Twenty years of the opium war in Afghanistan: A look back at an American rout


On October 7, 2001, the United States, following the attacks of the previous September 11, launched, with their NATO allies, Operation "Enduring freedom". This aimed to destroy the infrastructure of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Taliban regime, found guilty of sheltering and protecting them.

Apart from highlighting the theme of the "War on terrorism", very quickly, the propaganda, consubstantial with any operation of this scale, mobilized that of the fight against drugs, by presenting the Taliban like vulgar "narco-terrorists", trafficking in opium and heroin in order, in particular, to destroy Western youth. As early as 2002, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the most loyal ally of the United States, declared :

“The guns that the Taliban buy are paid for with the lives of young Britons who buy their drugs on British streets. This is another aspect of their regime that we must destroy. "

The agitation of this theme made it possible to give an extra soul to the operation and to justify a long-term warlike investment against the Taliban who, driven out of power, were nonetheless going to reorganize themselves very quickly to lead the fight. army against the new regime set up by the Western coalition.

Opium as a weapon of war

However, this declared will to fight against opium had not always been put on the part of the United States. On the contrary, Washington had closed my eyes for a long time on the explosion of production in the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

When the Red Army crosses the border, if opium has been known for centuries in the country and is the subject of regular consumption, particularly among the Baloch populations, the production is low, estimated by specialists at 180-200 tons per year, while the manufacture of heroin is non-existent.

This production is quickly revitalized, under the effect of a double necessity: to finance the jihad launched against the occupier, and to face the consequences of the destruction inflicted by the scorched earth policy implemented by the Soviets.

As early as 1981, several fatwas pronounced by religious leaders belonging to the Afghan resistance called on peasants to develop poppy plantations. Calls immediately heard by farmers who see their living environment disrupted by the war. The cultivation of the poppy is indeed particularly well adapted to the desolation time that the countryside of the country is going through.

Water efficient in a context where irrigation systems are largely destroyed, demanding an abundant workforce at a time when the surplus population is exploding and more lucrative than wheat, the cultivation of opium is growing rapidly. Collected and bought by the warlords, he is turned into a heroine in the tribal areas of Pakistan. All under the supervision of the Pakistani secret services, which see in the development of trafficking a means of financially supporting the guerrillas against the Russians.

We find here a use of drugs which is reminiscent of the situation that prevailed in South-East Asia ten years earlier, when the CIA covered heroin trafficking in Laos intended to finance anti-communist guerrillas. Except that it seems that, in Afghanistan, the Americans are not involved directly, but through the intermediary of their Pakistani allies, which does not go without causing tensions between the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the CIA, which, in the name of realpolitik, discourages any inclination to intervene by the agency responsible for the fight against drugs.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's adviser on Afghan affairs and architect of the alliance with the Mujahedin, will declare many years later that this strategy was only a lesser evil compared to the collapse of the USSR to which the Afghan jihad had largely contributed.

In 1989, when the Red Army left Afghanistan, the country produced 1 tonnes of opium, or 200% of world production. This departure, unfortunately for the population, does not mean the end of the conflicts. After the fall of the communist regime of Najibullah in 35 under the blows of the mujahedin, a civil war broke out between the allies of yesterday for the seizure of power, further accelerating the chaos in the country and promoting a new boom in opium and the corruption that goes with it.

Between 1989 and 1996, when Kabul was captured by the Taliban, production doubled to over 2 tonnes. Ironically, these are the very people that the Bush administration will accuse of "narco-terrorism" who are temporarily putting a brake on production. Following a fatwa of July 2000, this fell to the levels before the Soviet intervention, ie 185 tons. The poppy cultivation areas then drop from 82 hectares to 000.

It seems that the new regime was able to enforce this decision without resorting too much to coercion because of the popularity it enjoys with part of the peasantry. It recognizes the Taliban's credit for having put an end to the chaos of the civil war between factions and for having reestablished a certain order in the country. However, the ban and the loss of income it caused the most vulnerable of the peasants (sharecroppers, agricultural workers, small owners) caused them to lose part of their social base.

Additional irony, a few months before the invasion of Afghanistan by the Western coalition, in May 2001 precisely, a US delegation to welcome anti-drug policy regime and Colin Powell, head of the State Department, will decide to allocate nearly $ 43 million to help farmers, in a context of drought, to make the transition ...

State building bankruptcy

The fall of the Taliban regime will revive opium production in the country for the simple reason that the American intervention brings back to power the former warlords who were at the heart of all trafficking since the 1980s, while the peasants, especially farmers and sharecroppers, for lack of alternatives, devote an increasing part of their plots to poppy.

This is all the more so as economic stability is not there with, from 2004, the rise in power, particularly in the south of the country, of the Taliban ousted from power. In the areas they control, so as not to alienate the peasants, they tolerate poppy cultivation, on which they levy taxes. At the time, all factions, whether close to the Kabul government or in the armed opposition, were more or less involved in the opium and heroin trafficking.

Some specialists believe, however, that it is on the side of the pro-Western government rather than the Taliban that the corruption by trafficking money is the greatest.

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In 2005, 9 tonnes of opium were found in the residence of the governor of Helmand, who went over to the Taliban after his dismissal. The corruption is gigantic and affects the close entourage of President Hamid Karzai. Yet Americans only focus on the Taliban. In this, they are only using a proven technique of demonization already tried in other areas, for example in Colombia with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), described as "narco guerilla" by their ambassador in 1984.

“Drug trafficking is certainly one of the main sources of income within the government itself”, France 24, August 21, 2009.

However, fieldwork shows that the income the Taliban derives from opium is not much compared to the income they derive from taxes on goods passing through the regions where they are present. A survey estimated in 2009 their income from drugs at 155 million dollars, a small part of the money generated by drug trafficking in the country, namely 2,5 billion dollars.

It is therefore the allies of the United States in the war on terror who are at the heart of illicit trafficking. Beginning in 2004, Americans, who had delegated the fight against opium and heroin to their British ally, will regain control by putting the link between terrorism and trafficking at the heart of their speech. Robert B. Charles, Deputy Secretary of theInternational Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, a service of the State Department responsible for the international fight against drugs, declared then :

“Cutting off the supply of opium is essential for establishing a secure and stable democracy, as well as for winning the global war on terrorism. "

Bankruptcy balance

Between 2002 and 2015, an estimated $ 8 billion was spent on the war on drugs in Afghanistan, especially in areas in the south of the country held by the Taliban. The methods used are varied: spreading, manual uprooting ... up to aerial bombardments of heroin laboratories. This policy, which favors force to the detriment of other strategies such as alternative development, will only achieve very relative success.

In 2020, Afghanistan produces 85% of the world's opium and is the world's largest producer of heroin. 20 to 30% of GDP would be generated by the opium and heroin trade, and opium production has increased 30-fold between 2001 and 2020. In addition, Afghanistan is emerging as a major player in the resin market. cannabis, while the methamphetamine production expands.

As Douglas Lute recognized, the current US representative to NATO and former deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, “we had no basic understanding of Afghanistan. . We didn't know what we were doing […] For example on the economy. We had to establish “a flourishing market”. We should have specified: “a thriving drug market” because that is the only part that works. "

In this context, some researchers believe that it is doubtful that the Taliban, despite a declared will, renew the 2000 ban. The opium-related economy has become too important in the survival strategies of a large proportion of the population, in a context where, due to the withdrawal of the United States, the floods of money that their presence generated will stop, worsening the economic situation.

La balkan route of the heroin that feeds Europe is probably not going to dry up any time soon.

Michel Gandilhon, Lecturer, master of criminology, National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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