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A detailed history of the Afghan Drug Trade

by Reid Smith
Reid Smith
Wednesday 24 December 2008

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Introduction and Background

Racked by civil war and targeted by external force, Afghanistan presents an array of development complications. For over thirty years, the national infrastructure has been snarled by material damage, while the country’s political identity has been stunted by violence. It is a nation defined by hostile tensions, having served as the permanent battleground for several civil conflicts, and two foreign invasions.


There should be more

drug rehabs
in the country because opium cultivation is widespread in Afghanistan.

The last civil war, fought between various elements of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and wavering tribal leaders over two full decades, began in the wake of the war with the Soviet Union. When Coalition forces arrived in 2001 to wrest control of this vast “cockpit of Asia” from the Taliban, the country was effectively shattered. One million Afghans had already been lost to internal conflict, and nearly five million people had fled the borders as refugees. Necessary health care for broken bodies remained undeveloped and sorely lacking in capital resources. Since the invasion, socio-economic conditions remain near the lowest in the world, while maternal mortality rates rank near the highest. As if the harsh climate and rocky topography did not present enough of a challenge to the development of infrastructure, eight million anti-personnel mines and two million anti-tank mines still litter the ground. For the Afghan people, such challenges must be resolved before peace and order are established. In the meantime, deeps scars left by incessant conflict remain, as the struggle to survive remains the chief concern, as hostilities between the international coalition and forces loyal to the Taliban reignite.

Given Afghanistan’s unfortunate condition, it comes as little surprise that the cultivation of the poppy seed, the synthetic refinement of the substance from opium into heroin, and trafficking across international borders has – quite literally – blossomed. As the anchor of the so-called “Golden Crescent” (as defined by the mountainous peripheries of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), Afghanistan is now the world’s leading growth region for the poppy seed pods that yield the base opium gum.

The development of the industry is staggering, as production increased 44 percent in the year between 2006 and 2007, encompassing 193,000 hectares dedicated to cultivation, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Helmand province is the leading producer, bearing 53 percent of the total opium production in 2007, with 102,770 hectares committed, up from 69,324 hectares from the previous year. The figures are alarming and suggest that production is a growth industry. Upon consideration of the fact that more than 30 percent of the nation’s farmers may now grow poppies, it can be said that “what crude oil represents to the Middle East, poppies are to Afghanistan.” In total, drug production in Afghanistan up approximately 150% since 2001.

At this point, drug cultivation is facilitated by domestic and international patrons who provide capital backing and provide agricultural inputs to poppy farmers. It is generally reported that these individuals who fund the production can purchase the crops at an established price, or accept the opium as “payment in kind” for loans granted. The most significant development witnessed in the Afghan drug trade has been the industry revolution that now enables internal actors to refine nearly all of the opium into heroin, in country.

This represents a significant transformation for an industry that has traditionally smuggled the raw opium product across its borders into other nations (most notably Turkey) for conversion into heroin. Given the 10:1 cost conversion ratio between opium and heroin, this market alteration suggests that Afghanistan is able to traffic a product that is a considerately more profitable, and a great deal less troublesome to transport. This fundamental industry change has proven so dramatic that Afghanistan is now “the world’s largest producer and exporter of heroin…which amounts to 52 percent of the country’s gross domestic product of 5.2 billion dollars according to UNODC estimates.”

The majority of Golden Crescent heroin is moved through overland routes to market destinations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East through Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran, with nearly 40 percent of all finished product reportedly traveling through the latter state. Following age old trade routes, two primary paths are then followed by the smugglers. The Balkan Route is the traditional path into southeastern Europe, and follows three distinct itineraries. The southernmost route runs from Turkey, through Greece, then Albanian, before finally reaching Italy. The central route follows a path runs from Turkey, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and completes its course in either Austria or Italy. The northernmost path runs from Turkey into Bulgaria, and then on to Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany, where large amounts of heroin await shipment to the Netherlands and Great Britain.

Although the Balkan Route constitutes the chief “supply line” for the Afghan heroin trade, other smugglers still use the traditional Silk Route into Russia, the Baltics, Poland, the Czech Republic that transfer approximately 24% of the illegal contraband through former Soviet states such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Finally, East African groups are responsible for a large part of the heroin that reaches the shores of the United States and Canada. Initially run from India and Pakistan, these criminal organizations generally depend upon commercial air and maritime transport, and may work in connection with other operations that deal in Latin American cocaine distribution and African cannabis production.

It is important to note that a major end result of the increased cultivation and refinement of Afghan heroin is higher level of purity. Patterns of abuse along the aforementioned routes indicate a corresponding increase in the number of addicts and overdoses. Areas where needle injection is common have, likewise, experienced an accelerated rate in the spread of HIV/AIDS.

