In the 21st century, Afghanistan remains a country of astonishing contradictions. It is one of the most undeveloped, technologically backward countries in the world, despite billions of dollars poured into its 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. Communication technologies are concentrated in small, urban areas. A study by the Asia Foundation estimates 88 percent of Afghan’s urban households have TVs while only 28 percent of rural residents do. 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 of Kabul. It’s no wonder as computers need electricity. The lack of a national power grid ensures that nine out of ten Afghans have no reliable access to electricity. Diesel generators and kerosene lamps are ubiquitous.
Most Afghans live on less than $2 a day, condemning millions to a premature death. The average life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44 years. 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 suffering.
But in one economic area Afghanistan excels: the cultivation of opium. Opium is derived from the poppy plant Papaver Somniferum and Afghanistan is the world’s number one grower and exporter of opium, supplying 93 percent of the drug to Central Asian and European markets. It’s a position the country has held for almost a decade. Opium farmers are highly skilled at planting, growing, and harvesting poppy in difficult conditions, often on land where there is little irrigation and no fertilizer or pesticides. It is organic farming out of necessity. Afghan farmers even successfully grew poppy during a seven year drought. About 789,000 workers (including children) are responsible for growing and harvesting poppy on just 3 percent of the land. Harvesting is low-tech and uses two simple tools: a neshtar (lancing stick) and a rambey (scoop).
The productivity of poor Afghan opium farmers is incredible because the government has declared the cultivation of opium illegal. (According to the Qur’an it’s haram, forbidden.) For ten years the country has been under continuous aerial bombardment, ground assault, and occupation by the United States military and NATO forces supposedly 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 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 largest consumer. 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.
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. 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, Myanmar’s government banned opium cultivation in the Shan State and used the military to enforce the ban. Prisons filled with shackled inmates forbidden to move from the lotus position, warehoused in wooden cages, and given prison sentences of up to ten years. The ban failed. Production in the northern part of the Shan State shifted to areas in the south, known as the “balloon effect.” Since 2006, opium cultivation has increased each year in Myanmar and more than one million people depend on the crop for their livelihood.
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 pharmaceutical industry. Farmers are licensed to grow opium in 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.
During the 1980s, Pakistan was a major opium cultivator and central hub for heroin manufacturing labs. The 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. Opium trafficking is concentrated in three areas that border Afghanistan: the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), and Baluchistan. 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.” 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. The strategies were largely successful and in 2001, Pakistan was declared a “poppy-free” nation. It didn’t last. The tribal areas now cultivate thousands of hectares of poppy and Pakistan continues to be one of the most important drug trafficking routes.
Iran has a history stretching back 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. 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. 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. Ayatollah Khomeini and subsequent ruling parties 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. Despite the brutal crackdown, Iran continues to be both a major consumer and smuggling route for 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. 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 and 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. 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. The near total devastation of the rural economy of legal agricultural products by warfare acts 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 farm gate. The labor intensive nature of opium planting and harvesting also provides employment for entire families in a country where rural unemployment is persistently high. It’s survival farming and worth the risk for some farmers to grow opium because it’s the only commodity guaranteed an export market.
Several Mujahedeen leaders became 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, rather 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.” The superprofits from poppy make believers and hypocrites out of everyone.
During the war against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, founder of the 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. The warlord’s 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. By 1987, an estimated 100 to 200 heroin refineries were operating in the Khyber district of Pakistan’s NWFP territories. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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 16 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.” 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.” 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. 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.” 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 in the provinces by Talibs using tactics that ranged from threats of destruction of property and bribery to public lashings and death. The U.S. also ignored the brutal aspect of the ban and gave the Taliban $43 million in humanitarian aid. 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. 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.
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, 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 10 years from the UNODC for alternative crop development. The more plausible motive for the ban was that 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 ten years.” Other estimates range from two to three years. In 2001, the total value of opium production was $56 million. In 2002, after the ban was lifted, it shot up to $120 million.
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.” 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—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.”
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. 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. Khalida Shah was 10 years old when her father 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.” 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. 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.” 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.”
Here Comes the U.S.
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. 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 involved in policing the drug war in other parts of the world and employees were investigated for drug trafficking in Colombia.
In 2002, farmers in Helmand province marched on Lashkar Gah to protest eradication. The ensuing clash with police wounded 35 farmers and killed 8. When the Afghan Special Narcotics Force moved in with tractors to plow over poppy fields in the Maiwand district of Kandahar, farmers set the tractors on fire, started patrolling their fields with AK-47s, and blocked the highway with burning tires. Two protesters were killed and four police were injured. The biggest protest was in Nangarhar. Up to 10,000 farmers blocked roads and attacked police and eradication teams.
