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From Poppies to Fentanyl Lollipops: The War on Drugs in Afghanistan


In the twenty-first century, Afghanistan remains a country of astonishing contradictions –still saturated with antediluvian notions. It is one of the most undeveloped, technologically backward countries in the world despite billions of dollars poured into the economy from foreign governments. The majority of Afghans turn on a radio to get information. In a country where 90 percent of women and 60 percent of men in rural areas are illiterate, radio is a necessity.[1]

Communication technologies are concentrated in small, urban areas. A study by the Asia Foundation estimates 88 percent of urban households have TVs while only 28 percent of rural residents do.[2] The digital divide in Afghanistan is a chasm; only 9 percent of the population owns a computer and most of those are in the capital, Kabul. In the Hazarajat region there are no computer owners.[3] It’s no wonder, computers need electricity. The lack of a national power grid ensures that nine out of 10 Afghans have no reliable access to electricity.[4] Diesel generators and kerosene lamps are ubiquitous. Satellite video taken at night reveal a country plunged into medieval darkness.  

Extreme poverty — most Afghans live on less than two dollars a day — condemns millions to a premature death. The average life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44 years of age.[5]  Unemployment is endemic in most parts of the country. All the missionary zeal of the well-funded, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have clogged Kabul’s most secure and satellite enabled neighborhoods, ostensibly to “help” Afghans, haven’t made a dent in the numbers of suffering. 

But in one economic area Afghanistan excels: the cultivation of opium. Opium is derived from the poppy plant Papaver Somniferum. Afghanistan is the world’s number one grower and exporter of opium supplying 93 percent of the drug to Central Asian and European markets.[6] It’s a position the country has held for an almost uninterrupted decade. Opium farmers are highly skilled experts at planting, growing, and harvesting poppy in difficult conditions, often on land where there is little irrigation and with no fertilizer or pesticides. It is organic farming out of necessity. Afghan farmers successfully grew poppy during a seven year drought. About 789,000 workers, men, women, and children are responsible for growing and harvesting poppy on just 3 percent of the land.[7] Harvesting is low-tech and employs two simple tools: a neshtar (lancing stick) and a rambey (scoop). The productivity of poor Afghan opium farmers is a stunning agricultural achievement. It is even more incredible based on these three facts: the government has declared the cultivation of opium illegal; according to the Qur’an it’s haram (forbidden); and for ten years the country has been under continuous aerial bombardment, ground assault, and occupation by the United States military and NATO forces committed to poppy eradication.  As a result, the market in opium is violent and operates within an economy and country suffused with violence.

This is the backdrop to the war on drugs in Afghanistan. Two wars are being fought simultaneously: the war on terror which is an imperialist war, and a war on drugs, an assault on poor Afghan farmers and their families struggling to survive in a shattered economy. In a post 9/11 world, terror and drugs have become conflated. Afghanistan’s designation as a narco-state has become a potent justification for the United States to ramp up its military operations. The linking of terrorists, always the Taliban, with trafficking in heroin and using the profits to fund the insurgency, allows all manner of violence to be legitimized. There is a tried and true taxonomy in the war on drugs: mendacity, hypocrisy, corruption, violence, massive profits for the few, and immunity from prosecution for the kingpins and government officials at the top of the illicit drug chain.



Past is Prologue/Push Down Pop Up

Afghanistan didn’t always lead the world in poppy production?other countries have had that distinction. China grew opium for centuries and in the 19th century it was the main producer, exporter, and a large consumer of opium. Smoking opium, the preferred way to use the drug in China, is an offshoot of tobacco smoking. Millions of Chinese were recreational opium smokers. Addiction to the drug was the exception. After WWII, the Chinese government launched a massive and violent opium suppression campaign. The government arrested more than 80,000 drug traffickers, sent 30,000 to prison, held public trials, and executed hundreds.[8]  There was an immediate decline in opium use due to the crackdown, but since 1986 the number of narcotics users, in particular intravenous heroin users, has increased.[9]

