AFGHANISTAN — The COVID-19 pandemic has been a death knell to so many industries in Afghanistan. Charities and aid agencies have even warned that the economic dislocation could spark widespread famine. But one sector is still booming: the illicit opium trade. Last year saw Afghan opium poppy cultivation grow by over a third while counter-narcotics operations dropped off a cliff.
The country is said to be the source of over 90% of all the world’s illicit opium, from which heroin and other opioids are made. More land is under cultivation for opium in Afghanistan than is used for coca production across all of Latin America, with the creation of the drug said to directly employ around half a million people.
This is a far cry from the 1970s, when poppy production was minimal, and largely for domestic consumption. But this changed in 1979 when the CIA launched Operation Cyclone, the widespread funding of Afghan Mujahideen militias in an attempt to bleed dry the then-recent Soviet invasion. Over the next decade, the CIA worked closely with its Pakistani counterpart, the ISI, to funnel $2 billion worth of arms and assistance to these groups, including the now infamous Osama Bin Laden and other warlords known for such atrocities as throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women.
“From statements by U.S. Ambassador [to Iran] Richard Helms, there was little heroin production in Central Asia by the mid 1970s,” Professor Alfred McCoy, author of “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade,” told MintPress. But with the start of the CIA secret war, opium production along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border surged and refineries soon dotted the landscape. Trucks loaded with U.S. taxpayer-funded weapons would travel from Pakistan into its neighbor to the west, returning filled to the brim with opium for the new refineries, their deadly product ending up on streets worldwide. With the influx of Afghan opium in the 1980s — Jeffrey St. Clair, co-author of “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press,” alleges — heroin addiction more than doubled in the United States.
“In order to finance the resistance for a protracted period, the Mujahideen had to come up with a livelihood beyond the weapons that the CIA was providing,” McCoy said, noting that the weapons issued could not feed the fighters’ families, nor reimburse them for lost labor:
So what the resistance fighters did was they turned to opium. Afghanistan had about 100 tons of opium produced every year in the 1970s. By 1989-1990, at the end of that 10-year CIA operation, that minimal amount of opium — 100 tons per annum — had turned into a major amount, 2,000 tons a year, and was already about 75% of the world’s illicit opium trade.”
The CIA achieved its goal of giving the U.S.S.R. its Vietnam, the Soviets failing to quash the Mujahideen rebellion by the time they finally pulled out in 1989. But American money and weapons also turned Afghanistan into a dangerously unstable place full of warring factions that used opium to fund their battles for internal supremacy. By 1999, annual production had risen to 4,600 tons. The Taliban eventually emerged as the dominant force in the country and attempted to gain international legitimacy by stamping out the trade.
In this, they were remarkably successful. A 2000 ban on opium cultivation by the Taliban-led government led to an almost overnight drop to just 185 tons harvested the following year, as frightened farmers chose not to risk attracting their wrath.
The Taliban had hoped that the eradication program would win favor in Washington and entice the United States to provide humanitarian aid. But unfortunately, history had other ideas. On September 11, 2001, the U.S. experienced a massive case of blowback, as Bin Laden’s forces launched attacks on New York and Washington. The U.S. ignored the Taliban’s offer to hand him over to a third party, instead opting to invade the country. Less than a month after the planes hit the World Trade Center, U.S. troops were patrolling the fields of Afghanistan.
The world’s first true narco-state
The effect of the occupation was to expand drug production to unprecedented new proportions, Afghanistan becoming, in Professor McCoy’s estimation, the world’s first true narco-state. McCoy notes that by 2008, opium was responsible for well over half of the country’s gross domestic product. By comparison, even in Colombia’s darkest days, cocaine accounted for only 3% of its GDP.
Today, the United Nations estimates that around 6,300 tons of opium (and rising) is produced yearly, with 224,000 hectares — an area almost the size of Rhode Island — planted with poppy fields.
But even while it was financing a widespread and deadly aerial spraying campaign in Colombia, the United States refused to countenance the same policy in Afghanistan. “We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income of people who live in the second poorest country in the world without being able to provide them with an alternative,” said NATO spokesman James Appathurai.
Not everyone agreed, however, that a passionate commitment to defending the quality of life of the poorest was the actual reason for rejecting the policy. Matthew Hoh, a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps is one skeptic. Hoh told MintPress that airborne fumigation was not carried out because it would be outside the control of Afghan government officials, who were deeply implicated in the drug trade, owning poppy fields and production plants themselves. “They were afraid that, if they went to aerial eradication, the U.S. pilots would just eradicate willy nilly and a lot of their own poppy fields would be hit.” In 2009, Hoh resigned in protest from his position at the State Department in Zabul Province over the government’s continued occupation of Afghanistan. He told MintPress:
NATO forces were more or less guarding poppy fields and poppy production, under the guise of counterinsurgency. The logic was ‘we don’t want to take away the livelihoods of the people.’ But really, what we were doing at that point was protecting the wealth of our friends in power in Afghanistan. “
According to Hoh, there was widespread disillusionment within the military among service members who had to risk their lives on a day to day basis. “What are we doing here? This is bullshit,” was a common sentiment among the rank and file.
