On Drug Wars and Opium Fueled Insurgencies

ISLAMABAD, JULY 13 — Over the past few days the Americans have hit the Pakistanis at the border and are increasing threats of hot pursuit. Some of the peace deals between frontier forces and militant groups are holding. In other areas, the Taliban have besieged Pakistani troops, kidnapped soldiers and others, and killed them in ambushes. In Pakistan’s newspapers the debate is about how much Pakistan can support the American war on terror. An article by Mohammad Ali Siddique suggests that Pakistan can’t afford not to support the Americans and must not engage in separate peace deals with Taliban and al Qaeda groups operating on the border. The Americans and NATO will tire of the war and decide on a negotiated peace, and at that point Pakistan can make peace. But not before because that would cause America to tilt further towards India and isolate Pakistan from the West.

And being isolated from the West carries heavy penalties. Sudan is feeling that right now: the International Criminal Court has decided to pursue charges against Omar Bashir, the sitting president of Sudan, for war crimes in Darfur. Alex de Waal’s books and blog are the best guides to that complex conflict, and on that blog the ICC’s decision was referred to as “a Disaster in the Making.” Putting aside the political nature of such a prosecution, given that no one is considering prosecuting Bush for what the US is doing in Iraq or Israel for what it’s doing to the Palestinians, there is also the effect of such a move on the possibilities for peace in Sudan. In that context, it is a very irresponsible move, a pre-emptive strike against a negotiated settlement. But it does have another effect: to show third world leaders what might be in store if they are too defiant. Or,in Pakistan’s case, if insufficiently committed to the war on terror.

Of course, the war on terror is not the only war going on in this region. In the background, ready to be re-emphasized at any minute, is the war on drugs. Like the war on terror, it is ill-defined, open-ended, both unwinnable and unloseable (drugs will never declare victory), and therefore a perpetually useful pretext: until it is widely seen for what it is. Below I will discuss supply, demand, and possible solutions.

Before delving the war on drugs, I would like to dispense with one little phrase. The idea of an “opium fueled insurgency” can be deceptive. It is true that the covert networks designed for smuggling arms and money to counterinsurgent forces — such as the CIA and ISI networks designed to supply the Afghan mujahadin when they fought against the USSR — are also easily converted to drug smuggling networks. It is also true that illicit drugs were understood and tolerated as a way for these forces to support themselves financially during the war against the USSR (on the connection between drugs and covert operations, the indispensable book is Alfred McCoy’s Politics of Heroin). But the current situation in Afghanistan is slightly different. Today, the Afghan economy is dependent on poppy, which, according to UN sociologist David Macdonald’s book Drugs in Afghanistan (Pluto Press 2007), supplies 60% of Afghanistan’s GDP and employs 10% of its people (pg.96). Everyone in the economy, from farmers to local warlords, from foreign intelligence agents to government officials, from the Taliban to probably NATO soldiers as well, are taking a piece. So it’s not just the insurgency that’s opium-fueled, it’s the entire economy.

What is the drugs situation? As with any commodity, we can look at supply and demand. Part of the supply side is the covert networks just discussed. Most opium moves from Afghanistan by the “Balkan route”: through Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf States, through to Turkey and Europe (Macdonald pg. 105), taking about 9 months to arrive from the Afghan farm to the European street. There are creative ways of smuggling employed, since high profits in the industry make it feasible to do things like stuff almond shells with heroin and smuggle them randomly interspersed with real almonds. But above all, the trade depends on the suborning of public officials. In Afghanistan, reports range from estimates that dozens to 60% of elected parliamentarians are linked to warlords and drug trafficking in some way (pg. 95). Similar percentages probably apply for police and of course the warlords who still control local areas. Then there are the officials in the countries along the route.

Another important piece in the supply puzzle has to do with the push-the-water-balloon nature of drug cultivation. Both Iran and Pakistan were major opium producers until 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan both outlawed production in their countries — production which simply shifted to Afghanistan. If production in Afghanistan could somehow be eliminated, it would no doubt shift somewhere else.

The final supply side consideration is the farmer. No Afghan farmer grows rich from growing poppy. On the contrary, sociologist David Mansfield conducts field studies for the UK government and other NGOs on why Afghans do or do not grow poppy. He found four differences between farmers who grow poppy and those who are able to make a living growing vegetables, fruit, wheat, and other cash crops. First, poppy growers have less land (or no land, working as sharecroppers). Second, poppy growers have more debt. Third, poppy growers live in areas where access to market is difficult, while successful non-poppy growing farmers live near provincial centers. Fourth, poppy growers generally live in regions where the writ of the state is weak or not fully extended.

In this context, eradication programs lead to financial ruin for already heavily indebted farmers.

In a May 2007 report to the UK government, Mansfield warns that “talk of spraying elicits the threat of violence and/or a declaration of intent to support Anti Government Elements. The perception that corruption is endemic amongst those conducting eradication (including their involvement in the drug trade) and reports of bribery and partiality during implementation further weakens the legitimacy of counter narcotics efforts.” He also notes reports that “in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar as well as Farah, there were increasing reports of Taliban and government officials finding ways to co-exist. Respondents suggested that in many areas both sides had made agreements not to engage in hostile action. These agreements left government officials undisturbed in the district centres whilst the Taliban were free to operate in the surrounding rural areas.” Evidently Pakistan is not the only place where separate peace agreements and local arrangements are being made.

