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Though Britain has been blaring its support for America’s "War on Terror", there is public disquiet in the UK at one aspect of the new era of freedom now prevailing in Afghanistan: the renewal of opium cultivation, banned with unprecedented and near total success by Mullah Omar in July of 2000. In order to receive […]
The Politics of Afghan Opium
by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Though Britain has been blaring its support for America’s "War on Terror", there is public disquiet in the UK at one aspect of the new era of freedom now prevailing in Afghanistan: the renewal of opium cultivation, banned with unprecedented and near total success by Mullah Omar in July of 2000.

In order to receive US aid, Hamid Karzai’s coalition had to make a pro forma announcement in January that opium cultivation is still forbidden, but the extent of this renewed commitment to abstention from Afghanistan’s prime cash crop was almost simultaneously displayed in the unceremonious ejection of Afghanistan’s drug control agency from its offices in Kabul, with the drug czar’s desk being kicked physically into the street.

A couple of weeks ago the London Guardian reported in a headline that "MI5 [Britain's counter-intelligence agency] fears flood of Afghan heroin". The ensuing story by Nick Hopkins and Richard Norton Taylor led with the news that "Police and intelligence agencies have been warned that Britain is facing a potentially huge increase in heroin trafficking because of massive and unchecked replanting of the opium crop in Afghanistan The expectation is that the 2002 crop will be equivalent to the bumper one of three years ago, which yielded 4,600 tonnes of raw opium."

The Guardian went on to report a new assessment by the UN office for drug control and crime prevention, based in Vienna, that after the war the West stands to lose the "best ever opportunity" to suffocate the illegal trade. Afghanistan is the source of 75% of the world’s heroin and 90% of Britain’s supply.

Opium poppies are primarily grown in the south and east of Afghanistan, the regions domination by the Pashtuns, the ethnic fraction that sustained the Taliban until such support became an obvious poor bet.

In political terms, it’s a safe forecast to say that no serious effort will be made to interfere with the opium crop. To do so would be to deal the Karzai regime as a serious a blow as did Mullah Omar to loyalty to the Taliban when he banned opium cultivation (an act variously explained as a last-ditch attempt to get recognition from the West, or as a price support tactic, restricting supply).

These developments lend a certain irony to the enormously costly ads bought by the US government on Superbowl Sunday to inform America’s consumers of illegal drugs that to buy cocaine or heroin is to help terrorism. To the contrary, at last so far as Afghanistan is concerned, to buy heroin and morphine is to provide a sure market for Afghanistan’s farm sector, which employs as many as 200,000 in the fields harvesting the opium from the poppy heads. A sure income to the opium farmers means a cut for the rural barons whose support in essential for the future well-being of America’s selected government, headed by Karzai.

Meanwhile, readers here in the US of the magazine Vanity Fair can marvel at the tact displayed by Maureen Orth in her article in the March issue on "Afghanistan’s Deadly Habit", about "the symbiotic connection between drugs and terrorism". The impression given by Orth is that only with the coming to power of the Taliban in 1996 did the opium industry "grow so quickly that in 1999 Afghanistan produced 5,000 tons of opium, more than 70 per cent of the world’s supply".

It is true that deep into the article Orth makes very fleeting reference to the CIA’s possible role in the late 1970s and 1980s in the expansion of opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

The facts are easily available (and cited at some length in that very fine book Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press, coauthored by Jeffrey St Clair and Alexander Cockburn). One of President Jimmy Carter’s White House advisers on the drug trade said later that "We were going into Afghanistan to support the opium growers in their rebellion against the Soviets Shouldn’t we try to pay the growers if they will eradicate their production?." Musto went public with his concerns in an op ed in the New York Times in 1980.

Reports issued by the UN and Drug Enforcement Administration in the early 1980s stated that by 1981 Afghan heroin producers may have captured 60 per cent of the heroin market in Western Europe and the United States. In New York City in 1979 alone, the year the CIA-organized flow of arms to the mujahiddeen began) heroin-related deaths increased by 77 per cent. There were no Superbowl ads that year about doing drugs and aiding terror. You could say that those dead addicts had given their lives in the fight to drive back Communism.

The only possible way to curb the trade is to offer farmers enough income to grow something else, at a reasonable level of profit. Decade after decade there have been effort. Mohammed Mossadegh tried crop substitution in Iran in the early 1950s and was soon toppled with the help of the CIA which found some of its allies among the big land barons running the opium trade. In Afghanistan , Noor Taraki’s short-lived new Afghan government attacked the opium-growing feudal estates and got loans for crop substitution.

Orth does say frankly that "the Taliban ban on poppy growing was the largest, most successful interdiction of drugs in history." And in history’s dustbin is where that interdiction speedily ended up. Will the US press for crop substitution? Probably not, always for the same reason: to suppress drug cultivation means putting money in the pockets of peasants and that means expensive aid programs and also enormous political risks of offending important, if unpalatable, allies.