Opium and the CIA: Can the US Triumph in the Drug-Addicted War in Afghanistan?

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McCoy’s important new article
(TomDispatch, posted on Global
Research, April 5, 2010) deserves to mobilize Congress for a serious
revaluation of America’s ill-considered military venture in
Afghanistan. The answer to the question he poses in his title –
“Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State? –
is amply shown by his impressive essay to be a resounding “No!”
. . . not until there is fundamental change in the goals and strategies
both of Washington and of Kabul.

He amply documents

  • the
    Afghan state of Hamid Karzai is a corrupt narco-state
    to which Afghans are forced to pay bribes each year $2.5 billion,
    a quarter of the nation’s economy;
  • the Afghan
    economy is a narco-economy
    : in 2007 Afghanistan produced 8,200
    tons of opium, a remarkable 53% of the country’s GDP and 93% of
    global heroin supply.

Map of Afghanistan
showing major poppy fields and intensity of conflict 2007–08

  • military
    options for dealing with the problem are at best ineffective and
    at worst counterproductive
    McCoy argues that the best hope lies in reconstructing the Afghan
    countryside until food crops become a viable alternative to opium,
    a process that could take ten or fifteen years, or longer. (I
    shall argue later for an interim solution: licensing Afghanistan
    with the International Narcotics Board to sell its opium legally.)

Perhaps McCoy’s
most telling argument is that in Colombia cocaine at its peak represented
only about 3 percent of the national economy, yet both the FARC
guerillas and the right-wing death squads, both amply funded by
drugs, still continue to flourish in that country. To simply eradicate
drugs, without first preparing for a substitute Afghan agriculture,
would impose intolerable strains on an already ravaged rural society
whose only significant income flow at this time derives from opium.
One has only to look at the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, after
a draconian Taliban-led reduction in Afghan drug production (from
4600 tons to 185 tons) left the country a hollow shell.

On its face,
McCoy’s arguments would appear to be incontrovertible, and
should, in a rational society, lead to a serious debate followed
by a major change in America’s current military policy. McCoy
has presented his case with considerable tact and diplomacy, to
facilitate such a result.

The CIA’s
Historic Responsibility for Global Drug Trafficking

there are important reasons why such a positive outcome is unlikely
any time soon. There are many reasons for this, but among them are
some unpleasant realities which McCoy has either avoided or downplayed
in his otherwise brilliant essay, and which have to be confronted
if we will ever begin to implement sensible strategies in Afghanistan.

The first reality
is that the extent of CIA involvement in and responsibility for
the global drug traffic is a topic off limits for serious questioning
in policy circles, electoral campaigns, and the mainstream media.
Those who have challenged this taboo, like the journalist Gary Webb,
have often seen their careers destroyed in consequence.

Since Alfred
McCoy has done more than anyone else to heighten public awareness
of CIA responsibility for drug trafficking in American war zones,
I feel awkward about suggesting that he downplays it in his recent
essay. True, he acknowledges that “Opium first emerged as a
key force in Afghan politics during the CIA covert war against the
Soviets,” and he adds that “the CIA’s covert war served
as the catalyst that transformed the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands
into the world’s largest heroin producing region.”

But in a very
strange sentence, McCoy suggests that the CIA was passively drawn
into drug alliances in the course of combating Soviet forces
in Afghanistan in the years 1979–88, whereas in fact the CIA
clearly helped create them precisely to fight the Soviets:

In one of
history’s ironic accidents, the southern reach of communist China
and the Soviet Union had coincided with Asia’s opium zone along
this same mountain rim, drawing the CIA into ambiguous alliances
with the region’s highland warlords.