The Chinese have extensive networks in the thriving opiate trade in Myanmar. From the 1960s onward, the country has been a prolific cultivator of poppy.  During the 1990s it was the world’s biggest producer, but now ranks second to Afghanistan in market share.[10] The crop is grown almost exclusively in the northeast province of the Shan State and in the Wa Special Region 2. Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos make up the so-called “Golden Triangle” but poppy cultivation has declined dramatically in the latter two countries. In 2005, the government banned opium cultivation in the Shan State and used the military to enforce the ban. Prisons filled up with inmates shackled in leg irons, forbidden to move from the lotus position, warehoused in wooden cages, and given prison sentences of up to ten years.[11] The ban failed. Production in the northern part of the Shan State simply shifted to areas in the south, known as the “balloon effect.”  Since 2006, opium cultivation has increased each year in Myanmar and more than 1 million people depend on the crop for their livelihood.[12]

India, Pakistan and Iran form the “Golden Crescent.”Each country has deep roots in the opium trade both legal and illegal. India is the largest supplier of licit opium gum to the world’s pharmaceutical industry. Farmers are licensed to grow opium in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Illicit poppy is grown in the far northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh which shares a border with Myanmar. Researchers estimate that over 30 percent of India’s legally grown opium is diverted into the illegal market, converted into heroin, and sold on the black market.[13]

During the 1980s, Pakistan was a major opium cultivator and central hub for heroin manufacturing labs. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked closely with President General Zia-ul-Haq, and funded the Pakistani military and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) despite their involvement in the drug trade. Economists estimated the annual revenue from Pakistan’s heroin industry at $8 to $10 billion.[14]    

Opium trafficking is concentrated in three areas that border Afghanistan: the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), and Baluchistan.[15] Two Pashtun tribes, the Shinwari in Afghanistan and the Afridi in Pakistan are central actors in the cross border opium trade. The tribes have fought attempts to eradicate their livelihood. One farmer warned, “The government cannot stop us growing poppy. We are one force and united, and if they come with their planes we will shoot them down.”[16] In the 1990s, Pakistan, under immense pressure from the United States, initiated a campaign to eliminate poppy production. The government used a series of carrots and sticks. The threat of prison and alternative development projects funded by the international community convinced most poppy farmers to either abandon farming completely or grow other crops.[17] The strategies were largely successful and in 2001, Pakistan was declared a “poppy-free” nation. It didn’t last. The tribal areas cultivate thousands of hectares of poppy and Pakistan continues to be one of the most important drug trafficking routes.[18]    

Iran has a history stretching back for centuries of growing opium and a deeply rooted culture of recreational opium use across economic classes. In Tehran in 1949 there were 500 public opium dens with a capacity for 25,000 smokers.[19] Opium dens functioned like bars without alcohol, which is prohibited in Iran, where people socialized and got high smoking opium. The Shah imposed a complete ban on opium in 1965 but in 1969 his government re-legalized opium and created a national maintenance program for users addicted to opium and heroin.[20] The Islamic Revolution in 1979 reversed the liberal drug policies of the 1960s and declared opium cultivation and narcotics use illegal. Initially, drug traffickers fought the Islamist government and killed 3,700 police officers.[21] Ayatollah Khomeini and subsequent ruling parties have enforced the ban with lengthy prison sentences and frequent use of the death penalty. Since the beginning of this year, 47 Iranians have been executed, (often hung in public) the majority for drug crimes.[22] Despite the brutal crackdown, Iran continues to be both a major consumer and smuggling route for the smuggling of opium and heroin from Afghanistan into Europe.    

Opium and its most lucrative derivative, heroin, are global commodities that cross all borders regardless of the fact that they’re illegal. The moment the cultivation and manufacture is outlawed in one country it simply crosses borders or jumps continents and sets up production in another. This is known as the push down/pop up effect. It is one of the immutable laws of commodity production under capitalism. As long as a market for a particular commodity exists, as it does for psychoactive substances like narcotics and cannabis, prohibition cannot succeed. Prohibition of poppy is like a broom, it sweeps the seeds out of one country and they take root in another. China cracks down on poppy, Thailand and Laos ramp up production. Thailand eradicates poppy, it migrates to Myanmar. Iran and Pakistan ban opium cultivation and in just a few years Afghanistan leads the world in opium cultivation. Decades of prohibition of poppy clearly haven’t worked, but that’s never stopped U.S. drug warriors or the United Nations Office of Drug Control and Crime (UNODC) from prosecuting an international drug war with the futile goal of creating a drug-free world.  



