Alain Labrousse



Following 9/11, the United States and the rest of the world discovered, for a second time in a little under 15 years, that Afghanistan was the world's first opiate producer. While throughout the war against the Communists, illicit-crop growing had not ceased to expand in the zones controlled by the Mujaidhin, it was necessary for the Soviets to get ready to leave Afghanistan in order for the ambassador of the United States in Pakistan, Robert B. Oakley, to "realize" in March 1988, that Afghanistan resistant fighters were connected to opium production and heroin traffic and to ask the representative of the intern government in Peshawar to "reduce" poppy growing in the territories under their control.


Upon the intervention of British troops in Afghanistan, Tony Blair did not hesitate to blame the Taliban for being solely responsible for the position arrived at by Pakistan in opiate production. The international press came to the conclusion that this drug played an essential role in the financing of Ben Laden's terrorist networks.  The situation is, in fact, much more complex.


Although the war might be to blame for the considerable expansion of production between 1979 and 1992, we will see that this is not so in the sense that we commonly understand it (the need for them Mujaidhin to buy weapons). This only became partially true as of 1999 (the fall of the Communist regime), after the Americans and the Russians ceased to arm and equip their respective protégés. The Taliban only inherited this situation as of 1994-1996, following which they proceeded to administrate it to their profit. The reasons for which the Mollah Omar banned (successfully) poppy growing in the year 2000 are the object of speculations which will be discussed further on. In contrast, the reasons for the resurgence of production on a large scale are clear: the extreme poverty of peasants with no access to international aid, the inability of the central government put in place by the United States to control the country, and the use made by the latter of the war chiefs involved in this traffic in order to combat the Taliban. Afghanistan is an emblematic theater in the geopolitics of drugs. It incorporates all of the issues also to be found in other terrains, particularly Colombia.


Over 700 years of history

The Taliban only inherited, much like their predecessors “the freedom fighters”, the fruit of the war which is ravaging the country since 1979.  Up to that point, poppy growing and opium use −which have existed in Afghanistan for over 700 years− did not pose any particular problem to the country's inhabitants and neighbors.  According to the legend, Alexander the Great, while crossing the region (327-325 B.C.) at the head of his armies, brought opium to the peoples of the region. Poppy growing, however, only settled on the Indian subcontinent at a much later date.  At the end of the 13th century, Marco Polo observed poppy plantations in the Northern part of Afghanistan in the Badakhshan province, which is still today an important illicit crop growing zone.


While opium was consumed as a decoction whereby the capsule’s fibers were boiled, it was the Mongol conquerors who taught the local populations to incise the capsule in order to extract its latex and eat it. The Mongol's, which reigned over India from 1527 to 1707, made poppy cultivation and opium trading into a state monopoly.  However, opium smoking, invented by the Portuguese, did not become popular until the end of the 18th-century and beginning of the 19th century, when the monopoly of this drug passed into the hands of the British.  India and Pakistan inherited this monopoly upon their independence.


During the 1920s and 1930s, representatives of the Afghan government, then a sovereign state, already took part in the meetings of the Society of Nations’ "Permanent Central Opium Committee”.  During the Second Opium Conference in 1924, Afghan representatives stated that poppy was grown in the provinces Herat, Badarkhshan y Djelalabad and that the state had renounced its monopoly on opium trade. The Afghanistan Customs office collected a 5% duty on opium production, which was by then "privatized".  In 1932, poppy was grown on 40 hectares which produced 75 tons of opium (compared to approximately 6000 tons in China at the time).  Poppy growing was banned on two occasions, 1945 and 1947, that which did not imply a stop to opium exports to India. Afghanistan, arguing its lack of means to face this "serious problem", requested, apparently in vain, the aid of the international community in order to eradicate these crops.



Translated by Mama Coca
MM Moreno


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