The Afghan Drug Trade and the Elephant in the Room

Foreign Policy magazine this month features an article entitled “Think Again: The Afghan Drug Trade“, which is a decent overview of the opium problem – as far as it goes. Unsurprisingly, however, in doing so, it proverbially ignores the elephant in the room, and in doing so represents part of the problem rather than the solution.

Afghanistan Poppy CropTo its credit, the article begins by dispelling the myth that the drug trade in Afghanistan is virtually controlled by the Taliban, observing that “In the popular and American political imaginations, the Taliban are thought to be the big winners from this [Afghanistan’s] near monopoly [on global opium production]”, but the truth is “The Taliban take 2 to 12 percent of a $4 billion industry”.

This is rare candor for a mainstream publication – it’s more typical to see the U.S. media misleading the public on the role anti-government elements play in the drug trade (I discussed both these points in “New York Times Misleads on Taliban Role in Opium Trade“, Foreign Policy Journal, November 29, 2008).

But the authors neglect to draw the corollary, rather leaving it up to readers to put two and two together and realize that this means that the lion’s share of the Afghan drug trade is under the control of elements friendly to the Afghan government and/or the foreign occupying forces. While one might just assume that the authors feel it isn’t necessary to explicitly mention this because FP’s readers are intelligent enough to figure that out for themselves, there is another more likely explanation for the omission.

The authors, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Jonathan D. Kulick, and Mark A.R. Kleiman, are the authors of a recent report for the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) that does explicitly acknowledge (emphasis added): “If counternarcotics policies are effectively targeted at pro-insurgency traffickers, they may be able to reduce insurgency by enabling pro-government traffickers and corrupt officials to enjoy a monopoly.”

But what’s most striking about this acknowledgment is that it is presented as a recommendation; one that – lest the reader miss the point – the authors repeat (emphasis added): “Again, it may be possible to target counter-narcotics specifically against the insurgency by selective enforcement that effectively tolerates pro-government traffickers and corrupt officials.”

That is pretty much a summary of what U.S. drug policy in Afghanistan has been, as the report also explicitly observes (emphasis added): “The authors’ main tentative policy suggestion – assure that drugs enrich only corrupt officials – is in effect what the Bush administration tried during 2001-2004.”

They omit, though, that this policy has been escalated by the Obama administration, whose special representative to Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, in the summer of 2009 rightly criticized the policy of eradication (“The poppy farmer is not our enemy. The Taliban are.”), only to add that eradication would still continue, only in limited areas – which effectively meant that poppy cultivation in areas under Taliban control would be targeted, but in areas under U.S. control it could continue. Following that announcement, it emerged that the U.S. military was pursuing a policy of targeting drug traffickers with ties to insurgent groups – and only those drug traffickers with ties to insurgent groups.

As the CIC report also points out, after the Taliban banned and effectively reduced opium production in 2001, “The locus of production moved to the territory controlled by the warlords” – that is, the “pro-drug dealing warlords aligned with the United States and its coalition allies.” After the U.S. overthrew the Taliban, opium production once again soared to record levels. The CIC report adds, “At present, insurgents appear to be capturing only a small share of those trafficking revenues.”

The authors, in their FP article, praise the fact that “The DEA and military … try to selectively disrupt the traffickers who are linked most closely to the insurgency.” They also observe, in challenging the notion that “American Drug Addicts are Supporting the Taliban”, that the principle markets for the Afghan opium trade are in Asia and Europe and that the U.S. “consumes only about 5 percent of the world’s illegal opium, and most of that comes from Colombia and Mexico.”

But what they neglect to mention is the untold number of soldiers sent to Afghanistan who have become drug addicts. Despite the claims of the U.S. government that it is actively engaged in trying to curtail the drug trade in Afghanistan, heroin is readily available to U.S. troops, including just outside of the Bagram military base. It’s a problem nobody seems to want to talk about, but indications are that drug use and addiction among soldiers is a serious problem, just as it was for veterans of the Vietnam war, thanks in no small part to the CIA’s role in protecting and participating in the drug trade in the Golden Triangle.

