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

Alfred 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 that

  • 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.)

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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

Unfortunately, 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.”

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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

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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 government."

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.

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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 problem:

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.