War with drugs

The promotion of opium cultivation in Afghanistan to pay for the liberation war against the former Soviet Union left a devastating legacy.


Soon after his inauguration in January 1981, Reagan saw the Frenchman again. This time it was in the Oval Office of the White House. De Marenches had a concrete suggestion for a Franco – American  venture to revive the old alliance and counter the Soviet threat in Afghanistan. He called it Operation Moustique or Mosquito. “You know,” he told the President, “how much trouble a mosquito can cause a bear. If you’re not in a position to shoot the bear yourself, you should consider this method.”

   fromUnholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism by John K. Cooley


The Frenchman De Marenches was Count Alexandre de Marenches, head of France’s secret foreign intelligence service. And his suggestion would forever change the face and fortunes of Afghanistan, if not the entire world.  The French later withdrew from Operation Mosquito, but the United States administration under Ronald Reagan enthusiastically pursued the plan.


As Cooley writes, quoting the Frenchman, CIA Director William Casey “loved it …he leaped from his chair and sliced at the air with his fists.” 


Operation Mosquito was a simple-sounding subversive plan to combat the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1980.  The CIA was to pick up narcotic drugs seized in the US and supply it  on the sly to Russian soldiers. 


Thanks to US backing the ragtag mujahideen eventually metamorphosed  into a well-knit force fully-equipped with modern weapons, with complete control of the drug trade.



Afghan soldiers burn over
40 kg of heroin in Kabul

According to Alfred McCoy, the author of  “Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in Global Drug Trade?”, the CIA paid at least $3 billion dollars to the leaders of the Mujahedin against the Soviet Union. This included the Taliban which was a by-product and a beneficiary of the CIA-backed plan.


The upshot of the plan was that a region which did not figure prominently in the international narcotic map is today the world’s number one supplier of heroin. In 1980, one year after the invasion of Afghanistan by the  Soviet Union, five percent of the heroin in the world was produced from Afghan opium.


Now the figure is around 70 percent. According to the United Nations International Drug Control Programme, that increase is due to just one cause: the role of opium in the funding of the Mujahedin against the Soviet Union.


The fallout has virtually turned the country inside out.  A UN study in March this year says the opium economy has “chained a poor rural population — farmers, landless labour, small traders, women and children –- to the mercy of domestic warlords and international crime syndicates that continued to dominate several areas of the country”.


Afghanistan’s opium production increased more than 15-fold in the 25 years since the Soviet intervention and the beginning of CIA involvement in the drug trade.  The UN study says in 2000 worldwide demand for opium was about 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of which Afghanistan produced an estimated 3,000 to 4000 tonnes.


Production between 1979 and ’89 remained below 1,000 tonnes, only to shoot up in the period before the Taliban takeover  when it reached an all-time high of  4,000 tons.  Stocks fell after the Taliban imposed a ban on cultivation in 2001. 


But in post-Taliban Afghanistan cultivation has again gone up to 3400 tonnes, making it the world’s number one producer of opium and its derivative heroin.  Revenues for last year totalled over $1.2 billion, a considerable amount of which was taxed by the warlords, and the money went into activities that had nothing to do with traditional farming, the study said.


In an exclusive response to Al-Jazeera, Dr. Alfred McCoy said  “since the US, through the CIA, used the warlords,  most of them pre-Taliban drug lords, as ground forces against the Taliban and then let them take power in the provinces, these same war lords cum drug lords now control the harvest.”


Afghanistan’s income from drugs which was greater than foreign aid gives the provincial warlords more economic power and control than the central government under Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, Dr. McCoy said.


Among other things, the US-spawned narcotics trade in Afghanistan ensured the defeat of the Soviets. But now that the scenario has changed, and the narcotics trade has grown roots in the country,  how does Washington view the situation ?


“The US position on Afghani heroin is clear. Since all that is sold outside Central Asia is destined for Russia and Europe, then it’s Europe’s problem. The US expects the European Union to pay for drug control in Afghanistan and is not concerned, except for a periodic rhetorical admonition to the Karzai government to do something about it,” says Dr. McCoy.

At present,  opium is grown in 24 of the 32 Afghan provinces, but 95 percent of it is concentrated in five provinces, traditionally the largest-poppy growing areas: northern Badakhshan, eastern Nangarhar, central Uruzgan and southern Helmand and Kandahar.


The spillover is serious for Afghanistan’s neighbours.  Reports say central Asian anti-trafficking moves in recent months are struggling to keep pace with the rising volume of the drug trade.  Central Asian governments have also sounded the alarm on the destabilising social impact of drug trafficking.


One key indicator is the exploding HIV/AIDS infection rate in Central Asia. The UN report draws a direct link between the regional HIV/AIDS crisis and the Afghan drug trade. Opium production contributed to a 600-fold increase in AIDS cases in Central Asia from 1994 to 2001, of which 88 percent were related to injected drug use, the report said.


Uzbekistan’s anti-narcotic squad chief Aziz Yoldashov was quoted as saying that the rise in Afghan opium production has resulted in increased drug addiction in neighbouring states. There were over 24,000 registered addicts in Uzbekistan. “And this is not the full picture,” he said.


In 1979, the US administration had set its eyes on getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan. This made it turn a blind eye to the impact of increased supplies of Afghan heroin finding their way to the streets of New York and Los Angeles. 


Dr. David Musto, of the White House Strategy Council on Drug Abuse was quoted as saying: “On the streets, this drug is more potent, cheaper and more available than at any time in the last 20 years. This crisis is bound to worsen”.


By the early 1980s the Drug Enforcement Administration was recording big rises in overdose deaths  and addiction.


Afghanistan’s opium production leapt from about 100 tons in 1971 to 300 tons in 1982 and to 575 tons the following year. Correspondingly, narcotics sales on the streets of the United States went up by 22 percent in 1980, while cocaine supply soared by a  huge 57 percent to 44 tons, worth $30 billion.  


This was followed by crack cocaine, use of which shot up in the US even as the CIA-backed drug war was on in Afghanistan. On a radio programme for the “Alternative Radio” station in 1997,  Dr. McCoy said the former CIA director of this Afghan operation, Charles Cogan, admitted sacrificing the drug war to fight the Cold War.


Our main mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Soviets. We didn’t really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade,” he told Australian television. “I don’t think that we need to apologise for this. Every situation has its fallout. There was fallout in terms of drugs, yes, but the main objective was accomplished. The Soviets left Afghanistan.”