I. Taliban Complicity and the Development of a Global Industry
It is peculiar for most Westerners to consider the fact that the Taliban had essentially turned a blind eye to the cultivation of poppy harvests until 2001, given the fact that the popular impression of the regime depicts a puritanical Islamic orthodoxy, colored by particularly unpleasant elements of Pashtunwali tribalism. Although Mullah Omar did offer to cease production in exchange for UN recognition, and eventually suppressed the growth of the crop in the months preceding the US invasion in hopes of amnesty, when the Taliban initially came to power it was determined that there was a pressing need to formalize the drug industry to generate revenue.

In a dramatic shift of Islamic jurisprudence, a sanction was imposed that provided a loophole for the cultivation of opium despite the clear prohibition of the production and consumption of intoxicating substances that is clearly stated in the Qur’an. In the words of Abdul Rashid, the former head of the Taliban’s anti-drug force in Kandahar, there was a strict ban on hashish “because it is consumed by Afghans and Muslims,” whereas “opium is permissible because it is consumed by kafirs [unbelievers] in the West and not by Muslims or Afghans.”

Thus, the Taliban enjoyed a healthy windfall from the cultivation and the refinement of the poppy. According to the United Nations Drug Control Programme, during the Taliban years the average poppy farmer received less that 1 per cent of the total profit generated, while another 2.5 per cent remained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 5 percent of the total profit was likely spent in the countries through which the product moved, and the rest of the profits were consumed by the dealers and distributors in the Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. An appropriate estimation determined that Afghan farmers were still netting over $100 million per year, while the Taliban itself likely generated over $20 million in legitimate revenue with a great deal more likely earned on the side.

Although many of the mujahedin warlords had used the money gleaned from the clandestine drug trade to fund their military endeavors and fill personal coffers, the Taliban were determined to openly announce and support their intention to allow the trade of opium. Fittingly, by 1997 it was calculated that approximately 96 per cent of the Afghan heroin came from areas under Taliban jurisdiction. However, the Taliban did more than turn a profit on the sale of opium; in point of fact they were instrumental in establishing the material, and human infrastructure necessary to develop the industry.

The Consequences of a Failing State

The primary reason for the continued dependence upon poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is the prevailing socio-economics conditions that have established “opium production as one of the only available economic means for access to land, labor and credit.” Moreover, the peasant farmers’ heavy reliance on opium production, “associated with the politico-territorial realities of a tribal society typified by fragile alliances” is making it next to impossible for the Kabul government and coalition forces to successfully eradicate the number one cash crop. The question then becomes: “How does Afghanistan build a viable democracy when over half of the nation’s gross domestic product comes through the cultivation, refinement and distribution of a narcotic?”

The answer to this question relates to issues faced by coalition forces as they attempt to rebuild from the rubble of thirty years of hostilities. Consider the sad state of the national infrastructure; the roads are in universally poor condition; the Kandahar to Kabul road, opened with much fanfare in 2003, now presents a desperate security risk. Kabul, itself, receives an average of only several hours of electricity each day. Little irrigation exists and there are few significant stocking facilities for potential cash-crops such as wheat, alfalfa or cabbage. The cultivation of opium requires little attention to such concerns as it is nearly drought resistant, and can be stored and transported quite easily when it has been dried.

Given the widespread rural poverty, the average farmer’s decision to produce opium is dictated by the lack of alternative options. “While some other products (nuts, orchards) may generate higher revenues, they require substantial multi-year investments and infrastructure that many farmers cannot afford,” as traders and traffickers are consistently willing to offer poppy farmers the requisite seeds, fertilizers, means of delivery and financial wherewithal, while relieving them of storage and transportation costs. (These financiers are attracted to the high morphine yield of the Afghan poppy, where transformation yields require only six or seven kilograms of opium to produce one kilograms of heroin, as opposed to, say, Southeast Asia where ten kilograms of unrefined opium are necessary to produce one kilogram of finished product. )

Beyond socio-economic necessity, Afghanistan’s climate is perfectly suited to the cultivation of opium. Due to favorable growing periods, crop yields in Afghanistan have proven consistently higher than other poppy producing countries. Thus, despite the partial ban on poppy production ordered by the Taliban during 2001 in a hurried effort to garner conciliation on the eve of the US invasion, additional difficulties attributed to ongoing conflict in the region, and despite adverse weather, yields in Afghanistan were more than twice those in Latin America, more than three times those in Myanmar, and more than four times those in other Asian countries” by 2006.

The complete and utter lack of central authority currently installed in Afghanistan sustains ideal conditions. Since the departure of the Soviet Union, various warring parties have depended on quick cash that comes with the cultivation and sale of opium. Although the methods have become more sophisticated, the growth of the poppy has suited the requirements of those in need of alternative sources of financing. Following the coalition invasion and the subsequent fall of Taliban authority, “lingering insecurity and weak central government control, along with widespread corruption, contributed to further development of illicit activities.”

