Opium for the Masses

Tales of the Afghan Drug Trade

During the last few weeks of anthrax hysteria, a dozen or so U.S. reporters have pursued a more difficult, taboo story: opium's role as the centerpiece of Afghanistan's economy. That cursed country was already a place where children helped to harvest the gum from the poppies, working people kept opium in their homes rather than money in the bank, and the Taliban raked in up to $50 million a year in drug taxes. But post-September 11, Taliban leaders lifted a ban on their bestselling crop, and the growers and dealers have been conducting business as usual. On the tail of smart pieces in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, The New York Times ran a solid version of the story on October 22.

The best of these stories note that the careening wartime economy has spurred Afghan civilians to re-embrace the drug trade. Farmers are tilling the fields to prepare for the winter crop, chemists are setting up labs in caves and the backs of trucks, and family men are risking their freedom to sneak heroin across the border. As the Taliban dumps an estimated 4000 tons of stockpiled opium on the world market, the Northern Alliance continues to export a hefty share through Tajikistan into Russia and beyond. Experts fear that, in the absence of "nation-building" efforts, the trade will flourish long after the U.S. installs a new government in Kabul.

The rising tide of Afghan opium, heroin, and hashish is a potential disaster. But as the Times' Tim Golden pointed out, the U.S. has long neglected the drug war in that region. Last week, a DEA spokesperson told the Voice that his agency has no access to Afghanistan. Asked about published reports that the U.S. military intends to target stockpiles, heroin labs, and poppy fields in Afghanistan, a Pentagon spokesperson called the reports "pure speculation."

"Our quarrel is with the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the terrorists and the governments that support them," said the Pentagon source. "The drug trafficking business has been a problem in Afghanistan for a while, and it's an issue that the new government will have to address with the international community."

The Times paints the drug scene in Afghanistan as a casualty of U.S. neglect, but it's also possible our government has decided that an uncontrolled drug trade is an acceptable form of collateral damage in this particular war. If so, it won't be the first time. During the 1980s, when the U.S. paid the mujahideen guerrillas to fight the Soviet invasion, the CIA famously turned a blind eye to the drug trade, and within a few short years, Afghanistan came out of nowhere to become the world's second-largest opium grower, after Myanmar. While most of the heroin sold in the U.S. now arrives from Colombia and Mexico, during the 1980s Pakistan and Afghanistan supplied more than half the U.S. market.

On October 7, the Los Angeles Times published a front-pager that suggested a direct causal relationship between war and the drug trade. Reporting from Islamabad, the Times' John Daniszewski noted that "drugs thrive in a war culture, because warlords need the money from such illicit sales to buy weapons, and growers and smugglers need an environment of lawlessness to operate without fear of the police." Without implicating the U.S., Daniszewski also reported that the Soviet invasion in 1979 led to "a two-decade drug bonanza" that gave the Taliban the resources to take over Afghanistan.

Writing for the Chicago Tribune on September 30, Islamabad-based Tom Hundley probed a little deeper, noting that during the 1980s, CIA director William Casey embraced the opium trade as a means to finance his covert war in Afghanistan. Translation: The Afghan fundamentalists may be drug lords, but they're our drug lords. They learned to trade drugs for arms 20 years ago, with the tacit approval of the CIA.

In the past few weeks, the Afghan drug trade has received energetic coverage, often from the front, by The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Baltimore Sun, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune. But the New York Times coverage this month has been spotty—the paper ran a color photo of opium smokers in the desert on October 7, and on October 4, Barry Meier filed a curious report alleging that Osama bin Laden had tried to produce a "super-heroin" to be marketed in Europe and the U.S. (The Independent called the claim "sensational though thinly substantiated.")

Grisly details about the U.S. role as a catalyst in the Afghan drug trade can be found in the 1991 revised edition of Alfred McCoy's The Politics of Heroin and in Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia. According to McCoy, the relationship between covert ops and the Afghan drug trade began when the CIA chose Pashtun hero Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, Hekmatyar received $1 billion in covert U.S. funds.

With the help of Pakistani intelligence, the CIA smuggled arms across the Pakistani border to Afghan guerrillas, using donkeys, camels, and trucks. After the arms were unloaded, the same convoys shipped the drugs out, and Hekmatyar became a major trafficker overnight. Opium grown in Afghanistan was processed in Pakistani labs by Hekmatyar associates, and certain corrupt Pakistani officers transported the drugs "under their own bayonets," according to one source.

Hekmatyar and the CIA denied any involvement in the drug trade, and the U.S. media held the story until the Cold War ended. Finally, in 1990, The Washington Post published a front-page exposé of Hekmatyar and his U.S. protectors that should be required reading for every journalist covering Afghanistan. (These days, Hekmatyar lives in exile in Iran, and Pakistan gets high marks in the drug war.)

Some final facts to consider: The Taliban have at least 40 opium warehouses in Afghanistan, as well as stockpiles in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere. U.S. sources have said they will try to find the stockpiles using satellite imagery, and the Pentagon recently moved to buy the rights to every photo it commissions from a commercial satellite company—effectively preventing the war photos from ever becoming public.

Does the U.S. have a secret plan to seize raw opium as war booty? A DEA spokesperson told the Voice last week that "a lot" of the Taliban stockpiles had already been "seized," a report the Pentagon would not confirm or deny. On the contrary, Golden's sources said the U.S. has "scant information" about the location of the stockpiles.

Make no mistake—raw opium is a valuable commodity. Just ask the late U.S. drug czar Harry Anslinger. During World War II, Anslinger quietly built his own opium stockpile to assuage the fears of the pharmaceutical industry. At the time, the U.S. bought most of its legal opium from Yugoslavia and Turkey. But as Anslinger assured the industry in 1941, there was always "high-grade" and "abundant" opium to be had from Afghanistan. Sixty years later, there still is.


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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