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      How to Dope a Nation:
      Opium - the Imperialist Legacy in Afghanistan

      By Nita Palmer

      In the darkest corners of Kabul, one can find the true story of the West's decade-long war in Afghanistan. In these corners huddle men, although they appear frail and ghost-like. They are casualties of war, although most do not appear wounded. Instead, they have been swept up in the drug-use epidemic which has swept across Afghanistan since the 2001US, Canada and NATO invasion. Many started smoking opium before moving on to heroin and other drugs.

      Opium production and use swiftly marched into Afghanistan on the heels of US and NATO troops. The problem of Afghanistan's skyrocketing opium production has not been limited to that country, however. The West still consumes the lion's share of Afghanistan's opium production, and heroin has become increasingly cheap and more readily available in the US in recent years.

      Afghanistan Before the War

      Although there is no exact history of when opium production began in Afghanistan, it was brought into the region by the British in the 1800s and its cultivation encouraged for trade in India. However, opium production in Afghanistan remained relatively low until the country came under the control of the warlords of the US-supported Northern Alliance following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Between 1994 and 2000, opium production reached an average rate of 68,000 hectares of poppy per year.

      In 2000, then-Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered an end to opium production in Afghanistan, declaring it un-Islamic. By 2001, opium production had dropped by 90%. A New York Times article from May 2001 acknowledges that “American narcotics officials who visited the country confirmed earlier United Nations reports that the Taliban had, in one growing season, managed a rare triumph in the long and losing war on drugs. And they did it without the usual multimillion- dollar aid packages that finance police raids, aerial surveillance and crop subsidies for farmers.” But this success was short- lived. In October 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan.

      Who is Promoting Opium in Afghanistan?

      By the spring of 2002 – just months after the US invasion – opium production had risen from 8,000 hectares of plants to 74,000 hectares, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It has continued to rise nearly every year since then, with record-high production levels of 224,000 hectares of opium fields in 2014. Today, Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world’s opium – much of it being refined into heroin.

      The United States alone has spent over $7 billion on counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan. They have declared they are fighting a ‘war on drugs.’ Yet with all these resources, they have failed to do in over a decade what the Taliban managed to do in a year: put a halt to opium production. The latest UNODC report shows that they have utterly failed to even slow the production of the drug. In 2009, Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the US counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan “the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years in and out of government.” Last year, US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan John Sopko said that Afghanistan was in danger of becoming a “narco-criminal state.” These are damning indictments from top diplomats in the area.

      Why has the ‘war on drugs’ in Afghanistan failed so miserably?

      The focus of the US counternarcotics program in Afghanistan has largely been on eradication of the opium crop, through burning or plowing farmers’ fields.

      But despite eliminating thousands of hectares of crop – and destroying the sole livelihoods of farmers and communities in the process – hardly a dent has been put in overall production.

      Hundreds of millions of dollars have also been spent on ineffectual programs ostensibly aimed at ending Afghan farmers’ reliance on opium. However, attempts to convince farmers to grow wheat, soy or other crops have largely failed – in part because the programs have been imposed with little or no study of local growing conditions or markets, but largely because opium poppy remains a far more lucrative crop. Farmers who want to be able to feed and house their families have little choice but to grow opium poppy.

      However, the major problem with the ‘war on drugs’ in Afghanistan is that the US and their allies are in fact doing far more to support the drug economy than they are to eliminate it. Since 2001, they have worked against the Taliban in close association with nefarious warlords and drug traffickers of the Northern Alliance. A 2010 report by US Congressional investigators titled “Warlord, Inc.” found that the US Department of Defense had spent more than $2 billion on security and transportation contracts which lined the pockets of notorious warlords. The weapons and financial support provided to these men served to consolidate their power as well as their drug empires.

