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Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Washington's Twenty-First-Century Opium Wars

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In October 2001, the U.S. launched its invasion of Afghanistan largely through proxy Afghan fighters with the help of Special Operations forces, American air power, and CIA dollars. The results were swift and stunning. The Taliban was whipped, a new government headed by Hamid Karzai soon installed in Kabul, and the country declared "liberated."

More than 14 years later, how'd it go? What's "liberated" Afghanistan like and, if you were making a list, what would be the accomplishments of Washington all these years later? Hmm... at this very moment, according to the latest reports, the Taliban control more territory than at any moment since December 2001. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces that the U.S. built up and funded to the tune of more than $65 billion are experiencing "unsustainable" casualties, their ranks evidently filled with "ghost" soldiers and policemen -- up to 40% in some places -- whose salaries, often paid by the U.S., are being pocketed by their commanders and other officials. In 2015, according to the U.N., Afghan civilian casualties were, for the seventh year in a row, at record levels. Add to all this the fact that American soldiers, their "combat mission" officially concluded in 2014, are now being sent by the hundreds back into the fray (along with the U.S. Air Force) to support hard-pressed Afghan troops in a situation which seems to be fast "deteriorating."

Oh, and economically speaking, how did the "reconstruction" of the country work out, given that Washington pumped more money (in real dollars) into Afghanistan in these years than it did into the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II? Leaving aside the pit of official corruption into which many of those dollars disappeared, the country is today hemorrhaging desperate young people who can't find jobs or make a living and now constitute what may be the second largest contingent of refugees heading for Europe.

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As for that list of Washington's accomplishments, it might be accurate to say that only one thing was "liberated" in Afghanistan over the last 14-plus years and that was, as

TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy points out today, the opium poppy. It might also be said that, with the opium trade now fully embedded in both the operations of the Afghan government and of the Taliban, Washington's single and singular accomplishment in all its years there has been to oversee the country's transformation into the planet's number one narco-state. McCoy, who began his career in the Vietnam War era by writing The Politics of Heroin, a now-classic book on the CIA and the heroin trade (that the Agency tried to suppress) and who has written on the subject of drugs and Afghanistan before
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for this site
, now offers a truly monumental look at opium and the U.S. from the moment this country's first Afghan War began in 1979 to late last night. Tom

How a Pink Flower Defeated the World's Sole Superpower
America's Opium War in Afghanistan
By Alfred W. McCoy

After fighting the longest war in its history, the United States stands at the brink of defeat in Afghanistan. How can this be possible? How could the world's sole superpower have battled continuously for 15 years, deploying 100,000 of its finest troops, sacrificing the lives of 2,200 of those soldiers, spending more than a trillion dollars on its military operations, lavishing a record hundred billion more on "nation-building" and "reconstruction," helping raise, fund, equip, and train an army of 350,000 Afghan allies, and still not be able to pacify one of the world's most impoverished nations? So dismal is the prospect for stability in Afghanistan in 2016 that the Obama White House has recently cancelled a planned further withdrawal of its forces and will leave an estimated 10,000 troops in the country indefinitely.

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Were you to cut through the Gordian knot of complexity that is the Afghan War, you would find that in the American failure there lies the greatest policy paradox of the century: Washington's massive military juggernaut has been stopped dead in its steel tracks by a pink flower, the opium poppy.

For more than three decades in Afghanistan, Washington's military operations have succeeded only when they fit reasonably comfortably into Central Asia's illicit traffic in opium, and suffered when they failed to complement it. The first U.S. intervention there began in 1979. It succeeded in part because the surrogate war the CIA launched to expel the Soviets from that country coincided with the way its Afghan allies used the country's swelling drug traffic to sustain their decade-long struggle.

On the other hand, in the almost 15 years of continuous combat since the U.S. invasion of 2001, pacification efforts have failed to curtail the Taliban insurgency largely because the U.S. could not control the swelling surplus from the county's heroin trade. As opium production surged from a minimal 180 tons to a monumental 8,200 in the first five years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan's soil seemed to have been sown with the dragon's teeth of ancient Greek myth. Every poppy harvest yielded a new crop of teenaged fighters for the Taliban's growing guerrilla army.

At each stage in Afghanistan's tragic, tumultuous history over the past 40 years -- the covert war of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, and the U.S. occupation since 2001 -- opium played a surprisingly significant role in shaping the country's destiny. In one of history's bitter twists of fate, the way Afghanistan's unique ecology converged with American military technology transformed this remote, landlocked nation into the world's first true narco-state -- a country where illicit drugs dominate the economy, define political choices, and determine the fate of foreign interventions.

Covert Warfare (1979-1992)

The CIA's secret war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s helped transform the lawless Afghan-Pakistani borderlands into the seedbed for a sustained expansion of the global heroin trade. "In the tribal area," the State Department would report in 1986, "there is no police force. There are no courts. There is no taxation. No weapon is illegal... Hashish and opium are often on display." By then, the process had long been underway. Instead of forming its own coalition of resistance leaders, the Agency relied on Pakistan's crucial Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) and its Afghan clients who soon became principals in the burgeoning cross-border opium traffic.

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Not surprisingly, the Agency looked the other way while Afghanistan's opium production grew unchecked from about 100 tons annually in the 1970s to 2,000 tons by 1991. In 1979 and 1980, just as the CIA effort was beginning to ramp up, a network of heroin laboratories opened along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. That region soon became the world's largest heroin producer. By 1984, it supplied a staggering 60% of the U.S. market and 80% of the European one. Inside Pakistan, the number of heroin addicts went from near zero (yes, zero) in 1979 to 5,000 in 1980 and 1,300,000 by 1985 -- a rate of addiction so high the U.N.

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called
it "particularly shocking."

According to the 1986 State Department report, opium "is an ideal crop in a war-torn country since it requires little capital investment, is fast growing, and is easily transported and traded." Moreover, Afghanistan's climate was well suited to this temperate crop, with average yields two to three times higher than in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region, the previous capital of the opium trade. As relentless warfare between CIA and Soviet surrogates generated at least three million refugees and disrupted food production, Afghan farmers began to turn to opium "in desperation" since it produced such easy "high profits" which could cover rising food prices. At the same time, resistance elements, according to the State Department, engaged in opium production and trafficking "to provide staples for [the] population under their control and to fund weapons purchases."

As the mujahedeen resistance gained strength and began to create liberated zones inside Afghanistan in the early 1980s, it helped fund its operations by collecting taxes from peasants producing lucrative opium poppies, particularly in the fertile Helmand Valley, once the breadbasket of southern Afghanistan. Caravans carrying CIA arms into that region for the resistance often returned to Pakistan loaded down with opium -- sometimes, the New York Times reported, "with the assent of Pakistani or American intelligence officers who supported the resistance."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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