Opium, Invasion and the Mujahedeen

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 unleashed a “scorched earth” bombing campaign in rural areas that severely disrupted agricultural production. Millions of Afghans were internally displaced, fled to the cities, or refugee camps in border countries. Arable land, dams, aqueducts, and irrigation canals were blown up destroying the export economy. Prior to the invasion, Afghanistan had been self-sufficient in food production and had supplied an estimated 65 percent of the world trade in dried raisins.[23] Adding to the insecurity of farming, rural areas were embedded with millions of landmines making Afghanistan one of the most mined countries in the world. There are 10 million antipersonnel mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the ground and thousands are maimed and killed each year.[24]  The near total devastation of the rural economy of legal agricultural products by warfare acted as a vector for the illegal cultivation of opium. Poppy is one of the few plants that can grow in harsh conditions. It is relatively weather and drought resistant; it matures quickly, doesn’t rot or bruise, needs less water than other crops, and can be double cropped. Afghanistan lacks refrigeration, rapid transportation and paved roads, but opium is easily stored, transported, and conveniently sold at the farmgate. The labor intensive nature of opium planting and harvesting also provides employment for entire families in a country where rural unemployment is persistently high. Its survival farming and worth the risk for some farmers to grow opium because it’s the only commodity guaranteed an export market.  

The economic meltdown, from which Afghanistan has yet to recover, set the stage for several Mujahedeen leaders to become major players and purveyors in the poppy trade with the backing and blessing of the CIA. Afghans were pawns in the great game that was the Cold War so supplying arms and cash to drug trafficking mujahedeen “freedom fighters” was of no concern to Washington: the defeat of the Soviet army was. Opium production posed no serious dilemma for Islamic leaders, either, despite the teachings of the Qur’an which forbid it. In 1981, Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) sanctioning poppy cultivation and his brother Mohammed Rasul proclaimed, “We must grow and sell opium to fight our holy war against the Russian nonbelievers.”[25] The superprofits from poppy make believers and hypocrites out of everyone.

During the war against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, founder of the mainly Pashtun Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) became the leading recipient of covert U.S. aid from the CIA via Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and a major drug trafficker.[26] The warlord’s acid misogyny and extreme cruelty were legendary. Under the protection and patronage of the CIA, Hekmatyar was able to capture prime agricultural areas and dramatically boost poppy production in Southern Helmand Province. He coerced Afghan farmers to cultivate poppy, not other crops, and set high production quotas with threats of punishment if they weren’t met. Local commanders collected ushr, a traditional Islamic tax on agricultural products, anywhere from 2.5 to 20 percent. Hekmatyar then moved up the poppy chain into the more lucrative manufacturing of morphine into heroin. In a cross-border alliance with Pakistani heroin syndicates, he invested in and controlled at least six heroin refineries in Koh-i-Soltan in Pakistan.[27] By 1987, an estimated 100 to 200 heroin refineries were operating in the Khyber district of Pakistan’s NWFP territories.[28] Two years later, Hekmatyar instigated a turf war with Mullah Akhundzada to seize control of opium production in the northern Helmand Valley but was repelled. Akhundzada decided to get out of the drug business and cut a deal with Robert Oakley, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan at the time. For $2 million in ‘aid money’ to be paid to him personally, the Mullah agreed to curtail poppy cultivation. He kept his end of the bargain but Oakley reneged, invoking U.S. law against negotiating with drug dealers.[29] Large-scale poppy planting begin the next season.   

The leading warlords of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, were involved all along the poppy chain, from taxing and transporting opium, to manufacturing it into heroin and smuggling it across the border.[30]  The vast revenue from the drug trade allowed Mujahedeen commanders to transition from tribal warlords into drug warlords with more power, the ability to control key areas of the country, and to depend less on funding from external sources.    

The withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 unleashed a civil war that plunged the country into a brutal battle between factions of the Northern Alliance. The siege of Kabul reduced the city to dust and crushed piles of concrete; the civilian death toll was between 65,000 and 80,000.[31] Rural areas were the scenes of fierce and protracted fighting. But throughout the six years of civil war the bullet, beheading, and bomb proof opium trade flourished despite an attempt by the newly emerging Taliban to suppress it. When the Taliban moved in to vie for control of Helmand Province in 1995, poppy cultivation was declared haram and production dropped by one-third. The ban caught the attention of the United States and international drug interdiction agencies who voiced support for the Taliban believing they would become partners in a total poppy eradication campaign.[32] But the poor and war-ravaged poppy farmers in Helmand had other ideas and resisted the ban, forcing the Taliban to rescind it the following year. In order to secure the key provinces of Helmand and Kandahar — the iron lungs of poppy production in Afghanistan — Taliban commanders quickly realized they couldn’t ban cultivation and win allegiance to their rule.