U.S. attempts to stymie the opium trade, such as the policy of paying domestic militias to destroy poppy fields, often backfired. Locals came up with ways of profiting, such as refraining from planting in one area, collecting large sums of money from occupying forces, and using that cash to plant elsewhere — effectively getting paid both to plant and not to plant. Even worse, local warlords and drug bosses would destroy their rivals’ crops and collect money from the U.S. for doing so, leaving themselves both enriched and in a stronger position than before, having gained NATO forces’ favor.
One notable example of this is local strongman Gul Agha Sherzai, who eradicated his competitors’ crops in Nangarhar Province (while quietly leaving his own in Kandahar Province untouched). But all the U.S. saw was a local politician seemingly committed to stamping out an illegal drug trade. They therefore showered him with money and other privileges. “We literally gave the guy $10 million in cash for rubbing out his competition,” Hoh said. “If you were going to write a movie about this, they’d say ‘This is too far fetched. No one is going to believe this. Nothing is this insane or stupid.’ But that is the way it is.”
McCoy noted that the Taliban was one of the prime beneficiaries of the drug trade, and used it to increase their power and vanquish the U.S.:
That booming opium production, and the U.S. failure to curb it, provided the bulk of the financing for Taliban, who captured a significant but unknown share of the local profits from the drug traffic, which they used to fund guerrilla operations over the past 20 years, becoming a determinative factor in the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan.”
‘The needle and the damage done’
It is not particularly difficult to grow opium. Opium poppies flourish in warm and dry conditions, away from the damp and the wind. Consequently, they have found a fertile home across much of central and western Asia. The plant has flourished in Afghanistan, particularly in southern provinces like Helmand, close to the tripoint where Afghanistan meets Pakistan and Iran. Much of the irrigation system in Helmand was underwritten by USAID, an organization that acts as the CIA’s public-facing front. In full bloom, the poppy fields look spectacular, with beautiful flowers of vibrant pink, red or white. Underneath the flowers, one can find a large seed pod. Farmers harvest these, draining them of a sap which dries into a resin. This is often transported out of the country through the so-called “Southern Route” via Pakistan or Iran. But, as with any pipeline, much of the product is spilled along the way, causing an epidemic of addiction across the region.
The effect on the Afghan population has been nothing short of a disaster. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of adult drug users jumped from 900,000 to 2.4 million, according to the United Nations, which estimates that almost one in three households are directly affected by addiction. While Afghanistan also produces copious amounts of marijuana and methamphetamine, opioids are the drug of choice for most, with around 9% of the adult population (and a growing number of children) addicted to them. Added to this has been a spike in HIV cases, as users share needles, Professor Julien Mercille, author of “Cruel Harvest: U.S. Intervention in the Afghan Drug Trade,” told MintPress.
Only contributing further to the despair has been 20 years of war and U.S. occupation. The number of Afghans living in poverty rose from 9.1 million in 2007 to 19.3 million in 2016. A recent poll conducted by Gallup found that Afghans are the saddest people on Earth, with nearly nine in ten respondents “suffering” and zero percent of the population “thriving,” in their own words. When asked to rate their lives out of a score of ten, Afghans gave an average answer of 2.7, a record low for any country studied. Worse still, when asked to predict the quality of their life in five years, the mean answer was even lower: 2.3.
The effects of the CIA operation to bleed the Soviets dry in Afghanistan have also produced a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Pakistan. As McCoy noted, in the late 1970s, Pakistan had barely any heroin addicts. But by 1985, Pakistani government statistics reported over 1.2 million, turning the two nations into “the global epicenter of the drugs trade” almost overnight.
The problem has only grown since. A 2013 U.N. report estimated that almost 7 million Pakistanis use drugs, with 4.25 million requiring urgent treatment for dependency issues. Nearly 2.5 million of these people were abusing heroin or other opioids. Around 700 people die every day from overdoses. The highest rate of dependency is, unsurprisingly, in provinces on the Afghan border where heroin is manufactured. The same U.N. study notes that 11% of people in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa use illicit substances — primarily heroin.
The drug crisis, of course, is also a medical crisis, with overstretched public hospitals filled with drugs-related maladies. The social stigma of addiction has ripped families apart while the money and power illicit drugs have brought has turned many towns into hotspots of violence.