It is unfortunate that the Afghan government has been unable to establish any viable agricultural alternatives. However, the infant democracy’s actual intent is questionable. President Hamid Karzai has demonstrated, time and again, that he is unwilling to acquiesce to US plans to eradicate the crops that would have followed a Columbia-style approach devised to spray a herbicide over thousands of acres of crops. (It should be noted that the US has learned from its previous failures to wipe out coca harvests in Latin America, and had planned to administer the herbicide – glyophosate, sold commercially in America as Round-up – by use of ground spraying, rather than planes.) However, the Afghan executive cited his Cabinet’s concerns regarding the potential damage that might be done to the country’s legitimate crops, animals and people, although he reaffirmed his “very strong commitment to lead other eradication methods this year, and said if that did not cut production he would allow spraying in 2008.”

The “other eradication methods” in question entail “traditional techniques,” in the words of Said Mohammad Azam, spokesman for the Ministry of Counternarcotics. This more orthodox technique involves the manual trampling of opium poppies before the annual harvest. A similar attempt had been made a year prior, in 2006, which also stands as the season of record production. UNODC estimates that 193,000 hectares (approximately 745 square miles) of Afghan soil are specifically dedicated to the illegal cultivation of the poppy plants.. Western officials are now convinced that Karzai’s Cabinet members are more concerned with a hostile reprisal from the vast number of rural farmers to eradication of the nation’s cash crop.

Karzai’s decisions with respect to eradication have thrown a major wrench in the US plans to disrupt the endemic Afghan heroin issue. Already handcuffed by the political determination that prohibits American troops from assaulting heroin labs, and actively pursuing well financed drug lords, the US military has limited itself to “supporting Afghan law enforcement efforts by providing airlift and intelligence leads to Afghan police and helping tighten security along Afghanistan’s borders.” Although America continues to work under the assumption that combating the growing drug trade is an issue that must be left to the domestic law enforcement, for fear of disaffecting many Afghans who have proven to be valuable sources of intelligence, there are some indications that this prevailing logic may be shifting. Concerns about the creation of a “narco-state” founded on an industry that intrinsically undermines the democratic institutions the coalition has worked to build, and the realization that this illicit trade is serving as a bumper crop for hostile insurgents, may demand a change of strategy.

What the US Fails to See…

Consider the peculiar case of Haji Bashar Noorzai, a famed Afghan warlord and American informant, who was incarcerated as an alleged drug lord with designs to smuggle heroin into the United States. Noorzai had long been a close confidant of ousted Taliban overlord Mullah Omar; however he had willingly shared information with the United States since the outset of the 2001 invasion. In his words, he had worked with the coalition “to make the situation in Afghanistan stable, and also help the Americans negotiate with the moderate members of the Taliban to reconcile with the new government.” For years he was considered a vital asset in the region, as US troops have consistently depended upon the outsourcing of unpleasant duties to local warlords. Having accomplished a great deal on behalf of the United States, he could not have guessed the outcome of his April 2005 visit, when he arrived to New York at the behest of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

After some thorough questioning regarding happenings in Afghanistan, the location of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and the status of heroin production in tribal lands under his control, Noorzai was shocked to learn that he was to be incarcerated in the United States. At the completion of questioning, he was informed that “a grand jury had issued a sealed indictment against Noorzai, and that he was now under arrest for conspiring to smuggle narcotics into the US from Afghanistan.” Three years later, Noorzai remains in a small, high security cell in the Manhattan Metropolitan Correctional Center awaiting a trial date that has not, as of yet, be determined.

The fate of Haji Bashar Noorzai has raised serious questions about American designs for Afghanistan. Although he has a long history in the opium industry and first received attention from the DEA in 1993 as a prosperous heroin warlord and renowned drug trafficker, and despite the fact that had been placed on a White House press release listing the top ten international drug kingpins in 2004, he also represented one of the few agreeable contacts in Southern Afghanistan who was willing to participate with the United States. While DEA administrator Karen Tandy noted that his arrest sent “shockwaves through other Taliban connected networks,” his incarceration ensures that he was neither providing the United States with necessary information,nor motivating his fellow tribesmen or Taliban connections to comply with the United States and the Afghan government.