There was no
such “accident” in Afghanistan, where the first local
drug lords on an international scale – Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
and Abu Rasul Sayyaf – were in fact launched internationally
as a result of massive and ill-advised assistance from the CIA,
in conjunction with the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
While other local resistance forces were accorded second-class status,
these two clients of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, precisely because
they lacked local support, pioneered the use of opium and heroin
to build up their fighting power and financial resources. Both,
moreover, became agents of salafist extremism, attacking the indigenous
Sufi-influenced Islam of Afghanistan. And ultimately both became
sponsors of al Qaeda.

CIA involvement
in the drug trade hardly began with its involvement in the Soviet-Afghan
war. To a certain degree, the CIA’s responsibility for the
present dominant role of Afghanistan in the global heroin traffic
merely replicated what had happened earlier in Burma, Thailand,
and Laos between the late 1940s and the 1970s. These countries also
only became factors in the international drug traffic as a result
of CIA assistance (after the French, in the case of Laos) to what
would otherwise have been only local traffickers.

One cannot
talk of “ironic accidents” here either. McCoy himself
has shown how, in all of these countries, the CIA not only tolerated
but assisted the growth of drug-financed anti-Communist assets,
to offset the danger of Communist Chinese penetration into Southeast
Asia. As in Afghanistan today CIA assistance helped turn the Golden
Triangle, from the 1940s to the 1970s, into a leading source for
the world’s opium.

In this same
period the CIA recruited assets along the smuggling routes of the
Asian opium traffic as well, in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon,
Italy, France, Cuba, Honduras, and Mexico. These assets have included
government officials like Manuel Noriega of Panama or Vladimiro
Montesinos of Peru, often senior figures in CIA-assisted police
and intelligence services. But they have also included insurrectionary
movements, ranging from the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s to
(according to Robert Baer and Seymour Hersh) the al Qaeda-linked
Jundallah, operating today in Iran and Baluchistan.

CIA map tracing
opium traffic from Afghanistan to Europe, 1998. The CIA cite, updated
in 2008 states “Most Southwest Asian heroin flows overland
through Iran and Turkey to Europe via the Balkans.” But in
fact drugs also flow through the states of the former Soviet Union,
and through Pakistan and Dubai.

The Karzai
Government, not the Taliban, Dominate the Afghan Dope Economy

Perhaps the
best example of such CIA influence via drug traffickers today is
in Afghanistan itself, where those accused of drug trafficking include
President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai (an active CIA
asset), and Abdul Rashid Dostum (a former CIA asset). The drug corruption
of the Afghan government must be attributed at least in part to
the U.S. and CIA decision in 2001 to launch an invasion with the
support of the Northern Alliance, a movement that Washington knew
to be drug-corrupted.

In this way
the U.S. consciously recreated in Afghanistan the situation it had
created earlier in Vietnam. There too (like Ahmed Wali Karzai a
half century later) the president’s brother, Ngo dinh Nhu,
used drugs to finance a private network that was used to rig an
election for Ngo dinh Diem. Thomas H. Johnson, coordinator of anthropological
research studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, has pointed out
the unlikelihood of a counterinsurgency program succeeding when
that program is in support of a local government that is flagrantly
dysfunctional and corrupt.

Thus I take
issue with McCoy when he, echoing the mainstream U.S. media, depicts
the Afghan drug economy as one dominated by the Taliban. (In McCoy’s
words, “If the insurgents capture that illicit economy, as
the Taliban have done, then the task becomes little short of insurmountable.”)
The Taliban’s share of the Afghan opium economy is variously
estimated from $90 to $400 million. But the U.N. Office on Drugs
and Crime (UNODC) estimates that the total Afghan annual earnings
from opium and heroin are in the order of from $2.8 to $3.4 billion.

Clearly the
Taliban have not “captured” this economy, of which the
largest share by far is controlled by supporters of the Karzai government.
In 2006 a report to the World Bank argued “that at the top
level, around 25-30 key traffickers, the majority of them in southern
Afghanistan, control major transactions and transfers, working closely
with sponsors in top government and political positions.” In
2007 the London Daily Mail reported that "the four largest
players in the heroin business are all senior members of the Afghan

The American
media have confronted neither this basic fact nor the way in which
it has distorted America’s opium and war policies in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration appears to have shifted away from the ill-advised
eradication programs of the Bush era, which are certain to lose
the hearts and minds of the peasantry. It has moved instead towards
a policy of selective interdiction of the traffic, explicitly limited
to attacks on drug traffickers who are supporting the insurgents.