It’s a familiar pattern (during the Soviet-Afghan war, for example, the principle beneficiary of U.S. financing for the mujahedeen was Afghanistan’s leading drug lord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), yet the authors carry on as thought the U.S. was serious about fighting the drug problem in Afghanistan.

This is a logical absurdity. It is axiomatic that if we are actually serious about tackling the destructive Afghan opium trade, we must recognize and confront the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth, as Professor Peter Dale Scott argues persuasively in his book “American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan“, that the U.S. itself plays a central role in the global drug trade.

And the problem goes well beyond the historical fact that the U.S. has frequently aligned itself with drug traffickers and turned a blind eye to their activities. The U.S. economy itself is addicted to drugs. As Professor Scott notes in his book, “A Senate staff report has estimated ‘that $500 billion to $1 trillion in criminal proceeds are laundered through banks worldwide each year, with about half of that amount moved through United States banks.’ The London Independent reported in 2004 that drug trafficking constitutes ‘the third biggest global commodity in cash terms after oil and the arms trade.'”

A more recent report by the same House subcommittee, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, offered a slightly revised estimate of $500 to $1.5 trillion dollars laundered through the global financial system each year. “The failure of U.S. banks to take adequate steps to prevent money laundering through their correspondent bank accounts is not a new or isolated problem,” the report stated. “It is longstanding, widespread and ongoing.”

Indeed, the London Guardian just reported a case-in-point on how cocaine smugglers in Mexico had laundered money “through one of the biggest banks in the United States: Wachovia, now part of the giant Wells Fargo”, which “became a beneficiary of $25bn in taxpayers’ money” following the 2008 stock market crash. This case represents “only the tip of an iceberg”, the Guardian notes.

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, drug money was used to help prop up the U.S. economy following the 2008 financial crisis. “In many instances, drug money is currently the only liquid investment capital,” Costa has said. “In the second half of 2008, liquidity was the banking system’s main problem and hence liquid capital became an important factor.” The UNODC found evidence that “interbank loans were funded by money that originated from drug trade and other illegal activities,” Costa said, and there were “signs that some banks were rescued in that way.”

In other words, big money interests and power players within the United States have a financial interest in the preservation of the global drug trade, and U.S. policies and foreign interventions have often historically been aligned with that goal – including in present day Afghanistan.

While on one hand helping to dispel certain persistent myths about the Afghan drug trade, on the other hand, the authors of the FP article nevertheless effectively argue in favor of maintaining this status quo. More serious – and less hypocritical – analysis of the global drug trade will be required if the international community ever hopes to tackle the Afghan opium problem.

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Jeremy R. Hammond

Jeremy R. Hammond is an award-winning political analyst, editor and publisher of Foreign Policy Journal, and author. His new book is Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Read the first chapter FREE at! 

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  • Rosco

    Putting the moral hypocracy of governments aside. Do you believe that such a trade together with the economy it creates, should be encouraged?.

    • If you’re directing the question at me, absolutely not. I should have thought that was obvious enough from the article.

  • Neo

    Very interesting read.

    The most rational way to deal with the drug ‘problem’ is to legalise and regulate it.

    But where would the CIA be without its covert earnings from the world trade in narcotics?

  • Anders Ulstein

    Well, the fact remains that the vast majority of the opium is cultivated in the heartland of the insurgency and the Taliban held area of Hellmand and its neighbouring provinces in the south/west. In more than 20 other provinces where the government is relatively speaking in control there has for a few years now been no opium cultivated at all. Given the corruption that is a stunning feat.
    A part from this I think that the main drivers are poverty and economic interest, as various UNODC surveys indicate. A condition to start dealing with the complex issues of alternative livelihoods etc is to control the insurgency. That seems pretty clear.
    Yes it is extremely difficult, but if one succeeds global illegal opium production is at a stroke decimated. Think about it.