The Taliban consolidated power in Afghanistan in 1996 and inherited an economy disintegrated by sixteen years of war. Opium export earnings powered what was left of the economy. The Taliban concocted a contradictory and self-serving edict on drugs decreeing, “The cultivation of and trading in charas (hashish) is forbidden absolutely. The consumption of tariak (heroin) is forbidden, as is the manufacture of tariak, but the production of and trading in opium is not forbidden.”[33] Abdul Rashid, head of the Taliban’s counter-narcotics force gave the edict an Islamic twist, “Opium is permissible because it is consumed by kafirs (infidels) in the West and not by Afghans.”[34] Taliban leaders also understood the politics of the drug economy when Rashid added, “We cannot push the people to grow wheat as there would be an uprising against the Taliban if we forced them to stop poppy cultivation. So we grow opium and get our wheat from Pakistan.” The Taliban began to collect up to 20 percent of the value of each drug shipment as a special form of zakat, an Islamic tax where Muslims give 2.5 percent of their annual disposable income and savings to the poor and needy. Mujahedeen commanders, police, and bandits imposed their own zakat to be paid in drugs or cash at checkpoints that dotted all major transit routes out of Afghanistan.  

Afghanistan was further isolated from the world and cut off from aid that could rebuild a more diversified economic infrastructure in 1999 when the United States introduced and passed Resolution 1267 in the United Nations Security Council. The resolution imposed sanctions on the Taliban. Flights out of the country by the state owned airline Ariana were banned and Taliban assets were frozen triggering a humanitarian crisis.[35] The imposition of sanctions disproportionately impacted the Afghan people, not Taliban leaders. Resolution 1267 virtually guaranteed that poppy cultivation would not only continue, but increase as the development of other agricultural crops couldn’t be financed or find markets.



The Taliban Ban

Then in 2000, almost inexplicably, Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, declared the cultivation of opium to be un-Islamic. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca declared, “We welcome the Taliban enforcement of the ban and hope it will be sustained.”[36] The imposition of shari’a law and well-documented, gross human rights violations were shunted aside in American support for the Taliban ban.  The ban was enforced ideologically by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and backed up in the provinces by Talibs using tactics that ranged from threats of destruction of property, bribery, to public lashings and death. The U.S. also ignored this brutal aspect of the ban and gave the Taliban $43 million in humanitarian aid.[37] But the Taliban had to negotiate with the powerful 400,000 member Shinwari tribe in Nangarhar province who had a track record of resisting all attempts to eradicate poppy. The Shinwari could match the brutal violence of the Taliban if they attempted to implement a ban by force and without compensation. In 2010, the Shinwari cut a similar deal with the Karzai government against their former rulers in Kabul. The tribe agreed to back President Karzai, declared war on the Taliban, and warned they’d burn down the home of any Afghan who harbored Taliban guerrillas. For their support, American commanders agreed to give the Shinwari $1 million for development projects. No questions were asked about the tribe’s central involvement in the opium trade or what type of development projects the money would be used for.[38]

What led to the Taliban one-year ban on opium cultivation is still a subject of speculation. The ban, however, was only on the cultivation of opium, not trafficking in the drug, yet another convenient contradiction that allowed a section of the drug trade to prosper. Taliban leaders might have been motivated to curb production in order to jettison their drug kingpin status in the eyes of the international community. Only three countries recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The ban would also entitle the Taliban to $25 million per year for ten years from the UNODC for alternative crop development.[39] The more plausible motive for the ban is it was a calculated, economic decision: the price of opium was in a free fall and bumper crops from previous years had resulted in massive reserves. Captain Saif Raiaz, a Pakistani drug enforcement officer, estimated Afghanistan had “sufficient stockpiles to last at least 10 years.”[40] Other estimates range from two to three years. The capitalist laws of supply, demand, price, and profit margins of an outlawed commodity converged to “oversupply” the market. Prohibition doesn’t allow for coordinated planning and planting of opium across regions so a time-limited ban would drive the price up to more profitable levels and it did. In 2001, the total farmgate value of opium production was $56 million. In 2002, after the ban was lifted, it shot up to $1,200 million.[41]