This policy
may or may not be effective in weakening the Taliban. But to target
what constitutes about a tenth of the total traffic will clearly
never end Afghanistan’s current status as the world’s
number one narco-state. Nor will it end the current world post-1980s
heroin epidemic, which has created five million addicts in Pakistan,
over two million addicts inside Russia, eight hundred thousand addicts
in America, over fifteen million addicts in the world, and one million
addicts inside Afghanistan itself. Nor will it end the current world
post-1980s heroin epidemic, which has created five million addicts
in Pakistan, over two million addicts inside Russia, eight hundred
thousand addicts in America, over fifteen million addicts in the
world, and one million addicts inside Afghanistan itself.

The Obama government’s
policy of selective interdiction also helps explain its reluctance
to consider the most reasonable and humane solution to the world’s
Afghan heroin epidemic. This is the “poppy for medicine”
initiative of the International Council on Security and Development
(ICOS, formerly known as The Senlis Council): to establish a trial
licensing scheme, allowing farmers to sell their opium for the production
of much-needed essential medicines such as morphine and codeine.

The proposal
has received support from the European Parliament and in Canada;
but it has come under heavy attack in the United States, chiefly
on the grounds that it might well lead to an increase in opium production.
It would however provide a short-term answer to the heroin epidemic
that is devastating Europe and Russia – something not achieved
by McCoy’s long-term alternative of crop substitution over
ten or fifteen years, still less by the current Obama administration’s
program of selective elimination of opium supplies.

An unspoken
consequence of the “poppy for medicine” initiative would
be to shrink the illicit drug proceeds that are helping to support
the Karzai government. Whether for this reason, or simply because
anything that smacks of legalizing drugs is a tabooed subject in
Washington, the “poppy for medicine” initiative is unlikely
to be endorsed by the Obama administration.

Afghan Heroin
and the CIA’s Global Drug Connection

There is another
important paragraph where McCoy, I think misleadingly, focuses attention
on Afghanistan, rather than America itself, as the locus of the

At a drug
conference in Kabul this month, the head of Russia’s Federal Narcotics
Service estimated the value of Afghanistan’s current opium crop
at $65 billion. Only $500 million of that vast sum goes to Afghanistan’s
farmers, $300 million to the Taliban guerrillas, and the $64 billion
balance "to the drug mafia," leaving ample funds to
corrupt the Karzai government in a nation whose total GDP is only
$10 billion.

What this paragraph
omits is the pertinent fact that, according to the U.N. Office on
Drugs and Crime, only 5 or 6 percent of that $65 billion, or from
$2.8 to $3.4 billion, stays inside Afghanistan itself. An estimated
80 percent of the earnings from the drug trade are derived from
the countries of consumption – in this case, Russia, Europe,
and America. Thus we should not think for a moment that the only
government corrupted by the Afghan drug trade is the country of
origin. Everywhere the traffic has become substantial, even if only
in transit, it has survived through protection, which in other words
means corruption.

There is no
evidence to suggest that drug money from the CIA’s trafficker
assets fattened the financial accounts of the CIA itself, or of
its officers. But the CIA profited indirectly from the drug traffic,
and developed over the years a close relationship with it. The CIA’s
off-the-books war in Laos was one extreme case where it fought a
war, using as its chief assets the Royal Laotian Army of General
Ouane Rattikone and the Hmong Army of General Vang Pao, which were,
in large part, drug-financed. The CIA’s massive Afghanistan
operation in the 1980s was another example of a war that was in
part drug-financed.

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