    • That’s in large part just the market at work. Poppies get a higher opium yield in the south.

      I don’t know how you can suggest that if we could just “control the insurgency” then “global illegal opium production is at a stroke decimated.” Perhaps you didn’t actually read the article? The drug trade connected to the insurgency is a small fraction of the total. The biggest drug traffickers in Afghanistan are those friendly to the Afghan government and U.S. forces. Again, if we don’t recognize and confront that elephant in the room, you won’t be able to do a thing to end the drug trade.

  • Ed

    Mr. Hammond’s assertion that heroin addiction is some massive problem (“untold numbers of soldiers”) and that soldiers are somehow sneaking off of Bagram Air Base to score a bag of dope is beyond absurd. Frankly, I was intrigued with the article until that doozy was dropped in. Such a claim is so far from the reality of this theatre of war it instantly discredited the entire article. This is not Vietnam – you can’t just stroll off base and grab some drugs. I know because I live and work with US soldiers every day. I’m here. Mr. Hammond clearly is not. And while that’s never enough justification to dismiss what someone has to say, in this case I’ll make an exception.

    • Ed, I provided you a link:

      It’s easy for soldiers to score heroin in Afghanistan
      Simultaneously stressed and bored, U.S. soldiers are turning to the widely available drug for a quick escape.

      BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Just outside the main gate to Bagram airfield, a U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, sits a series of small makeshift shops known by locals as the Bagram Bazaar. For Afghans, it is the place to buy American goods, but the stalls that make up the heart of the bazaar are also well known for what they provide American soldiers stationed at Bagram. Walking through the bazaar it takes less than 10 minutes for a vendor in his early 20s to step out and ask, “You want whiskey?” “No, heroin,” I tell him. He ushers me into his store with a smile.

      The shop is small, 9 feet wide by 14 feet deep, and dark. The walls at the front are lined with dusty cans of soda, padlocks and miscellaneous beauty supplies. As we enter, a teenager is visible at the back, seated in a chair next to a collection of American military knives and flashlights. The shopkeeper speaks to him in Dari. The teen stands and heads for the door, where he stops and asks my Afghan driver a question. My driver translates, “He wants to know how much you want? Twenty, 30, 50 dollars’ worth?” From past experience, for I have arranged this same transaction a dozen times in a dozen different Bagram Bazaar shops, I know that the $30 bag will contain enough pure to bring hundreds of dollars on the streets of any American city. Afghanistan, after all, is the source of 90 percent of the world’s heroin. I say 30 and the teen jogs off.

      The true extent of the heroin problem among American soldiers now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is unknown. At Bagram, according to a written statement provided by a spokesperson for the base, Army Maj. Chris Belcher, the “Military Police receive few reports of alcohol or drug issues.” The military has statistics on how many troops failed drug tests, but the best information on long-term addiction comes from the U.S. Veterans Administration. The VA is the world’s largest provider of substance abuse services, caring for more than 350,000 veterans per year, of whom about 30,000 are being treated for opiate addiction. Only preliminary information for Iraq and Afghanistan is available, however, and veterans of those conflicts are not yet showing up in the stats. According to the VA’s annual “Yellowbook” report on substance abuse, during Fiscal Year 2006, fewer than 9,000 veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) sought treatment for substance abuse of all kinds at the VA; the report did not specify how many were treated for opiate abuse.

      Experts think it could be a decade before the true scope of heroin use in Iraq and Afghanistan is known.


      • Ed


        On my first tour in Afghanistan I worked on a special operations team that worked counter narcotics. The experience left me quite cynical about the prospects of success with regard to the overall counter narcotics effort. I saw much of what was being done as having been manipulated by our would-be allies in an attempt to play market prices. Eradication numbers go up – guess what, so do street prices in Europe and everywhere else along the value chain. Why my superiors couldn’t or wouldn’t process that notion was beyond me. So, much of what you wrote in your article rang true.

