Phony Afghan Drug War
April 5, 2002
By Richard Prasad
In the post September 11th mindset of George W. Bush, the
key element was to find a causal link between anything and
everything and the war on terrorism. By taking down the Taliban,
the US would end Afghanistan's lucrative heroin market. By
ending the drug trade in Afghanistan, one source of funding
for terrorism would dry up. The logic was impeccable.
The only problem is, the growing season for poppy is upon
us, and alas the Bush administration is doing nothing to stop
the planting, and cultivation of the poppy plant. Was it a
mistake to tie the war on terror to the war on drugs, and
if we don't eliminate the poppy crop from Afghanistan, how
can there ever be stability in the future of that country?
Early on, one of the stated goals of the US war in Afghanistan
was to eliminate the poppy crop in Afghanistan. In a September
24th 2001 article on CNN.com a Senior Pentagon official said
that drug facilities were on "a list of potential targets"
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was considering
a "full spectrum" of options against the Taliban. Rumsfeld
went further. "We are intent on altering behavior." Meaning
the US would alter the heroin sales that netted Afghanistan
over 50 million dollars in 1999. Rumsfeld's optimistic statements
were made before the bombing even started.
As the war began, however, it became clear that ending the
Afghan drug trade was not the highest US priority. November
27th 2001 article on CNN.com a group called the International
Crisis Group, or ICG, headed by a former Austrailian foreign
minister and ex Finnish President called US and Euopean efforts
to stop the flow of opium from Afghanistan, and the rest of
Cental Asia has been limited in "scope, funding, and imagination."
The ICG argued that in order to effectively fight the opium
war in Afghanistan, more cooperation is needed from central
Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. So far,
those countries have helped militarily in the war on terrorism,
but have helped little in the opium drug war.
Despite this early criticism, the facade of fighting the
drug war in Afghanistan continued, and seeking to take advantage
of the early popular success in the war on terrorism, the
Bush Administration aired two 30 second commercials during
the Super Bowl, that had kids saying in essence that they
funded terrorism, every time they did drugs. To the average
kid, whose worst drug offense is smoking a joint, this argument
is laughable. And laughter is what greeted this Bush anti-drug
ad from its target audience of kids. The ad was laughed off
the air, by the very kids it sought to inform. The ads cost
3.2 million dollars to air.
Despite such missteps, Hamid Karzai put on a brave face as
an Afghan drug warrior. He was going to fight the war against
opium wasn't he? On February 23, 2002, according to CNN.com
Karzai made the following statement: "The cultivation, manufacturing
and use of opium and all its derivatives are now considered
illegal." The truth was, Karzai was just restating a ban already
put on the poppy crop by the Taliban, in the year 2000.
Ironically, the Taliban, the same Taliban that let Osama
Bin Laden and Al Queda flourish, the same Taliban that demeaned
and degraded women by locking them in their homes. This same
Taliban banned the growing of poppy in the year 2000, and
almost no poppy was grown in Taliban controlled areas. Even
though the Taliban banned the growing of the poppy crop, they
kept enough of it stockpiled to keep the money coming in.
By April of 2002, the hard reality was sinking in. The hard
reality is that the US could do nothing to stem the tide of
heroin coming from Aghanistan. According to a New York Times
article from April 1st, American officials have quietly given
up hopes of reducing the opium crop in Afghanistan. According
to this same article, the 2002 drug harvest from Afghanistan
could be large enough to inundate the world with cheap heroin.
The US originally intended to buy out poppy farmers, but
is now trying a less ambitious strategy, trying to destroy
opium producing facilities, and trying to strengthen anti-smuggling
efforts in neighboring countries. But the fluid nature of
the war make these tasks difficult. According to Bush drug
czar John Walters, "There are no major opium producing institutions
in the country." "What we can do is very limited." In fact,
the US has ceded leadership in the Afghan opium war to Britain,
who can trace most of the heroin on its streets directly to
The sad truth is that the US does not want to stop the drug
trade in Afghanistan, because that would mean taking on the
Afghan warlords, and if the US did that, we might face a wider,
more intense war than we faced against the Al Qaeda. More
people are willing to fight for 50 million dollars in drug
money than they are for Islam, that is for sure.
If the US was truly serious about the heroin problem that
finds its origin in Afghanistan, we would have destroyed the
poppy crops as they grew, and paid the poppy farmers to grow
other crops. But that would mean an increase in foreign aid,
and foreign aid is an anathema to most Republicans.
Now that we are only going after heroin processing labs,
the truth of the Afghan drug war is the same as the drug war
in any other country, it is a phony war. There will be occasional
interdiction victories, like the arrest of Mexican drug kingpin,
Benjamin Arellano-Felix, in March 2002. The head of the Drug
Enforcement Agency, Asa Hutchinson will be more than happy
to take credit for arrests such as these, but does interdiction
really make a dent in drug supply and demand? The answer is,
of course not. For every kingpin that is arrested or shot,
there are ten more to take their place.
This is not an argument for drug legalization, just a shift
in priorities. The Bush administration should be emphasizing
drug abuse as an addiction, a health problem. This would mean
less jail time, more time in rehab. If rehab is good enough
for the Bush daughters prescription addiction, and alcohol
abuse, it is good enough for a crack addict who keeps going
to jail, instead of getting the treatment he or she needs.
But with "old school" thinkers like drug czar Walters, DEA
chief Hutchinson, an approach to the drug problem based on
rehabilitation is not likely.
The Bush Administration's failure to stop the production
of heroin is a failure in the war on terrorism as well. As
long as warlords in Afghanistan have easy access to money
from herion, the long term stability of Afghanistan will always
remain in doubt. The Bush administration had a chance to make
a strong anti-drug, anti terrorism statement by burning those
poppy fields, a stronger statement than any 30 second advertisement
during the Super Bowl, but they blew it.