Coalition navy ships patrolling the Arabian Sea are best known for their antipiracy operations, but they also have a quieter mission: intercepting hundreds of tonnes of drugs being smuggled on the notorious "hash highway" from Afghanistan.
In the biggest drug haul of the year so far and one of the largest-ever single seizures in the region, a British ship in Combined Task Force 150 discovered 12.4 tonnes of cannabis resin aboard a boat off the coast of Oman this month. The large bundles of narcotics were sufficient to make 35 million marijuana cigarettes, the British Ministry of Defence said in a statement on Monday. "We're well trained for this kind of operation, but you don't expect to find this quantity," said Petty Officer Jan Dash, a member of the boarding team from HMS Cumberland, the Royal Navy frigate that launched the operation. The 12-tonne haul "looked like bags of potatoes piled up when we got it on deck".
The Cumberland tracked the boat overnight and dispatched a boarding party at dawn to check its papers and investigate its intent. The vessel was subsequently searched and the drug cargo discovered in a hidden compartment. The boat was intercepted on what the Royal Navy has dubbed the "hash highway", a route used to export drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan to international markets. The Arabian Peninsula's strategic position between Europe and Asia has made it an important trading hub for centuries, but smugglers also take advantage of the region's position, using its seas to traffic contraband.
Though it is well-known for its world-leading production of opium, Afghanistan is also one of the world's largest producers of hashish, which is smuggled into Pakistan and loaded on to boats destined for international markets. The UN World Drug Report 2009 estimates that in 2005-2007, Afghanistan produced nine per cent of the world's cannabis resin, ranking second to Morocco (21 per cent of world output).
Officials would not comment on the intended destination of this month's Dh257 million (US$70m) worth of drugs, but, according to Thomas Pietschmann, a researcher with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghan cannabis resin that is shipped by sea from Pakistan is most likely to be destined for Middle Eastern and North African countries, the drug's main markets. "Afghanistan exports large amounts [of cannabis resin] to neighbouring Pakistan as well as Iran and Central Asia," he said. "From Pakistan onwards, there have been for years reports that this is transported from Karachi by sea onwards to other markets, and one of the destinations is the United Arab Emirates," Mr Pietschmann said. "The bulk of the cannabis of Afghanistan is being sold in the region; it doesn't arrive in Europe or the West."
The multinational task force, which was set up to prevent smuggling and deter "destabilising activities," helps to foil drug trafficking "throughout the entire region", according to US Navy Lt Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), based in Bahrain. The task force patrols seas in and around the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The drugs seized by the Cumberland might have helped to fund the insurgency in Afghanistan as well as contribute to instability in the region, according to officials. "The seizure of these drugs takes money out of the hands of those financing terrorists in the region," said US Navy Vice Adml Bill Gortney, commander of the US Fifth Fleet and the CMF. "The smugglers need to know that coalition forces are patrolling the seas and skies above. These efforts send a message to all would-be smugglers that we are here and we won't tolerate drug trafficking in international waters."
While land-based customs officials play their part in the fight against drug smuggling, seizures at sea tend to be much larger. In November, a CMF ship seized more than 20 tonnes of cannabis, the most commonly smuggled drug in the region, although opiates and other drugs are also often found. To avoid alerting smugglers about where their consignments are being intercepted, the coalition generally does not announce its drug seizures, but counter-narcotics operations are one of the main missions of the ships that patrol the region, according to Lt Christensen.
Last year, coalition vessels seized a total of 53 tonnes of drugs, mostly cannabis, in the seas around the Gulf. According to Mr Pietschmann, the UN drug researcher, while production in Morocco has declined since 2004, after the government tightened controls, Afghanistan is the only country in which hashish production is increasing. "Some of the provinces of Afghanistan which stopped producing opium went on to produce cannabis," he said. "All the pressure in Afghanistan was to reduce opium production, and if a province [becomes] opium-poppy-free, they get all kinds of funding. An easy way out is to tell the farmers to stop producing opium and then governors turn a blind eye to cannabis production."
The UN estimates that up to 70,000 hectares of land is used for cannabis production in Afghanistan, compared with 80,000 in Morocco. The numbers for Afghanistan are "very tentative", however, because an official survey has not been completed. firstname.lastname@example.org