      Today, many of these warlords serve in the highest levels of the US- and NATO- backed Afghan government. Wali Karzai, former chairman of the Kandahar Provincial Council and brother to then- Afghan President Hamid Karzai was well- known to US officials as a drug trafficker. Yet he was not only supported by US forces, but also spent eight years on the payroll of the CIA! US officials would have us believe that the problem of corruption and involvement in the drug trade is just a matter of a few ‘bad apples’ in the government or police forces that can be eliminated through better governance. However, this is simply not the case. A former CIA officer interviewed by the New York Times in 2009 asserted that “virtually every significant Afghan figure has had brushes with the drug trade.” A 2007 report by the US military’s Strategic Studies Institute found that “Afghan government officials are now believed to be involved in at least 70 percent of opium trafficking, and experts estimate that at least 13 former or present provincial governors are directly involved in the drug trade.” The same report also found that “Although Afghanistan’s overall economy is being boosted by opium profits, less than 20 percent of the $3 billion in opium profits actually goes to impoverished farmers, while more than 80 percent goes into the pockets of Afghan’s opium traffickers and kingpins and their political connections.”

      Corruption is not merely a “problem” in the Afghan government – it is the fundamental way in which it operates. This is the drug- fueled “democracy” which the US, Canada and NATO support in Afghanistan.

      Afghanistan’s Addiction Crisis

      According to 2010 Afghan government statistics, there are about 1.6 million Afghans addicted to drugs, primarily opium and heroin. Other estimates put the number closer to 3 million – or at about 10% of the population. In the cities, men with severe addiction huddle under bridges, desperate for a fix. But the problem extends to women and children as well – especially in the countryside, whole families struggle with opium addiction.

      Historically, Afghans have produced opium, but few consumed the drug, which was largely exported. The increase in availability of opium and heroin in the country since 2001 has undoubtedly contributed to the addiction crisis – but it is only one factor. Poverty, unemployment, lack of health care, and the perpetual desperation and uncertainty of life under foreign occupation have fuelled the country’s skyrocketing drug use as well.

      In parts of rural Afghanistan, whole villages have become addicted to opium. Many are first exposed to the drug when they become sick or injured. In remote areas where there are no doctors or medicine is not available or affordable, people self-medicate with opium, and the downward spiral of addiction begins. Children often become addicts before their first birthday, with parents giving them opium to quieten them in their sickness or hungry stomachs. Soon, whole families and villages – grandchildren through grandparents – are addicted.

      Afghanistan’s high unemployment rate – estimated at around 40% - is another contributing factor. “If I had a job, I wouldn’t be here,” an addict named Farooq told the BBC. He has a degree in medicine and once worked as a hospital manager. Many are also internally displaced persons – refugees in their own country who have been forced out of their homes – and their jobs – due to fighting and instability.

      The crisis of addiction in Afghanistan cannot be solved with more police or military, or even more efforts put into eradication of the opium crop. Afghans need hospitals and clinics to treat those suffering from addiction. They need access to health care and basic necessities such as clean drinking water and sanitation to prevent people from becoming ill in the first place. They need jobs – and ones that pay more than $2 a day. Despite more than a decade of foreign military intervention, there has been no meaningful improvement in these areas.

      Which Way Out of the Crisis?

      The legacy of the United States, Canada and NATO in Afghanistan has not been the promised security, democracy, and human rights for all. Instead Afghans have been left with a country ruled by powerful drug lords, an economy dependent on opium, and an epidemic of drug addiction.

      If the US and NATO truly wanted to end opium production in Afghanistan, they could have done so. After all, the Taliban managed to do this in a matter of months! Clearly it is possible to do so. However, the evidence of the past 14 years shows that the US and their allies are more interested in supporting and building alliances with those in Afghanistan who are willing to serve their strategic, political and economic interests in the region than helping Afghans build a stable and democratic country. Serving US and NATO interests in Afghanistan has meant working with a government of warlords and drug lords – not working to eliminate it.

      What Afghans need to end the drug crisis in their country is not soldiers or foreign military contractors (100,000 of which remain in the country). Over the last decade, the US, Canada and NATO have done nothing but legitimize the drug trafficking industry in the country and ruin the lives of millions of Afghans. Nothing can be done to end the drug trade or build a better country for Afghans while they remain there, supporting a government of tyrannical drug lords.

      Out Now!

      The first step in eliminating the drug problem in Afghanistan is for all troops and foreign contractors to leave. For Afghans, the road to rebuilding their country and government will not be easy after so many years of war and occupation – but it is the only way forward. We must support them in their struggle for self-determination. Although the plight of the Afghan people has faded from media reports, the struggle to free the country from foreign occupation and interference is not over. Peace-loving people in Canada, the United States and around the world have a responsibility to continue the fight to end the occupation of Afghanistan and demand self- determination for the Afghan people.

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