Afghan Opium Addicts and the Drug Trade

Public domain image of Voice of America interviewing Afghan poppy farmers.

CNN has a disturbing top-of-page article and photo gallery on opium addicts in rural Afghanistan, including quotes from a carpet-weaver who feeds her four-year-old son balls of opium so she can work. According to the article, three generations of addicts have been created by lack of medical care and lack of education about how addictive opium is.

The piece starts in northern Balkh Province, in a town where the nearest detox program for addicts is four and a half hours away and has twenty beds. At the detox program, the clinic director portrays opium use as traditional and common in this part of rural Afghanistan, and addiction just as common.

I would normally take little note of this piece. Its tone of tragedy tourism is so overwrought and affected that it’s hard to sort the third-word tragedies from the Western hysteria. But this happens to come on a morning when I’ve just started reading Gretchen Peters’s 2009 book Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling The Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The book opens with a scene set in Helmand Province, which is the exact opposite side of Afghanistan, North-South, from Balkh Province, the area described¬† in the CNN article. Helmand is an area the size of West Virginia with a population of about a million. If it was a separate country, it would be the #1 opium producer in the world. The rest of Afghanistan would be a close second. The scene features American and Afghan troops destroying poppy fields to “punish” insurgents for planting an improvised explosive device in their path. After spending the whole trip gritting her teeth waiting for an ambush, Peters writes:

In the end, the only confrontation came when a skinny farmer, tears streaming down his face, emerged from his mud hut with two filthy children to hurl insults at the eradicators. “Why don’t you just shoot us now?” he shouted. “If you cut down my fields, we’ll all die anyway.”

Despite UN sources claiming that Helmand’s poppy farmers are rich, government data analyzed by non-Afghan scholars on the Afghan drug trade tell a different story. They “calculate a per capital daily income of $1, hardly reflecting Helmand as a land of plenty.” Peters quotes a farmer in the Maarja district:

“We grow poppy, but the drug smugglers take it from us…We sell it cheaply. Then they take it over the border into Pakistan.”

Given the Taliban’s record, I do find it pretty hard to believe the Helmand farmers are wealthy. The Taliban has shown a record of violently taking resources from local populations, and that same record is shown by now-related Islamic insurgent groups in places like Chechnya. I say “now-related” because the Chechen and Afghan groups were in fact NOT related at all before the US war on Afghanistan — they subscribed to different and hostile camps of Islam — but ARE allied now, or at least were as recently as 3-4 years ago when Yossef Bodansky wrote his book Chechen Jihad. I’m not an expert on the Afghan opium trade, but I’d lay odds these poppy farmers aren’t strapping on the bling.

Peters’s premise, stated clearly in the introduction, is that failure to stop the poppy trade is central in the entire region’s lack of stabilization, and that the¬† poppy trade hasn’t stopped because alternative economic incentives have not been offered, putting NATO at odds with the farmers’ only method of survival.

The result? Ba-da-BING! A resurgent Taliban and renewed funding to anti-Western terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Isn’t international relations fun?

[Image: Public domain image of a Voice of America reporter interviewing Afghan poppy farmers.]

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