Now we turn to the demand side. In the imaging of Afghanistan as a source of drugs that corrupt the streets and youth of the West, the many victims of addiction in the region are made invisible, as Macdonald shows. Addiction is complex, but it does go along with displacement and war. Many Afghan refugees became addicted to opium in Pakistan or Iran (both of which have major addiction problems of their own) and brought their addictions back when they returned. Without prospects for peace or opportunity, religious and legal restrictions are insufficient to stop people from turning to opium and heroin to dull their pain. A study by the RAND corporation years ago suggested that the cheapest way to fight a drug war was to spend dollars on treatment for addiction, which was far cheaper than trying to interdict shipments of drugs or eradicate crops.

Finally, to solutions. The most likely possibility is that the drug war will be allowed to continue, providing its many benefits to many people and meting out suffering to many others. Perhaps a truce will be called for a time? The governor of Helmand province suggested in 2006 that those in the drug business should be encouraged to invest their profits in Afghanistan (construction companies and industries) rather than taking the money out to tax havens (Macdonald pg. 97). Among those seeking victory in the war on drugs, some look to the Taliban’s ban on opium in 2000 as a total success. Macdonald points out several problems with this: first, it was accomplished through terror. Second, it was only a year-long, a year in which, some suggest, the Taliban used the ban to drive the price up so they could sell off existing stocks at high profit margins, after which they would have probably allowed cultivation to resume (had they not been deposed).

One suggestion by the Senlis Council (a European think tank) in 2005, is to license Afghanistan to produce opium legally. Today, licit opium is produced by Turkey, India, France, Australia, Hungary, Spain, and a few other countries (pg. 34). The idea was rejected by the Afghan government. The counter argument by the Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics, that they could not guarantee that opium wouldn’t be smuggled out for the illicit trade, seems to me to be unconvincing. How could a situation where some licit and some illicit opium was coming out of Afghanistan be worse than the current situation? Of course, this kind of licensing would have problems too: it would drastically lower the price available to the farmer, who would probably then require some form of price support (which could also be applied to other crops). Without such support, and so long as an illegal market existed and set a higher price, smuggling would continue.

David Mansfield and David Macdonald implicitly suggest some mix of alternative development for farmers, interdiction, and fighting the addiction. Within the current framework of prohibition, that may be the best that can be done. But accepting the current framework means accepting some absurdities. Macdonald reports that “Australian and German bio-engineers have also recently created another alternative to traditional opium poppy plants, mutated poppy plants that produce … thebaine and oripavine used in analgesic pharmaceutical drugs … but without producing morphine that can be processed into heroin.” (pg. 71)

Surely we ought to be able to change the rules to fit the plants than to change the plants to fit the rules.

In the 1970s, under the imperially-controlled regime of the Shah, Iran managed to distribute opium legally to registered addicts. In Macdonald’s words, this “suggested a humane drug regime that permitted older people who had used opium for many years the comfort afforded by regulated doses of opium for the aches and pains of old age and to avoid suffering withdrawals.” Those under 60 had to seek treatment — treatment based on a maintenance dose (for more arguments on ending prohibition, see Mike Gray’s 2000 book Drug Crazy). Most societies seem to combine both irrationality and hypocrisy in their drug policies. These serve those who profit from the drug war, the monies, the weapons, and the pretexts that it provides. They do not serve addicts, users, or farmers. An end to prohibition and an end to the drug war would take a powerful weapon away from the war on terror.

* Justin Podur is currently visiting Islamabad.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and activist. He can be reached at: justin@killingtrain.com. Read other articles by Justin, or visit Justin's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on July 14th, 2008 at 10:11am #

    war on drugs;wars for other peoples’ land/resources; war on terror never end. thank u

  2. Richard Kane said on July 14th, 2008 at 11:48am #

    Combining a self-defeating war against drugs with a self-defeating war against terror could mean an extremely grim future.

    Come on Justin, why the ho hum writing style, you should be jumping up and down and screaming in panic.




  3. hp said on July 14th, 2008 at 12:52pm #

    Tax free dollars, euros, shekels, pounds, rupees.
    Now THAT’S incentive.

  4. Robert Simms said on July 14th, 2008 at 3:33pm #

    Justin, comments like: “Surely we ought to be able to change the rules to fit the plants than to change the plants to fit the rules.” And “Most societies seem to combine both irrationality and hypocrisy in their drug policies.” are obvious. If you are seriously concerned about opium and Afghanistan, please see:

    For a deep analysis on this and other issues, see “thegorge” website.

  5. Richard Kane said on July 16th, 2008 at 10:24pm #

    It seems to me it the new bin Laden trasformed (victory at any price )Taliban wasn’t profiting from drugs they would still be trying to eradicate it like they are doing with beard trims.

    Which doesn’t denigh that parts of the US govenment doesn’t have its fingers in it as well.

    I perfer articles that attempt to be ballanced. Justine should get an a for effort. Even though http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2007/09/366087.shtml, if far more readable.