The War of the Poppies

The War of the Poppies - Page 2

By Jed Bickman 10/23/12

As the US prepares to leave Afghanistan in 2014, we can claim some victories in the war on terror. But in the war on drugs there, we raised the white flag of surrender years ago.

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Afghan poppy farmer photo via

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Opium production may be centered in the nation’s south, but northern officials still benefit from the opium economy. They are often responsible for moving the product out of the country and, in some cases, for refining it into heroin. “The former deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics used his position to strengthen the web of the criminal protection enterprise, enshrining safe passage for many Afghan officials' drug trafficking, if not into law, then certainly in regulatory practice,” Mankin wrote.

The difference between the two regions is that in the north, officials must maintain a relationship with the Karzai government, which means that at least their involvement in the drug trade must remain covert. There’s an interest in maintaining plausible deniability. Yet the bribes paid to local police are extremely high. It has been reported that one northern district police commander took home $400,000 a month from heroin smuggling.

The south, by contrast, is still under the loose control of a network of local khans and is governed mostly through kinship ties. The opium economy strengthens this informal tribal system, preventing the Karzai government and NATO from gaining control beyond temporary military victories. However, this does not mean that all opium in Afghanistan funds the Taliban—far from it. Analysts like Mankin estimate that there are probably about 20 huge players in the opium trade in southern Afghanistan. Each is likely to operate as a power broker, and may make payments to the Taliban out of political expediency or for protection, rather than out of any ideological commitment.

The major traffickers make payments to the Taliban mainly out of political expediency or for protection, not out of any ideological commitment.

As the production of heroin expands, so does the local use of it. Afghanistan faces a public health epidemic of heroin addiction that goes almost entirely untreated. In 2010, there were 900,000 drug users in Afghanistan, or 7% of the population. From 12% to 41% of the police force tests positive for a narcotic.

Meanwhile, US troops in Afghanistan are falling prey to opiates as well. In 2010 and 2011, eight soldiers died of opiate overdoses while deployed in Afghanistan. Positive drug tests for opium throughout the military increased tenfold from 2002 to 2010. Military observers fear that in addition to the epidemic of PTSD, traumatic brain injury and alcoholism, the new generation of vets will have to deal with drug abuse—and, in some cases, drug dealing. General Barry McCaffrey, the former US Drug Czar, said in a speech to drug treatment providers, “I'd be astonished if we don't see soldiers who find 10 kilograms of heroin and pack it up in a birthday cake and send it home to their mother with a note that says, 'Don't open this package until I'm home.’”

The Afghan people are preparing for 2014 when America removes itself from the equation. Any further enforcement efforts by the US over the next year or so will only increase the price and empower producers. At the same time, with the departure of the Western military forces—and the civilian-aid programs—the billions of dollars that flowed into the Afghan economy will dry up, leaving opium and heroin the nation’s only essential resource. The most likely scenario is that the narcotics business will support a thriving illicit economy, attracting other illicit trade such as human trafficking and weapons smuggling. 

The only feasible future in which Afghan opium production decreases is that the Taliban retake authoritarian control over the country and enforce a new opium ban—which they would do only if it were in their own economic interest.

After 11 years, a trillion dollars, and untold deaths and destruction, we will leave Afghanistan to its fate, as the country prepares itself for what many observers believe will be a civil war. What will happen after that is anyone’s guess. In a country that has been in chaos for generations, one thing is certain: the countryside will bloom with red and pink poppies and the opium and heroin will flow. What is urgently needed now is expanded drug treatment both in Afghanistan, where addiction is the only way to dull a traumatic and unstable life, and in Europe, where the demand for the drug makes Afghan poppy production an economic inevitability. This is not to say that the US invasion and occupation has not changed Afghanistan. Ironically, it may have removed the only political regime that had the power to control or ban opium production in Afghanistan.

Jed Bickman is a frequent contributor to The Fix. He also writes for The Nation, CounterPunch and other websites and magazines. 

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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