        But I’m sorry to say that I’m just not buying the vast numbers of soldiers are abusing heroin line. And I really don’t buy the Salon assertions that soldiers are dumping “sensitive military” gear to underwrite their habits. My cousin was presented with a large bill, while lying in a bed at Walter Reed, for the body armor that was cut off him and left lying on a road south of Baghdad after he stepped on a IED – and that’s what happens when you don’t turn your issued equipment in at the end of your tour. You get a bill. For body armor, it’s about $2,000. So would a soldier swap his IBA out for a fifty dollar bag of heroin? Very, very doubtful.

        Then there’s the issues of random drug testing that hangs over all of our heads, not to mention the necessary mental facilities required to perform a large amount of the tasks required for military personnel. Add on to that the prevailing culture within the military about drugs (i.e. it’s for the weak-minded, criminal element and general scumbags), and you’re left with a very thin slice of potential candidates for such abuse.

        Having said all that, there are hundreds of contractors from many countries at Bagram. Perhaps they are the folks who prop up the illicit drug markets outside of Bagram, but I just don’t believe that US active duty, reservists or national guard troops are.

        Now, with regard to what happens after they get home, that’s a different story. To equate the numbers of opiate abusers on the back end, twenty years after a war ends, with people who developed habits while in theatre is abuse of statistics of the worst kind. Drugs are just as readily available on the streets of any American SMSA as they are outside the gates of Bagram. And when you lump in unemployment, PTSD and other problems faced by returning veterans, you have the potential to drive the numbers of drug abusers in the veteran population up significantly.

        To be honest with you, fighting this war is very, very frustrating and, as has become cliche to say, it is extremely complex. We have problems enough with the fight – we don’t need people telling the American public that their kids are turning into dope addicts while deployed when that’s just patently not true. You’re welcome to speculate on the motivations and manipulations of the counter narcotics effort. And you’re welcome to criticize the war itself. But to cast doubt on the character of the tens of thousands of service members here, serving their country in very difficult conditions, that Sir, is just not fair.

        With Respect,

        • Ed, I’m being perfectly fair. First, if you take a second look, what I said in the article was that the extent to which drug use among soldiers is a problem is unknown. Second, soldiers areusing drugs in Afghanistan, whether you are willing to acknowledge the fact or not.

          Australian soldiers using cocaine, heroin in Afghanistan

          Diggers addicted to cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs

          According to Gerald Posner of the Daily Beast, the problem is sever enough that U.S. intelligence put out a report blaming the Taliban for “targeting American troops [with drugs] in an effort to undermine their effectiveness, while raising cash to pay for new recruits and weaponry” (also see above link).

          The Canadian military concluded in a report that there was a “high probability” that Canadian troops were not just using, but involved in the drug trade.

          “Three thousand fifty-seven veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were potentially diagnosed with a drug dependency from fiscal year 2005 through March 2007, according to figures provided to ABC News from the Veterans Health Administration.”

          “The number of American soldiers seeking treatment for opiate abuse has skyrocketed over the past five years, at a time when the U.S. military has been surging forces into the heart of the world’s leading opium producer. Pentagon statistics obtained by show that the number of Army soldiers enrolled in Substance Abuse Program counseling for opiates has soared nearly 500 percent — from 89 in 2004 to 529 last year. The number showed a steady increase almost every year in that time frame — but it leaped 50 percent last year when the U.S. began surging troops into Afghanistan…. But the abundance and accessibility of heroin in Afghanistan surely account for part of the jump, said Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an Army Reserve officer who served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004. Shaffer said heroin abuse had “started to get out of hand” when he was in the country. He said a “black market” existed where troops on U.S. bases would trade goods to local Afghans in exchange for heroin. “It sounds like it kind of went way beyond that,” he said after learning about the statistics. “It’s inevitable. … It’s available. It’s right there.”