Land mines have been planted in poppy fields to deter the destruction of crops. In Farah province, three members of an eradication team were killed when a mine exploded. Public protests and confrontations with authorities were vital to maintaining the livelihoods of Afghan farmers and their families. Hassan Khan, a resident in Nangarhar Province said, “The government can’t destroy poppy fields as it has not done a single thing for us. We will defend our poppy fields with our lives.”
Farmers weren’t the only ones hitting back at eradication teams. The majority of opium is manufactured into heroin in labs inside the borders of Afghanistan. The chemical process of transforming raw opium into heroin adds enormous value to the drug and increases profit margins; therefore, the owners of heroin labs resist raids on their facilities. In Balkh Province, police officers were attacked, captured, and disarmed by a drug cartel after an armed confrontation. In 2009, the Obama administration suspended eradication programs. Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, said eradication was a waste of money and it “might destroy some acreage, but it didn’t reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar.” But British troops continue to eradicate poppy fields as part of their “seven pillars” anti-opium strategy. The Afghan Ministry of the Interior coordinates Task Force 333, the Central Poppy Eradication Force, and the Counter-Narcotics Police to carry out poppy eradication programs. The Karzai government has concentrated eradication teams in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, both Taliban strongholds. Taliban commanders help farmers resist the destruction of their poppy fields, but that doesn’t automatically translate into active, political support for them. In many cases, individuals and communities join the Taliban simply to protect themselves from the Taliban.
For years, Afghan officials promised compensation for eradication of poppy and consistently reneged or provided insufficient payment to farmers. Rebuilding an economic infrastructure with agriculture wasn’t a priority or even a part of the government’s “Afghan Stabilization Program.” It defined key infrastructure as: police barracks, a prison, a post office, and a mosque. A collection of NGOs led by USAID promised reconstruction projects, alternative agricultural development, and work opportunities, too, but failed to deliver for a raft of reasons. Over $35.4 billion in aid has been pumped into Afghanistan since 2002, yet the nation still ranks as the second poorest on the planet. Where did all the money go?
Corruption: Afghan Style
Thousands of officials in the Karzai government, from Kabul to Kunduz, engage in extortion, stealing, and embezzlement of public money and humanitarian assistance. Billions earmarked for economic development have disappeared into the pockets and foreign bank accounts of warlords, now legitimate government representatives, while the vast majority of Afghans continue to live in abject poverty.
Drugs and bribes are estimated to be the two largest income generators in Afghanistan, accounting for $2.8 billion and $2.5 billion per year, respectively. It’s an open secret that Ahmed Wali Karzai (known by his initials, AWK), President Karzai’s half-brother, is involved in the drug trade. Numerous WikiLeaks documents corroborate this. In one document, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry states AWK is “…widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.” Other cables reveal that the CIA believe Muhammad Fahim, the former defense minister and current first vice president is involved in the drug trade. His predecessor, Ahmed Zia Massoud, was. On a “capital flight,” he flew into Dubai with $52 million in cash. President Karzai has pardoned dozens of accused and convicted drug traffickers during his presidency and General Daud, the head of the anti-drug section of the Coun- ternarcotics Police of Afghanistan (CNPA), pro- vides protection for drug smugglers and has accepted bribes.
To prove domestically that they’re prosecuting the war on drugs and terror in Afghanistan, American counternarcotics officials set up Afghan drug traffickers Hajji Bashir and Hajji Juma. Bashir was lured to the U.S. under false pretenses and Juma was extradited from Indonesia. They are now imprisoned in New York City. The men were informants for the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and had provided intelligence on Taliban and drug smuggling activity. At clandestine meetings with American officials they received large amounts of cash in exchange for information. The formerly feted and well-financed drug kingpins are now cast as “narco-terrorists,” the dangerous heads of “narco-cartels.” Both are accused of supporting and funding the Taliban. In 2009, Bashir was sentenced to life in prison. But trafficking in opium in Afghanistan is not a terrorist activity, it’s agribusiness, little different than the trade in tobacco or grapes.
In Afghanistan, the United States is reprising a role it has played before: backing one group of drug traffickers against another for their own political gain. This time it’s the Karzai government against the Taliban, although there are other armed opposition groups (AOG) that oppose and attack government forces. U.S. counter-terrorism officials consistently link terrorism and opium almost exclusively with the Taliban. The reality is all AOG and the Karzai government profit from the opiate trade which makes them all “narco-terrorists.” The Taliban aren’t funded exclusively from the sale of opium but from a variety of sources including the taxing of wheat and other crops, Muslim “charities,” and religious institutions outside the country.