The ban on opium cultivation could never be sustained for four reasons. First, there were no serious economic alternatives for the 1.6 million Afghans who work all along the poppy chain. Second, the Taliban would have faced open revolt. Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the governor of Kandahar, admitted that continuing the ban would require that, “many people [sic] to be killed and others to face starvation.” [42] Third, the Taliban depended on the profits from opium to fund their regime, and fourth, their political rivals, the Northern Alliance continued to cultivate opium:

During the ban the only source of opium production was territory held by the Northern Alliance. It tripled its production. In the high valleys of Badakhshan?an area controlled by troops loyal to the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani?the number of hectares planted jumped from 2,458 to 6,342. The Northern Alliance fields accounted for 83 percent of total Afghan production of 185 tons of opium during the ban.[43]

The year-long ban on opium cultivation made huge profits for the Taliban and drug traffickers at one end of the poppy chain, but impoverished the majority of Afghan opium farmers at the other end. Malnutrition and starvation deaths were reported. And the ban pushed poor farmers into yet more debt, forcing some to flee the country because they couldn’t repay loans.[44] No national banking or credit infrastructure exists in Afghanistan so opium traders fill the role and make loans to farmers at usurious rates: the credit system is called salaam. An opium futures market operates in the country. Typically the price paid as an advance is only 50 percent of the market price of opium on the day the agreement is finalized. The loan is an advance payment for a fixed amount of opium to be delivered at the end of the harvest season. If farmers don’t produce the agreed upon amount of opium, as they often don’t because of adverse weather conditions, the ongoing war that disrupts production, and eradication programs, they still have to repay salaam, or take more. Or they sell their daughters, known as “opium brides.”

Angiza Afridi interviewed more than 100 families about opium weddings in Nangarhar Province. In two districts she studied, approximately half the new brides were given in marriage to repay opium debts. The new brides included children as young as 5 years old; they work as household servants for in-laws until they are old enough to consummate the marriage.[45] Khalida Shah was 10 years old when her father Sayed Shah was forced to sell her to a 45-year-old drug trafficker because he was unable to repay a $2,000 loan. Later, he sold his 16-year-old daughter to a lender’s 15-year-old son to pay off another opium debt. “Until the end of my life I will feel shame because of what I did to my daughter. I still can’t look her in the eye.”[46] Afghan rural tradition, poppy prohibition, and the salaam system, combined with the War on Drugs with its strategy of eradication without compensation, maintains and reinforces the oppression of women and girls in Afghanistan.

In yet another contradiction, opium production liberates some women. Women workers play a central role in all aspects of poppy production, from planting, to the processing of by-products like soap, oil, and animal fodder.[47] The religious practice of purdah enforces the strict separation of women from men and working outside the home is rare, but purdah doesn’t apply to opium cultivation. Men and women work side by side in the poppy fields and women don’t wear the burqa. Dr. Anis Aghdar, former head of the Women’s Affairs Department in Badakshan Province said, “When a woman grows poppy she has a chance to earn an income and become a breadwinner like a man.”[48] A woman poppy farmer in Kandahar explained, “In general, it is the only means of survival for thousands of women-headed households, women and children in our village whose men are either jobless or were killed during the war.”[49]          

The ban on poppy was rescinded on September 2, 2001 nine days before 9/11. The next month, the United States invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban regime, and installed Hamid Karzai. One of his first decrees was the banning of growing, trafficking, and consumption of opium and heroin. But the lucrative business of opium continued despite the decree, and with the Taliban decamping to Quetta in Pakistan, drug dealers aligned with the U.S. and the Karzai government took their place.

In the initial years after the defeat of the Taliban, the United States continued to perform their historical role as supporters and funders of murderous allies while conveniently ignoring their involvement in the illicit drug trade. The CIA gave $70 million in $100 bills to local drug trafficking warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, and Ustad Atta Mohammed.[50] British forces, with assistance from fledging local police, launched sporadic eradication campaigns and were met with fierce resistance in some areas. DynCorp, the notorious and corrupt American mercenary corporation, provided security for eradication teams. DynCorp is i

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