America’s Deepening Heroin Problem Has Its Roots in War-Torn Afghanistan

America’s Deepening Heroin Problem Has Its Roots in War-Torn Afghanistan

Both countries are becoming "hooked" on a deadly cycle of economic depression, drug addiction, and violence.

Two major policy crises – the endless war in Afghanistan and rising rates of heroin addiction across America – would appear to be as far apart as the two countries that host them.  But, in fact, the two crises are inextricably linked.

It all began in the 1980s when the Reagan administration financed a campaign to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by supporting the Muslim mujahideen rebels, many of whom were dealing opium on the black market to finance their weapons purchases.   Back then, some 70% of the heroin imported into the U.S. had its origins in Afghanistan, according to American officials.

Yet in those days, most of the world’s heroin actually originated elsewhere — in Burma (now Myanmar) and in other parts of Southeast Asia.

But over the next two decades, as the American’s investment in the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan mushroomed, so, too, did that country’s role in the global heroin trade.  By the late 1990s some 75% of the world’s heroin originated in Afghanistan.  Today, according to the United Nations and other sources, the figure is over 90%.

In fact, more than a third of all economic activity in Afghanistan — and about half of the country’s GDP — is now linked in some fashion to the cultivation and sale of opium.  And an estimated 3 million Afghani farmers – about 10% of the country’s entire population and a far greater share of its rural dwellers – are involved in growing poppies, some of them full-time.

The main incentive is financial, of course. The poppy seeds and sap used to manufacture opium and heroin bring in 8-10 times the revenues of traditional cash crops like wheat or grapes.  Many farmers ply the opium trade for a while, cash in, and leave with their families for a more comfortable life elsewhere.

But many impoverished Afghanis, especially those living in the cities, are not so lucky.  One sixth of the population of Kabul, Afghanistan’s bustling capital, is comprised of heroin addicts, according to UN health agencies.  Many shoot up openly under bridges and along roadsides in broad daylight. And a growing proportion contract HIV from needle use and unprotected sex, and without access to Western drug treatments, develop full-blown AIDS.

U.S. officials have done their best to downplay the obvious correlation between Afghanistan’s burgeoning heroin trade and America’s growing heroin “epidemic.”  During the past decade, heroin use in the US grew five times and heroin addiction has increased threefold.  Deaths from heroin overdoses now rival auto accidents as a leading cause of annual fatalities.

The growth in the global opium trade has also coincided with a shift in the demographic profile of American heroin use.  Many of today’s heroin addicts in the US first got hooked on other opioids like Oxycontin in the 1990s.  These were “legal” drugs that Americans, with the complicity of psychiatrists and pharmacists, abused.

But as the US government made such drugs harder to obtain, consumers began looking elsewhere.  When the price of heroin began falling, lower-income Americans, especially Whites, could afford to purchase the drug – legal or not.

Today, Whites, rather than urban African-Americans – especially poor Whites living in depressed rural areas — comprise the vast majority (90%) of new heroin addicts.

And that may be one reason the epidemic is so high-profile.  When African-Americans were busy dying from heroin overdoses in predominantly Black cities like Baltimore in the 1980s and 1990s, there was no hue and cry about it, except from health agencies.

Still, you probably haven’t all heard much about the link between heroin addiction and the American war in Afghanistan.  The United Nations, which closely monitors the trade, says that Afghanistan is one of two major supply sources for heroin entering the United States.  News reports have pointed to rising American alarm about Afghani-based heroin, first routed through Iran or Pakistan, arriving in the United States through Canada.

But the Trump administration, which recently declared America’s heroin and opioid epidemic a “national emergency,” insists on pointing to Mexico as the source of the problem.  That’s part of a larger GOP campaign to blame Mexico for a host of issues — “unfair” trade, transnational gangs like MS-13, and illegal immigration –to justify expanded border enforcement – and of course, “The Wall.”

There is no question that Mexican cartels in Sinaloa and Guerrero are trafficking in heroin.  But it’s a question of proportion.  Afghanistan has 10-15 times more farm acreage than Mexico devoted to poppy cultivation; Myanmar has three times as much.  But stigmatizing Mexico is politically useful.  It points the finger at a more convenient target, which helps keep the fragile domestic consensus on the war in Afghanistan intact – and US aid dollars flowing.

Officially, the United States government opposes Afghanistan’s involvement in the heroin trade.  That’s because the Taliban insurgents – who cracked down on the opium trade when they ran the national government (1996-2001) — have since exploited the trade to help finance the war against the American-backed government.

In areas under its control – about 40% of the national territory – the Taliban often tells farmers they will be taxed based on what their land could produce based on poppy cultivation.  Even farmers that might resist getting involved in the opium trade feel pressured to join.

Past American administrations have employed two different kinds of anti-heroin operations – first, “eradication” through pesticides and scorched earth campaigns, and more recently, “diversion,” through the promotion of “alternative” crops.  These are the same kinds of programs the US has tried in countries like Colombia where farmers and insurgents are implicated in the cocaine trade.  Overall, the US has spent a whopping $8.5 billion on programs of these types in Afghanistan – and both have failed miserably.

A major part of the problem is government corruption.  Officials within the Afghani government have taken advantage of anti-drug programs – diverting US aid money but also extracting bribes from traffickers in exchange for lax enforcement.   The government says it wants peace, but it’s become “addicted” to war.

Afghanistan’s heroin problem –and America’s – may only get worse in the coming years.  Last fall, a new “super” poppy seed grown in China entered the Afghanistan market.  It allows poppies to be grown year-round, and reduces the cultivation cycle from six months to two.  In the next two years analysts expect another major spike in Afghani opium production that could take the global trade to even greater heights.

Is there any way out?  Some observers believe the best long-term solution to the heroin problem in Afghanistan lies in the country’s untapped mineral wealth.  Currently, Afghanistan is the fourth largest source of emeralds in the world, after Colombia, Brazil and Zambia, and the second largest source of rubies, after Burma.   Most of the rubies are mined in Taliban-controlled areas and used to finance the group’s purchase of weapons and ammunition.   [see next page]

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