The Afghan Opium Pipeline: Drugs, War and Death

Perhaps President-elect Trump has a valid point about Mexico’s threat to the United States, because the 2016 US National Heroin Threat Assessment notes that “Mexican traffickers have taken a larger role in the US heroin market, increasing their heroin production and pushing into eastern US markets.”  It points out that 10,574 Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2014 and that the figure is rising — but there is no mention of heroin coming from Afghanistan, where, as reported in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2016 Opium Survey, the area under poppy cultivation increased from 183,000 to 201,000 hectares in 2015-2016, and opium production has risen by 43%.

Percentages can be difficult to picture, but the hard fact recorded by the UN is that Afghanistan’s potential production of opium has increased from 3,300 to 4,800 tons a year, which can lead to a great deal of heroin.  As noted by Drug War Peace, it takes 16.7 kg of opium to produce 1 kg of heroin and “the process of making heroin from opium is a simple one.”  Therefore the annual production of heroin from Afghan opium is around 300 tons, which results in a lot of money.

It’s not only in Europe, Iran, China, the Central Asian Republics and Russia that the enormous surge in Afghan heroin production has become a dangerous and even critical menace to their citizens.  In Afghanistan itself there has been creation and massive growth of drug addiction.

Of course drugs were always known in the region.  The hippies of the Seventies used to smoke their way across Asia in their thousands because, as recorded by one historian, they were much attracted to “Afghanistan, the first major destination of the hippie trail, a land where foreigners were made very welcome and where a large proportion of the population used hashish themselves.”  Indeed they did, and there was never much harm done, except perhaps to the smokers.  Heroin addiction was not in any way a social problem in either Afghanistan or Pakistan at that time, or for many years.   But it is, now.

According to Voice of America there are three million drug users in Afghanistan. And, given the state it’s in, and the confusion among the US-NATO military alliance which is trying to tell the country what to do, it seems that there isn’t much that can be done about the catastrophe. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported Baz Muhammad Ahmadi, Afghanistan’s deputy minister for counter-narcotics as saying that “with the existing equipment, facilities and civilian taskforce, we cannot fight the cultivation of poppy in insecure areas. The challenges of deteriorating security in different parts of the country took away the opportunities to destroy poppy farms.”

In November 2001 President GW Bush, the man who initiated the axis of chaos and despair from Afghanistan to the Middle East, told the United Nations that “I make this promise to all the victims of that regime: the Taliban’s days of harboring terrorists and dealing in heroin and brutalizing women are drawing to a close.”

The pledges of the foolish Bush came to nothing.  There are more terrorists in Afghanistan than there were before he ordered the invasion,  and the heroin problem is disastrous.  (As to brutalized women, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted in October that “fifteen years after the United States ousted the Taliban regime, Afghanistan remains one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.”)

On the drug scene, the New York Times reported six months before the Bush invasion that “the first American narcotics experts to go to Afghanistan under Taliban rule have concluded that the movement’s ban on opium-poppy cultivation appears to have wiped out the world’s largest crop in less than a year . . .  The American findings confirm earlier reports from the United Nations drug control program that Afghanistan, which supplied about three-quarters of the world’s opium and most of the heroin reaching Europe, had ended poppy planting in one season.”

But Bush continued lying, and claimed in February 2002 that heroin had provided “significant income to the Taliban.”  Much of the American public believed such outrageous lies — and continue to this day to believe government propaganda, faithfully published by the mainstream media which is fed disinformation by “highly-placed sources.”

Cultivation of opium poppies increased, and in February 2004 the then US Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics, Robert Charles, told a Congressional hearing that “Opium is a source of literally billions of dollars to extremist and criminal groups . . . cutting down the opium supply is central to establishing a secure and stable democracy, as well as winning the global war on terrorism.”  It seemed that Washington was resolved to “eradicate the [opium poppy] crop in the ground, when it is most vulnerable” while creating “a centrally-directed, standing poppy eradication force” because “there is a need to deal with the drugs that flow over Afghanistan’s borders to world markets.”

But nothing happened, other than that the US spent eight billion dollars on counter-narcotics programs that produced absolutely no results.

In 2007 the European Parliament and the Senlis Council proposed pilot projects to license villages to grow poppy legally, as done in India, Thailand and Turkey, with the objective of transforming the product into medicinal morphine for legal sale on the world market.

The scheme would have required a great deal of work by dedicated experts and, of course, the full cooperation of the military forces of the US-NATO “Coalition” which were trying to enforce stability in the country but achieving little other than growing resentment, militancy and deaths.  As the Economist reported at the time, “since January [2007] almost 6,000 people have been killed, a 50% increase on last year. They included 200 NATO soldiers and more than 3,000 alleged Taliban. Insurgent violence is up by 20% on 2006.”

The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated even further and is verging on the anarchic. The country is  terminally corrupt, with the warlords (including, amazingly, Vice President Dostum) gaining ever more power.  The Taliban and other insurrectionists control vast areas of the country and the government’s armed forces would collapse were it not for massive US airstrikes and clandestine operations by the thousands of US troops engaged in operation Freedom’s Sentinel, about which there is little reporting in the western media unless, as happened on November 2,  the deaths of two US soldiers could not be concealed.

During that operation US airstrikes killed many civilians, but this was ignored by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter who stated that he “was deeply saddened to learn overnight that we suffered casualties in Afghanistan,” noting as an after thought that “some of our Afghan partners also died.”

The Afghan spokesman said that 30 civilians had been killed, and Deutsche Welle reported Taza Gul, a 55-year-old laborer as saying “I am heartbroken. I have lost seven members of my family. I want to know, why these innocent children were killed? Were they Taliban? No, they were innocent children.” The Washington Post noted that “NATO officials had not confirmed or commented on the reported deaths of the civilians” while “photographs published on the Internet showed the bodies of small children crumpled on a blanket and being carried in a cart by weeping adults. Angry relatives of the victims attempted to parade their bodies through the city in a protest caravan to the provincial governor’s residence, but they were stopped by security forces.”

The United States invaded Afghanistan fifteen years ago, and the armies of its NATO allies formally joined it in 2003.  In all their time in the country they have been unable to control the production of drugs, to discourage corruption, or to quell violence.  Indeed, drug production, corruption and savage barbarity have surged to their highest ever peaks.

Libya was also reduced to chaos by the US-NATO blitz of 2011, yet Secretary General Stoltenberg rejoices that “we have doubled the size of the NATO Response Force, making it more ready and more capable, and established a high readiness Joint Task Force, able to move within a matter of days. We have increased our presence in the east, with more planes in the air, more ships at sea and more boots on the ground. We have established six new headquarters in our eastern Allies, with two more on the way.”

But maybe President Trump will see things differently.  There’s nothing he can do about Afghanistan except to withdraw the US military presence, but he can prevent wider conflict by getting out of NATO.  As he noted, it’s obsolete — but it’s also extremely dangerous.


More articles by:

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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