narcotics traffic is through Pakistan. This firmly establishes Pakistan as the critical transit point for the Afghan opiates along the infamous ‘southern route.’

In recent times, networks operating between Pakistan and Europe have gained dominance, intensifying the drug crisis in countries like the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Data shows that a staggering 84% of seizures involving 10 kg or more of heroin at the United Kingdom borders are trafficked from Pakistan. Countries traditionally served by the Balkan route, such as Spain and Italy, have also identified Pakistan as a significant source of opiates in transit from Afghanistan.

The Italian National anti-drug service DCSA has identified a surge in the number of heroin seizures in Southern Europe linked to the ‘southern route.’ This network starts from Karachi, Pakistan, and reaches Western markets via the eastern part of the African continent. Heroin traffic through this route has been intercepted in East and Central Europe, showing an urgent need to monitor this issue closely.

Despite the Taliban’s announcement to ban all drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan, Afghan farmers reported an increase in opium cultivation for 2021. This is expected to result in a further rise in heroin trafficking in Pakistan. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no decrease in heroin seizures in Pakistan, indicating an uninterrupted flow of drug manufacturing and trafficking.

Evidence suggests collusion by Pakistani state authorities to deliberately turn a blind eye towards this transborder illicit activity. Furthermore, it is widely known that militant organizations and criminal gangs like the Lyari gangs in Karachi are openly engaged in the heroin trade.

Pakistan is also a major source, destination, and transit country for cannabis. Its consumption is widespread within the country, with Karachi believed to hold the second-highest rate of cannabis consumption worldwide. Pakistan’s cannabis is often directed towards local markets in East Europe and the Middle East.

Adding to this narcotic catastrophe is the rising popularity of synthetic drugs among the younger generations in Pakistan. Recent developments have shown a significant increase in the transit of methamphetamine through Pakistan, mainly along traditional heroin routes dominated by Pakistani drug trafficking syndicates.

In a historical testament to this troubling nexus of drugs and terror, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif alleged that he was approached by high-ranking military officials to authorize large-scale drug deals to fund covert military operations. Following the outbreak of the Afghan jihad in 1979, mujahideen groups were encouraged to finance their activities through heroin trafficking. Large landowners and drug cartels cooperated with the mujahideen to ensure the smooth transport of the opium crop to Karachi port.

Lawrence Lifschultz, in his investigative account, ‘Pakistan: The Empire of Heroin,’ wrote, ‘By 1984, Pakistan was furnishing 70 percent of the world supply of high-grade heroin.’ This scenario remains largely unchanged, making Pakistan a significant threat to global security.

Pakistan, having evolved into a narco-state, collaborates with terrorist and extremist groups to achieve its objectives, posing a significant threat to the security of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

Pakistan’s dangerous exploits do not stop at international trafficking; it also actively targets its immediate neighbor, India, specifically the northern state of Punjab. Over the years, Punjab has become a significant destination for drugs, mainly heroin, being trafficked from Pakistan. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, has played a central role in this narcotics supply chain, aiming to destabilize Indian youth and sow social discord. This strategy has far-reaching implications, given Punjab’s proximity to Pakistan and its history of separatist movements.

The trafficking methodology has evolved over time, adapting to border security measures. Recent reports suggest that the ISI has begun using drones for drug delivery across the border into India. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are typically launched from Pakistani territory during the night, exploiting the minimal visibility to drop drug consignments at pre-designated locations on the Indian side. The utilization of drone technology presents a unique challenge for Indian security forces as it avoids conventional border crossings and bypasses ground-based security infrastructure.

The motive behind Pakistan’s persistent attempts to infiltrate drugs into Punjab is two-fold. Firstly, it provides a considerable source of income that helps fund terror activities, including support for separatist movements within India. Secondly, and more insidiously, the rampant drug abuse induced by this narcotics influx aims to destabilize Punjab’s youth, crippling a substantial segment of India’s future generation.

Punjab’s struggle with drug addiction is well-documented, and the constant flow of narcotics from across the border has only exacerbated the situation. The social and economic implications are far-reaching, with many families torn apart by addiction, and the local economy suffering due to the loss of a productive workforce.

Pakistan’s direct and indirect role in perpetuating this crisis underlines its ongoing policy of using state-sponsored terrorism and narco-terrorism as tools of geopolitical strategy. In this context, the fight against drugs in India is not just a health and social issue but a matter of national security and sovereignty.

Parminder Singh Sodhi

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