AFGHANISTAN: World's largest source of heroin


A survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has found that Afghanistan has supplanted Burma as the world's largest source of illegal heroin. There are now 741 square kilometres of land being used to cultivate opium poppies in Afghanistan, compared to just 78km2 prior to the US invasion in late 2001.

“This year — after the best poppy harvest in 18 months — Afghanistan is again expected to be the world's No. 1 producer of opium with a harvest of more than 4000 tons, according to a UN survey”, Associated Press reported on June 17.

“Opium poppies are springing up from the plains to the mountains of Afghanistan in far higher quantities than in the final year of the Taliban, which the US and Britain overthrew, while vowing to end the region's narcotics trade”, the June 22 British Independent reported. “Opium — from which heroin is extracted — is produced on farms only a few dozen miles from the capital city of Kabul, headquarters to the international effort to end the heroin trade and rebuild the country.”

According to the UN narcotics agency, the gross income from Afghan opium sales exceeded US$1.2 billion last year. In a country where annual incomes barely reach US$170, a farmer can earn up to US$6500 a year from opium production.

Prior to the April 1978 revolution in Kabul, which brought to power the left-wing Peoples Democratic Party (PDPA), Afghanistan's opium production had no international significance, supplying only a small local trade. In July 1979, the White House assigned the CIA to mount a major covert operation to overthrow the PDPA government.

Working through Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), the CIA began supplying covert arms and finance to the Mujaheddin, the Afghan counter-revolutionary forces. As they gained control over areas of the countryside inside Afghanistan, the Mujaheddin required that farmers grow opium to provide the counter-revolution with a source of financing.

Under CIA and ISI protection, the Pakistan military and Afghan Mujaheddin opened opium processing laboratories on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

According to Alfred McCoy, professor of Southeast and Asian History at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, “Once the heroin left these labs in Pakistan's northwest frontier, the Sicilian Mafia imported the drugs into the US, where they soon captured 60% of the US heroin market”.

By 1981, Afghanistan — via Pakistan — had become the world's largest supplier of heroin.

The CIA's involvement in the Afghan drugs trade ended after the Mujaheddin overthrew the PDPA government in 1992. However, the export of heroin from Afghanistan to the West continued. By 1996, when the post-PDPA Mujaheddin government of Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was overthrown by the ISI-organised Taliban militia, Afghanistan was exporting $80 billion worth of heroin annually.

The cultivation of opium in Afghanistan reached its peak in 1999, when 910 km2 of poppies were sown, with the encouragement of the Taliban regime which relied on taxing the export of opium to buy arms. At the time, Afghanistan accounted for 72% of the world's illicit opium supply.

Under mounting international pressure the Taliban regime banned the cultivation of opium in 2000, boosting the value of existing stockpiles. Production of opium in Afghanistan fell by 60% in 2001. Opium production in Afghanistan continued — in fact, doubled — in the areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, the coalition of anti-Taliban mujaheddin factions.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban regime by the US-backed Northern Alliance in late 2001, opium production began to rapidly increase. The UN narcotics agency reported on February 26 that “about 3400 tons of opium were produced in Afghanistan in 2002, making Afghanistan again the largest opium producer in the world… Over three-quarters of the heroin sold in Europe is originating from Afghanistan.”

From Green Left Weekly, July 2, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.