U.S. Taking Heat for An Afghan Drug Boom

Opium Trade Blossoms Again

By Marc Perelman

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Bush administration, already under fire for under-funding the rebuilding of Afghanistan and permitting that country’s warlords to retain their power, is now facing charges that it is allowing Afghan drug production to boom.

The charges, initially raised by a handful of independent experts, were aired at a Senate hearing in May. Critics say the administration has turned a blind eye to an explosive increase in Afghan opium production, either because it cannot control the countryside or because it does not want to undermine regional warlords who profit from the trade and are fighting America’s proxy war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied the administration was looking the other way, insisting the American anti-drug policy was serious and urging critics not to expect immediate results.

Production of opium, officially banned by the American-backed government in January 2002, reached 3,400 tons in 2002, according to the United Nations. The 2003 harvest is expected to reach a similar level, making Afghanistan the source of three-fourths of the world’s opium, officials and experts say. Opium, a paste derived from poppy seeds, is the basic component in heroin.

The developments are likely to fuel criticism that the administration has sidelined the war on drugs to favor the war on terrorism or the war in Iraq.

“This is just outrageous,” said Larry Johnson, a former State Department and CIA official who is now a consultant to government and business on terrorism and narcotics. “If any other country was in the position we are and allowing this to happen, we would accuse them of being complicit in the drug trade. The Bush administration is showing benign neglect.”

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware has expressed outrage on several occasions over the administration’s apparent toleration of Afghan drug production, most recently in May during judiciary committee hearings on links between international drug trafficking and terrorism.

“Despite President Karzai’s truly valiant efforts, Afghanistan has now regained its status as the world’s largest source of opium,” Biden told the committee. “We can’t separate fighting terrorism and fighting drug trafficking, given the considerable linkages between the two.”

“Afghanistan is the No. 1 opium producer again, this time on our watch,” a Biden aide told the Forward.

While American government estimates are lower than those of the U.N., officials of both the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledge that Afghan production is rising again. They contend, however, that the rise is unavoidable given the lack of overall security and central government control in the country.

The State Department’s international narcotics and law enforcement division is managing a $60 million program in Afghanistan focused on building police and judicial forces and developing alternative crops. This compares to more than $1 billion allocated to eradication efforts in Colombia, the main center of cocaine production.

The official, acknowledging that production in Afghanistan was rising, said it was “disappointing though not unexpected.”

The 2002 and expected 2003 figures mean that production has rebounded to its level in 2000. Output fell sharply in 2001, reaching a low of 180 tons that year as a result of a ban on poppy farming enforced by the Taliban.

Some critics charge that by allowing cash-strapped Afghanistan to cash in on the drug trade, the administration might be using questionable means to help the country regain its footing.

Andrew McCoy, author of the just-published book “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade,” said that opium was the “ideal drug for Afghan reconstruction” since it requires a massive workforce and little water in a country plagued by unemployment and an arid climate.

The figures are indeed staggering. The U.N. estimates that between 1994 and 2000, Afghanistan’s gross income for opium production was about $150 million per year, or some $750 per family. In 2002, it jumped to $1.2 billion, or $6,500 per family. And income from trafficking is estimated to be as high as $1.4 billion in 2002.

However, little of that money reaches the ordinary Afghan, whose average wage is $2 per month.

Johnson, the ex-CIA official, said the administration had in fact decided to “privatize aid to Afghanistan.”

“The drug users will help rebuild Afghanistan,” he said.

In recent weeks, several American troops, aid workers and Afghan officials have been killed by what American officials say are remnants or sympathizers of the Taliban.

At the same time, the central government is struggling to establish its authority outside of the capital, Kabul, and is locked in a fight with powerful warlords over their unwillingness to send tax and customs proceeds to Kabul.

Critics say the United States may be backpedaling in the war against drugs because it was allied to the warlords, funding them and using them to fight the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda last year. As it happens, those same warlords control the drug trade, experts said.

This helps explain why the implementation of the ban on opium production and trade announced by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in January 2002 has been piecemeal, experts said.

“You have a contradiction in the U.S. policy in Afghanistan,” said McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “You have U.S. forces chasing the Taliban and Al Qaeda with the warlords-cum-drug lords and you have an effort to build a central government… So you won’t see much U.S. support for the official eradication policy of Karzai because we are in bed with the warlords.”

Several sources speculated that Afghanistan’s drug production may have captured less attention than Colombia’s production among Washington policymakers in part because the vast majority of the Afghan drug ends up in Europe, while 90% of Colombia’s drugs are United States-bound.

Reinforcing those suspicions, American officials have openly hinted that the Europeans should pay the bulk of the Afghan eradication effort. A State Department official confirmed that the administration was “encouraging” the Europeans to do more.

Administration officials contend that the Taliban used its opium policy cynically, banning the drug only to encourage scarcity and raise prices. U.N. figures appear to reinforce this view. The Taliban initially encouraged poppy production, prompting it to reach more than 4,600 tons a year, according to the U.N. Production of the drug — though not the trade — was banned in 2001, leading to a decline in production and a spike in prices, which rose tenfold at harvest time in the summer of 2001 and doubled again that fall, reaching 20-fold before September 11.

Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a private group that promotes alternative drug policies, said that while he lamented the administration’s cynicism, the policy might be viewed as a refreshingly pragmatic, “strategic” stance on opium production.

“We know that when you push production down in one place, it will pop up somewhere else,” he said. “So where does opium production have more strategic interest for the U.S.? Maybe they are better off having it in Afghanistan.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.