Profits and Poppy : Afghanistan’s Illegal Drug Trade

On the 24th night of December 1979, bombs detonated all across town in Kabul. The Soviet Union had sent in 30,000 men to dethrone Hafizullah Amin, the temporary leader of Afghanistan. They aimed to prop up their proxy government, as a part of the Cold War. The US forces, on the other side, were not far behind them. In the following years, they provided arms, ammunition, and high-grade military technology to the Mujahideen. The Mujahideen were the Islamist guerilla groups in Afghanistan, opposed to communist ideology. In the countryside, a crop that flourished in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan (called the “Golden Crescent”) was spreading its weeds. The hunger and despair lead cash trapped farmers to grow opium poppies. These would sell at $50 per pound, a much better deal than wheat or other legal crops. Between 1984 and 1985 poppy production went from 140 metric tons(MT) to 400, according to the National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report. The drug money fuelled the resistance as warlords collected cuts from the product passing through the zones they controlled. Militants received regular military aid from the US’s Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence(ISI) acted as the funnel for these operations.

- Soviet Soldiers in Afghanistan During the late eighties, foreign policy in Afghanistan was laser-focused on the war. US forces sidelined ISI’s known links to heroin trafficking. When the Union collapsed in 1988, a power vacuum remained. It tore the country into a civil war between tribal groups as foreign help was reduced after the war. Local leaders came to depend even more on the illicit drug trade to fund themselves. Out of these conditions, the Taliban rose. When they took over the country in 1996, the Taliban imposed Sharia Law. They banned all entertainment, curtailed women’s rights to work, get an education, or apply for political office. Despite depending on the drug network to control the region, they placed a ban on the manufacturing of heroin and consumption of opiates. Yet, the production and distribution of the drugs were not banned. The Taliban’s support of poppy farming ensured support from regions where farmers faced limited options. A CIA report in 1998 stated that an agent working within the drug lords was willing to pay $230 per kilo for heroin. After the September 11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan. Neither the US Administration nor the intelligence agencies agreed to bomb the production sites. They claimed fear of “collateral damage”, despite mounting pressure from Britain. The war began with Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001, to destroy Al-Qaeda. It has now gone on for 20 more years. Since 2001, the percentage of heroin produced in Afghanistan has increased by a mortifying 17000%, as a direct result of the war. Opium poppy is a low risk crop in a high risk area. Afghanistan has a monopoly on the market and produced 95% of the global supply(9000 MT) in 2017. The USAID and Special forces in Afghanistan are and always have been well aware of this problem and have turned a bind eye to it. Solutions to the problems created more problems.

Farmers growing opium received fertilizer for wheat and other regional plants. The Taliban then got their hands on the chemical and used it to make explosive IEDs that could destroy military vehicles. Ignoring the fields led to the Taliban extracting profits from farmers and carpet bombing them caused the farmers to join the Taliban. Afghanistan has a long and rich history of trade, due to the silk route. The region is rich in minerals and oil and experiences a “resource trap”. Such countries, despite being abundant in resources, are unable to maximize their utility. Reasons include widespread corruption within government officials and military officers. Most of them are underpaid and so look for alternatives. None of this reflects upon the traders in Afghanistan. They are sharp and well versed in their Turkish, Iranian and Indian competitors’ resources and methods. They use a combination of experience and intelligence to solve business problems. They display this acumen despite inhabiting a region plagued by transient laws and leaders.

- Afghan Traders Foreign presence in Afghanistan worked for the region, yet at a grave cost. Rebuilding a government is arduous work. It should not be taken up by intervening foreigners who don’t understand a place’s history. Several “one-year” wars were fought for 20 years. None could rebuild the country. USAID workers and middlemen were not interested in long term plans. Their results would show after the termination of their contracts, for no higher up to acknowledge.

Judgment of Military commands was based on how quickly they spent CERP funding. SMEs and MSMEs were not given many contracts by players in the region, except China. US bases would use water bottled in the UAE. These bases were close to regional water bottling plants, which would have appreciated contracts. The job was doomed from the beginning. In May 2021, US Troops in Afghanistan began their withdrawal process. Two weeks before the completion date, the Taliban took control of the country. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country in an attempt to “avoid more bloodshed”. His whereabouts are unknown. In the absence of fire support, intelligence and plane support, the Afghan military lost all edge over the Taliban. Billions of dollars spent, very little to show for it.

-Ashraf Ghani As far as trade relations with neighbours go, China swooped in soon to back the new government. China provided Afghanistan millions of dollarsin aid for medical help, hospitals and a solar power station. Through the transit routes of Pakistan, the Taliban has stopped all trade to and from India. According to the Federation of Indian Export Organisation, the prices of dry fruits are going to increase. The same goes for asafoetida(hing). Exports worth around $835 million are on-route to the country via Dubai. Bilateral trade valuation was $1.4 billion for FY 20-21 and $1.52 billion in FY 19-20.

- Picture Taken by Danish Siddiqui

The interest foreign countries take in Afghanistan is due to the vast oil resources. International drug trafficking is also a reason. It is one of the methods through which terrorists raise funds. These drugs destroy lives, families and their prospects, all across the globe. Afghans tend to be quite fond of Bollywood and its music. Their phones are usually confiscated for interrogation reasons. They only reveal women dancing in fields with bright yellow flowers. Over 400 hundred Indians escaped from the country in the last week. Indian Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was killed by the Taliban in the conflict. More than 335,000 civilians have died in the fight since 2001. Can we say anything else?