At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting three weeks ago Hamid Karzai asserted that “foreign circles” were promoting the cultivation of poppy in Afghanistan. Last Saturday, on International Anti-Narcotics Day in Kabul, Karzai once again argued:

“First of all, I would like to say that poppy was not cultivated in Afghanistan before the Soviet Union’s invasion. We had very few poppy fields in some parts of our country. This means, we had not been among the poppy-cultivating countries, fortunately. Poppy cultivation has come to Afghanistan following the Soviet Union’s invasion, war and miseries of the Afghan people…

Poppy cultivation has been encouraged in Afghanistan from abroad. On the one hand, our land and gardens have lost their owners, farmers and gardeners. Our people have migrated. Our canals have been damaged. Our streams have been destroyed and agriculture system has been damaged or completely destroyed.

The international mafia and other powers outside the country have encouraged poppy cultivation in Afghanistan,” (National Afghanistan TV broadcast from Kabul in Dari, 26 June 2010).

No one would deny that tackling the heroin trade requires international cooperation and demand management by the consuming countries, but is this historical assertion by Karzai correct?

No. In point of fact, one of the few reasons that US contemplated supporting the Saur Revolution (27 April 1978; which was prior to the Soviet invasion that occurred on 27 December 1979) was because the Afghan Communists claimed that they were committed to smashing the opium trade.

An article from the Washington Post (2 November 1978) titled “Afghanistan’s Promised War on Opium” stated:

“With international cooperation cutting into opium in Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle” and Mexico, the world’s least-controlled opium production is now centered in tribal areas straddling the Afghan-Pakistani border, foreign specialists say.

Annual production is estimated at 300 tons in Afghanistan and 400 to 600 tons in Pakistan. One specialist said, “Either it’s getting bigger or we are starting to recognize it for what it is.”

Experts estimate that a third of the output is consumed in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but believe that more and more opium is being refined into heroin for the European trade in laboratories in western Iran, southern and eastern Turkey and possibly western Afghanistan.

West Germany is said to be favourite target, thanks to the large Turkish migrant population that is active in the illicit trade, and specialists are convinced that it’s just a matter of time before the heroin reaches New York.”

This implies that Afghanistan (along with Pakistan) was a major site of opium production prior to the Soviet invasion. Pre-Soviet invasion era production was oriented for domestic and regional consumption. The UN estimated in 1978 (according to the article quoted above) that half of the population of the male population of northern Afghanistan was addicted to heroin. Only by the late seventies was production seriously reoriented toward the European market.  European rates of heroin addiction were initially considered to be much lower than the United States in late seventies (which was estimated at around 500,000 addicts), but certain countries (e.g. West Germany, the Netherlands) began to experience a relatively dramatic spike in heroin related deaths. The trade routes which began to penetrate West European markets followed migrant labor flows, particularly Turkish workers seeking employment in West Germany (“Europe: ‘Swimming in Smack,'” Washington Post, 17 January 1978). Additional supplies of heroin also flowed toward Europe from the Golden Triangle in the post-Vietnam War era as Southeast Asian producers began looking for new markets and clients with the departure of the US military.

In the late seventies while average income per capita was $80 in Afghanistan, poppy farmers were earning approximately $3000 per year.  In other words, the trade was already quite lucrative by the late seventies.

The Afghan Communists claimed that they would be more serious in tackling the problem compared to the Daoud regime which they overthrew. The Daoud regime’s efforts had been by all accounts small scale and limited to the areas around Jalabad and Kandahar. The Communists had entered into negotiations with the US, which had succeeded in helping to curb Turkey’s poppy production through large scale subsidies to farmers. The US had authorized funding for anti-poppy efforts in Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan as far back as 1970. However, negotiations between the US and the Afghan Communists were inconclusive and after a year, the communists had much greater problems on their hands…

To conclude, President Karzai’s assertion is historically incorrect. The desire to blame foreigners for the heroin trade is naturally tempting (and if one goes back to the British colonial period in India, it may be somewhat valid) but playing this blame game will not help curb the problem.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]

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