Iran has a similar number of opioid users, generally estimated at between two and three million. In towns close to the Afghan/Pakistani border, a gram of opium can be bought with loose change — between a quarter and fifty cents. Thus, despite the extremely harsh penalties for drug possession and distribution on the official books, the country has the highest addiction rate in the world
On a micro level, addiction tears apart families and ruins lives. On an international scale, however, the opium boom has placed an entire region under significant strain. Therefore, one consequence of U.S. policy in the Middle East — from supporting jihadists to occupying nations — has been to unleash a worldwide opium addiction that has made a few people fantastically wealthy and destroyed the lives of tens of millions.
The boom in production has also led to a worldwide disaster. In the past decade, opioid-related deaths increased by 71% globally, according to the United Nations. Much of the product grown by Afghan warlords ends up on Western streets. “I don’t see how it can be a coincidence that you have that explosive growth in poppy production in Afghanistan and then you have the worldwide opioid epidemic,” Hoh stated, a connection that raises the question of whether users in Berlin, Boston, or Brazil should be seen as victims of the war in Afghanistan as much as fallen soldiers are. If so, the numbers would be staggering. Nearly 841,000 Americans have died of a drug overdose since the war in Afghanistan began, including more than 70,000 in 2019 alone. The majority of these have involved opioids.
Officially, the DEA claims that essentially all illicit opioids entering the U.S. are grown in Latin America. Hoh, however, finds this unconvincing. “When you look at their own information and their reports on the illicit opioid production hectarage in Mexico and South America, it is clear that there is not enough production in the Western hemisphere to meet the demand for illicit opiates in the U.S.,” he told MintPress.
A dirty history
The U.S. government has a long history of directly involving itself with the worldwide narcotics trade. In Colombia, it worked with President Alvaro Uribe on a nationwide drug war, even as internal U.S. documents identified Uribe as one of the nation’s most important drug traffickers, an employee of the infamous Medellin Cartel and a “close personal friend” of drugs kingpin Pablo Escobar. Profits from drug-running funded Uribe’s election runs in 2002 and 2006.
General Manuel Noriega was also a key ally of the U.S. For many years, the Panamanian was on the CIA payroll — despite Washington knowing he was involved in drug trafficking since at least 1972. When he became de facto dictator of Panama in 1984, little changed. But the director of the Drug Enforcement Agency initially praised him for his “vigorous anti-drug trafficking policy.” Eventually, however, the U.S. decided to invade the country and capture Noriega, sentencing him to 40 years in federal prison for drug crimes largely committed while he was still in the CIA’s pay.
At the same time as this was going on, investigative journalist Gary Webb exposed how the CIA helped fund its dirty war against Nicaragua’s leftist government through sales of crack cocaine to black neighborhoods across the United States, linking far-right paramilitary armies with U.S. drug kingpins like Rick Ross.
Using the illegal drug trade and the profits from it to fund imperial objectives has been a constant of great empires going back centuries. For instance, in the 1940s and 1950s, the French Empire utilized opium crops in the so-called “Golden Triangle” region of Indochina in order to help beat back a growing Vietnamese independence movement. Going further back, the British used its opium machine to subdue and economically conquer much of China. Britain’s insatiable thirst for Chinese tea was beginning to bankrupt the country, as the Chinese would accept only gold or silver as payment. It therefore used the power of its navy to force China to cede Hong Kong, from which Britain began flooding China with opium it grew in its possessions in South Asia.
The humanitarian impact of the Opium War was staggering. By 1880, the British were inundating China with over 6,500 tons of opium every year — equivalent to many billions of doses, causing massive social and economic dislocation as China struggled to cope with a crippling, empire-wide addiction. Today, many Chinese still refer to the era as “the century of humiliation.” In India and Pakistan, too, the effect was no less dramatic, as colonists forced farmers into planting inedible poppy fields (and, later, tea) rather than subsistence crops, causing waves of huge famines, the frequency of which had never been seen before.
Millions of losers
The story is much more nuanced than some “CIA controls the world’s drugs” conspiracy theories make out. There are no U.S. soldiers loading up Afghan carts with opium. However, many commanders are knowingly enabling warlords who do. “The U.S. military and CIA bear a large responsibility for the opium production boom in Afghanistan,” Professor Mercille said, explaining:
Post-9/11, they basically allied themselves with a lot of Afghan strongmen and warlords who happened to be involved in some way in drug production and trafficking. Those individuals were acting as local allies for the U.S. and NATO, and therefore were largely protected from retribution or arrest for drug trafficking because they were U.S. allies.”
From the ground, the war in Afghanistan has looked a lot like the war on drugs in Latin America and previous colonial campaigns in Asia, with a rapid militarization of the area and the empowerment of pliant local elites, which immediately begin to embezzle the massive profits that quietly disappear into black holes. All the while, millions of people pay the price, suffering inside a militarized death zone and turning to drugs as a coping mechanism. In the story of the opium boom, there are few winners, but there are millions of losers.
Feature photo | Graphic by Antonio Cabrera