It is common knowledge that the Taliban is funding their insurgency with money raised through the sale of poppy. These funds provide more than enough capital to finance a major security headache for the United States and NATO forces. It also makes one wonder why the United States decided to target one of the few tribal leaders in the south who was actually prepared to assist in the fight against the insurgency.
Commentators on the war in Afghanistan have correctly observed that the trajectory of the conflict has proceeded in to the battle for Iraq. America initiated efforts to drive the Taliban from power with a relatively small number of special-forces, and only now US commanders are beginning to call for an increased troop presence; a clear indicator of a difficult struggle that is not evolving as planned. Short of achieving a stable grasp on this deteriorating situation, it will be impossible to establish the necessary civil infrastructure and political institutions. The complete lack of stability is precisely what leads rural farmers to plant and harvest the poppy, and until some level of security is reached outside of Kabul, it would be foolish to expect a decline in Afghanistan’s contribution to the world heroin market. However, US and NATO forces must also remember that in a country where little is certain, the poppy may be the one sure thing.

So what can be done? If the US wishes to eliminate the threat posed by the Taliban and al Qaeda on either side of the Afghanistan—Pakistan border, and meet the reconstruction and development goals promised to the Afghan people, it will be necessary to inhibit the opium/heroin trade. This objective demands a fundamental change in strategy. It is no longer practical to pursue a counter-narcotics strategy that depends upon field eradication. The families of two million Afghan farmers depend upon poppy production to put food on the table. Those farmers whose fields are destroyed are too often those who cannot afford to pay the bribes necessary to reap their harvests. Such circumstances make the Taliban’s recruitment drive too easy.

In the short term, NATO should consider purchasing the bulk of the Afghan poppy harvest. Member states could recover a bulk of their investment by selling the opium to legitimate drug companies for production of various opiod narcotics used in pain-killers such as codeine and morphine. Afghan farmers could continue to profit from their primary cash crop, which annually brings in more than triple the value of wheat crops, despite elevated food prices. Finally, Taliban forces would be robbed of bumper crop revenue which represents a primary source of their funding.

Once a stronger government has taken legitimate control over security concerns, long-term US and NATO investment must be used to develop a legitimate agricultural economy through subsidy provision, price supports, seeds for alternative crops and the construction of a highway system that can take the produce to market. This industry-specific development must coincide with full and effective reconstruction. It is vital to address the nation’s desperate need for basic infrastructure, such as roads, dams and electricity, and its harrowing forty percent unemployment rate. Constructive measures to solve such challenges will have an overarching salutary effect.

It will also be necessary to develop a clear and coherent drug policy between the NATO mission, the Afghan government and neighboring countries. Russia and Iran, in particular, remain frustrated with NATO’s failure to control the situation and eager to gain greater involvement. Ultimately, it will be essential to engage such regional powers if the Afghan government and the greater international community are truly committed to curbing the rampant drug trade.


Rashid Ahmed, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2000), p. 7
Nasreen Ghufran, “The Taliban and the Civil War Entanglement in Afghanistan,” Asian Survey, Vol. 41, No. 3 (May-June, 2001), p 463
“Afghanistan: Opium Winter Assessment Survey,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, February 2008, pg. 3.
Bill Powell, et al., “Inside the Afghan Drug War. (Cover Story),” Time 169.8 (2007): 28-29, Academic Search Premier, 1 May 2007, <search.ebscohost.com>
Phillip Shishkin, “In Afghanistan, Heroin Trade Soars Despite US Aid,” The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2006, Section A, p. 1
Drugs: Sub-Directorate; Heroin, INTERPOL General Secretariat, March 14, 2007,
Interpol Drugs Sub-Directorate; Heroin; Major Transportation Routes INTERPOL General Secretariat, March 14, 2007 <http://www.interpol.int/Public...>
Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Fundamentalism and Oil in Central Asia (Newhaven: Yale University Press), 2000, pg. 118
Nasreen Ghufran, “The Taliban and the Civil War Entanglement in Afghanistan,” Asian Survey, Vol. 41, No. 3 (May-June, 2001), p 463
Edouard Martin And Steven Symansky, “Afghanistan’s Drug Industry: Macroeconomic Impact Of The Drug Economy And Counter-Narcotics Efforts,” ed. Doris Buddenberg and William A. Byrd (New York: UNODC & The World Bank, 2006), p. 37
Ibid. p.38
Edouard Martin And Steven Symansky, “Afghanistan’s Drug Industry: Macroeconomic Impact Of The Drug Economy And Counter-Narcotics Efforts,” ed. Doris Buddenberg and William A. Byrd (New York: UNODC & The World Bank, 2006), p. 37
John Straziuso, “Afghanistan Rejects US Plan to Eradicate Opium Poppies: Karzai Decides Spraying Could Be Hazardous,” The Chicago Times, January 26, 2007, Section A, p.17
“Afghanistan: Opium Winter Assessment Survey,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, February 2008, pg. 3.
Bradley Graham, “US Plans Assault on Afghan Heroin: Poppy Growers Still Widespread,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2004, Section A, p. 16
Bill Powell, et al., “Inside the Afghan Drug War. (Cover Story),” Time 169.8 (2007): 28-29, Academic Search Premier, 1 May 2007, <search.ebscohost.com>

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