The solution is to legalize poppy production and regulate recreational use. Afghan farmers should be licensed to grow and manufacture poppy into morphine for domestic use and to sell to the international pharmaceutical industry. Overnight, the most productive opium cultivators in the world would become legal producers of pain relieving drugs. The most important pain medications are derived from poppy: morphine and codeine. The discovery of poppy revolutionized the world of medicine and advanced the sciences of surgery and anesthesia. The reality is millions of people are born into this world with narcotics (the management of labor pain) and leave this world with narcotics (palliative, end-of-life care). The average person in the United States has seven surgeries. Narcotics have a positive impact on the majority of those who take them, but because of drug war hysteria and lies, narcotics are almost universally portrayed in a negative way. It’s widely believed that opiates are always addictive, harmful, overprescribed, and need to be tightly controlled by drug enforcement authorities to prevent addiction. No serious examination of drug use trends comes to those conclusions.
Incredibly, in Afghanistan, a country saturated with opium, there is a shortage of opiate-based medicine. The burn unit in Herat Hospital offers only cream, bandages, and IV saline to patients. Bost Hospital’s pediatric unit in Lashkar Gah has no narcotics. Patients with extensive burns are given acetaminophen for pain, but morphine is the gold standard to control the pain of burn wounds. Similarly, the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar lacks access to medication needed for sedation and pain control. In 2010, NATO opened a $40 million state-of-the-art hospital for soldiers at Kandahar Airfield with a pharmacy stocked with narcotics. In theaters of war all over Afghanistan, Army medics carry morphine and fentanyl lollipops to administer to wounded soldiers.
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is not the problem, the prohibition of poppy cultivation is. Seven countries are licensed by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to legally supply narcotics raw material to the pharmaceutical industry to process into a variety of pain medications: Australia, France, Hungary, India, Poland, Spain, and Turkey. The contradictions in current global drug policy mean the same drug that generates income for farmers and workers and profits for the pharmaceutical industry in rich countries, criminalizes poor people in Afghanistan who cultivate poppy for an illegal market in order to survive. Afghanistan should be allowed to join this list of nations that provide poppy raw materials to the legal market. The need for opiates is great: 80 percent of the world’s population face an acute shortage of opiate-based medicines. The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains a list of essential medications: morphine is number one (in combination with medications used in anesthesia) and number two. An Afghan pharmaceutical industry anchored by the production of morphine for domestic use and for international export retains the profits that are now accruing to a minority and spreads them further down the poppy chain to the farmers, seasonal laborers, and workers in laboratories that refine poppy into morphine or heroin. Crucially, licensing the cultivation of poppy would end the salaam system that keeps farmers in a perpetual cycle of debt and the sexual slavery of women and girls sold as opium brides.
The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) has developed an Afghan village-based Poppy for Medicine Project (P4M). Raw opium gum would be manufactured into morphine tablets in poppy farming communities and sold to countries under special licensing agreements. The project has been roundly condemned by all international narcotics control agencies and individual drug warriors as unworkable. The two major concerns raised are diversion to an illegal market and government corruption. But those are the wrong concerns. Currently, 100 percent of opium is diverted to the illegal market. The P4M project directs opium to the legal market, generates jobs, and keeps most of the profits in the community. A number of risks are worth taking to transition the 1.6 million people involved in the illegal opium economy, and designated as criminals with no rights, into legal growers and manufacturers with rights who are key actors in rebuilding the Afghan economy. In 1974, Turkey licensed the cultivation of opium. Although there are key differences between Turkey and Afghanistan, it provides important lessons for how a country can move from illegal production of poppy to legal production in just a few years. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from implementing P4M in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the largest opium growing regions in Afghanistan.
The only way to undercut a black market for all drugs is to legalize and regulate the use of them. Legalization of opium and heroin for personal use has to accompany licensing of poppy production in Afghanistan. The “problems” of diversion and corruption are eliminated with legalization. A number of harm reduction policies can simultaneously be put into place: syringe exchange, safe injection sites, and non-coercive drug treatment, including heroin prescription and methadone maintenance.
Prohibition creates violence, instability, and corruption. The people of Afghanistan have the right to grow poppy and ultimately are the ones to decide which crops to grow. The struggle to legalize and license opium cultivation and consumption will have to challenge the vast network of international narcotics control systems championed by the United States. This unelected and unaccountable multinational cabal is directly responsible for the death and destruction that is part and parcel of prohibitionist drug policy around the globe. These drug warriors have an ideological and material stake in the continuation of prohibition, the demonization of narcotics, and the criminalization of those involved in the drug trade. The struggle for legalization and regulation of drugs in Afghanistan won’t be easy, but it is the only way to end the war on drugs against the Afghan people.
Helen Redmond is a journalist, commentator, and drug and health policy analyst. The following people assisted in writing with research for this paper: Jorrit Kamminga, director of policy research at ICOS; Anand Gopal; Anne Armstrong and John Shuler, UIC librarians. Photo 1 is from UNODC; photo 2 is from IRIN; photo 3 is by Monica R. Nelson, USN; photo 4 is from UNODC; photo 5 is by Dave Hillhouse, Defence Images.