US Shifts Blame to Afghan Government for Exploding Central Asian Opium Trade

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The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an office created by Congress in 2008 to oversee waste and fraud in US government expenditures in Afghanistan, released a report in October communicating that Afghanistan poppy production reached an unprecedented high point in 2013, even while being preceded by more than a decade of prodigious production.

This is despite the fact that the US government has devoted $7.6 billion to squashing the booming opium trade since its revival at the start of the US invasion.

The report was published along with an invitation to written responses from various departments of the US government, responses that unanimously blamed the situation on the US puppet government in Afghanistan, stating that it had not assisted aggressively enough with counter-narcotics efforts. The idea of the US government denying responsibility for the misdeeds of a state it installed through a rigged election to promote the objectives of the occupation, is absurd on its face. A review of the history of US involvement in the Central Asian opium trade up through the 2001 intervention, however, reveals even deeper responsibility.

Causes of Increased Opium Production Since 2001

As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported this year, dramatically increased opium production since 2001 in Afghanistan is one of the primary causes of a current surge in heroin use throughout Europe and Asia.

This most recent explosion in cultivation and sale of poppy is due, first of all, to the overthrow of the Taliban, which had, with the pressure and assistance of the UN, enforced a brief but successful opium ban in 2000. UN research released just a week after the invasion began reported poppy production as being down by 91 percent since 2000. The subsequent opium explosion is attributable also to the importance of the poppy crop as a funding source both for the Taliban insurgency and for corrupt officials at all levels of the Karzai administration.

The US government has attempted various methods of reducing opium production, from eradicating opium fields to providing farmers with alternative crops, to prosecuting traffickers and confiscating their product. Evidently, none of these methods has had an impact, most fundamentally because demand for opium from international consumers, as well as the demand of the Taliban and the state for bribes from this pool of profit, has remained unaffected.

Actually, a plausible argument can be made that directly seizing crops increases profits acquired by the higher-skilled smugglers then required, which in turn makes available a larger source of funds for corrupting the agents of the state, who ensure the safe passage of crops to the market. Corruption apparently reaches higher levels of government as well.

Narcotics-Related Corruption Within the Afghan State

A January report by SIGAR indicated that Afghanistan’s banking system is thoroughly opaque and unregulated [introductory summary]. This strongly suggests, as does old news, that Afghanistan’s banking system is a vehicle for money laundering and drug trafficking. Afghanistan’s capital is home to a number of luxurious estates owned by government officials, estates referred to by the locals as “poppy palaces,” all of which are far too expensive for the salary of a government employee.

The US Department of State itself acknowledged systematic involvement in the opium drug trade by officials at all levels of government in a 2009 report. Karzai has consistently resisted attempts at oversight, even banning US advisors from working with the central bank in 2011. Earlier this year, Karzai also resisted an effort at international oversight of Afghanistan’s banking system; according to Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Karzai’s national security adviser, he did so because of provisions in the currently proposed anti-laundering bill that would impose regulations to prevent misuse of the banks by political figures and their family members and close associates.

None of this is surprising, given Karzai’s history with the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban group formed in the ’90s, known for its involvement in the drug trade, and given the prominence in Karzai’s government of Northern Alliance warlords. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Karzai instituted a national holiday celebrating Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander of the Northern Alliance. He included Massoud’s younger brother in his first cabinet, as well as Northern Alliance members as foreign and interior ministers. This was apparently intended and approved by the US government, which rigged the elections by intimidating Karzai’s electoral opponents.

Origins of the Problem: Opium in the CIA’s war vs. USSR

Northern Alliance involvement in the drug trade is common knowledge. Notably, during the brief period before the invasion in which opium production was suppressed, the only parts of the country where it persisted were in Northern Alliance-controlled regions. But Afghanistan’s role as an international opium supplier actually predates the Northern Alliance.

During the Soviet-Afghanistian conflict, in which the US government armed and trained radical Islamist Mujahadeen fighters against the Soviets, Karzai was a CIA contractor tasked with funneling US aid to the Taliban through the laundering of drug money. The CIA and Pakistani Intelligence partnered in sheltering and encouraging opium production during this period to fund these radical Islamist opponents of the Soviet state. Furthermore, at the time, the US-supported Taliban forced farmers to produce opium as a tax to support the anti-Soviet effort, a practice in which the Taliban still engages.

Charles Cogan, the orchestrator of the CIA operation in Afghanistan in the ’80s, explained the strategy essentially as one of giving priority to the anticommunist fight over the anti-drug fight.

“Our main mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Soviets. We didn’t really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade.”

This was an informative admission, but was also somewhat misleading: The CIA did not fail to investigate the drug trade in Central Asia – the intelligence agency actively fostered it. In fact, before the Soviet-Afghanistan war, the opium trade was much smaller and contained within the region; and there was certainly no heroin coming out of Afghanistan. The Soviet-Afghanistan war coincided with a dramatic and sudden increase in opium production for international markets. There was nothing before the 1980s remotely resembling the truly unprecedented current heroin trade, which has caused addiction epidemics all over Europe and Asia.

The blame-shifting game the US government is playing in response to this report is clearly a cynical lie. It is in a sense true that the government of Afghanistan is not doing much to stop the opium trade. But the US installed this government with full knowledge of the fact that it would be run by drug lords, and the participation of Afghanistan in the international heroin trade is a phenomenon directly traceable to earlier US intervention. And the report itself, while effectively exposing waste of taxpayer money, is intentionally ahistorical in its criticism, contextualizing its investigation of the opium problem in post-2001 Afghanistan.

Let us not forget the whole story behind how it came to be that the American taxpayer is subsidizing the international heroin epidemic.